Toulon 18-21 Biarritz, Amlin Challenge Cup final
The hand of Yachvili
Tom Hamilton at The Stoop
May 18, 2012
Biarritz' Sylvain Marconnet brings the curtain down on his career with some silverware © Getty Images
It was always going to be the hors d'oeuvre for Saturday's príomhchúrsa at Twickenham, but try telling that to the supporters of both Toulon and Biarritz.
With the sound of the French oompah band offering a near-constant reminder that this was a European final, it was a match played at a high tempo but littered with errors and ill-discipline at the breakdown. Intriguing subplots were prevalent with Imanol Harinordoquy up against Joe van Niekerk at No.8 one of the most eye-catching. It is just a shame, however, that there weren't more people packed into the Twickenham Stoop to witness it.
Last weekend the ground played host to Harlequins' Aviva Premiership semi-final with Northampton and it was packed to the rafters. For an Amlin Challenge Cup final to be played in front of this sparse a crowd of just 9,376 was a gross disservice to the calibre of players on show. The game was marketed on the day by ERC as Jonny Wilkinson versus Iain Balshaw in an attempt to draw in the local crowd. And while it was a game played in England, it was forged in France.
Biarritz mascot Geronimo was getting the supporters firing before and during the game while the Toulon supporters did their best to match the decibels with their own rallying cries. It was just a shame that the teams could not match the passion in the stands, indeed the highlight of the first -half was the oompah band's rendition of Lady Gaga's Bad Romance. There were momentary flashpoints with neither team shirking physicality but it was dire in the first 40. Despite Dimitri 'Le Petit Général' Yachvili's best efforts and his accurate kicking from hand and from the tee, the game was a stale affair that laboured to half-time with referee Wayne Barnes doing next to nothing to help the game flow.
The breakdown was hotly contested but Steffon Armitage was unable to assert the same kind of influence which saw him scoop the Top 14 Player of the Year earlier this week. Toulon fullback Benjamin Lapeyre's woeful penalty attempt at the posts from 60 metres out on the stroke of half-time, which barely reached the Biarritz 22, was symbolic of the first-half - a game which promised much but fell so far short of what was expected with the embarrassment of riches on display.
And then came the flashpoint on 45 minutes. Carl Hayman's tip-tackle, nay spear tackle, on Taku Ngwenya. Perhaps Wayne Barnes was distracted by the sound of ABBA's Gimme, Gimme, Gimme coming from the stand but it was a nailed on red card and not the yellow that was awarded. The screams of 'cart rouge from Patrice Lagisquet seated behind me rang on and from there the game flirted with opening out but instead it remained an arm-wrestle.
Armitage's sin-binning in the 54th minute illustrated Toulon's frustration and with two men in the bin, Biarritz should have closed the match out. But in typical Wilkinson fashion, his drop-goal drew the game level on 65 minutes to tee up an epic final few minutes with the teams locked at 18-18.
Step forward Yachvili. Two moments - one of skulduggery and one of nerveless kicking decided the match in a six point swing. With the scores still all-square, he tripped Toulon's Sebastien Tillous-Borde - immediately coining the phrase 'The hand of Yachvili' - which Barnes missed, and then moments later kicked what proved to be the winning penalty. Controversy aside, though, Yachvili was superb.
For all the glitz of Toulon's Mohawks, it was a quiet, forgotten Englishman doing the hard yards that caught the eye. Balshaw put in a superb shift at fullback for the Basque side. He epitomised Biarritz's effort that offered further proof that you simply cannot buy a title. Years of hard work are needed during which time you must soak up both the highs and the lows while engraining the mental toughness necessary to edge out a game.
That is what Biarritz displayed and it brought them just reward. The party has already started and the oompah band, Yachvili, Serge Blanco et al will not care one bit that the performance lacked a little gloss.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.