Thursday 21 September 2017

Ulster must expect the unexpected in key clash

Gross inconsistency still dogs Biarritz, writes Peter Bills

The great Jean-Pierre Rives said it. "The whole point of rugby is that it is, first and foremost, a state of mind."

If Rives had in mind a single club when he made that statement, it could only have been Biarritz, the greatest enigma, not just of French rugby but all of Europe.

A glance at their pedigree suggests a club of rich achievement in the last 10 years. They were champions of France in 2002, 2005 and 2006. In the Heineken Cup, they have reached the final twice, losing in 2006 by four points to Munster by two points to Toulouse last year. They reached the semi-finals in 2004 and 2005 and the quarter finals in 2001, 2003 and 2007.

Yet for all that, they remain a club of gross inconsistency. With Biarritz, you never have a clue what to expect. The climax to the 2005/'06 season epitomised best this trait which has doggedly stuck to the Basque club throughout the last decade.

They lost the Heineken Cup final to Munster that year, thanks to a grotesque defensive blunder by wing Sirelli Bobo. The following week, amid the gloom of defeat, they had to face the tough Stade Toulouse in the French Championship final.

A half-time score of 9-6 to Biarritz, full of kicks and caution, was transformed as they scored five tries out of nowhere in the second half to blow away les Toulousains 40-13. French rugby was stunned.

Biarritz were up to their old tricks again this season. Having won their opening Heineken Cup match at Bath and then beaten Ulster 35-15 in south-west France in the next round, they went to Italy to play Aironi and contrived to lose. It was the biggest upset in the Heineken Cup for years and it could yet cost the French club a place in this season's quarter-finals, a point conceded by the club's attack coach Jack Isaac.

The Australian centre played for Biarritz from 2000 to 2004, then finished his career at nearby Pau before returning to Stade Aguilera in 2006 and joining the coaching staff. He understands well the psyche of this club.

"We always seem to be very hot and cold. We're up one minute, down the next," he admits. "We seem to be pretty efficient when the big games are on but in other games, we lack intensity too often. So we end up losing a lot of matches we should have won, had our intensity levels been high."

So why hasn't anything been done about it all these years? And doesn't anyone ever lose the plot in the dressing room?

"Oh, tempers flare from time to time," concedes Isaac. "It is hard to deal with that frustration. This club could really get its hands on silverware big time if we made the effort to be that little bit more consistent and intense. But we say that every year and that inconsistency remains."

All this might seem highly propitious for any opponents, like Ulster, waiting around the corner. But in truth trying to plan for a meeting with the Basque club and second guess their likely strength and mood for a particular match is next to impossible. Biarritz invariably don't have a clue themselves how they're going to perform.

Isaac makes little attempt to conceal that his team's shambolic defeat to Aironi could well have opened the door to Ulster in Pool 4. If Ulster win next weekend at Ravenhill and deny Biarritz a losing bonus point in the process, then they can win the pool if they defeat Aironi in Italy in the final game and take a bonus point for four tries. Biarritz would not be able to do anything about it.

"Ravenhill is certainly going to be the crunch game," admitted Isaac. "Had we won in Italy, we would be in a very comfortable position. But now we have to go there and that won't be easy. It is a very intense place to play.

"Ulster wouldn't have been too happy with their second-half performance against us in the first game. But they will be ready for revenge next week. Inevitably, whoever dominates up front is likely to win. We both have big packs and I was very impressed with their back row. It will be pretty tough for us next week."

Even tougher still, if Biarritz don't turn up mentally.

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