Sunday 22 April 2018

Basque pride and desire can lift Biarritz to narrow victory

Bolstered by Harinordoquy return, hosts have class to overturn Munster marauders

Hugh Farrelly

IF it's a long, long way from Clare to here, it's even further from Templeville Road to Estadio Anoeta, San Sebastian.

Templeville was where James Coughlan found himself six months ago, playing All-Ireland League rugby with a sore ankle in a monsoon; tomorrow he runs out for Munster's Heineken Cup semi-final in the muggy warmth of the Anoeta, ready to measure himself against one of the best No 8s in world rugby.

Coughlan's journey from AIL stalwart to Heineken Cup starter mirrors those of the forwards around him, who all did their time in the club game before graduating to Munster.


The difference with Coughlan is that the move did not happen until his late 20s, but when the chance came, he seized it and, following his accomplished showing in the quarter-final win over Northampton, the back-row's selection yesterday was a formality.

Anthony Foley knows all about journeys from Clare and there is a lot of Foley in Coughlan's play -- positional sense, kick-off returns and a happy knack of making the right decision under pressure.

Inevitably, a lot of the pre-match focus has been on the star names in Munster's squad, men such as Ronan O'Gara, Jean de Villiers and Doug Howlett, but Coughlan is a key foundation block for Munster's challenge tomorrow, the go-to ball carrier and chief mopper-upper. Although much of the grunt-work goes unnoticed on the terraces, it is the starting point for progress.

The team initially announced was the same one that accounted for the Saints, but the late withdrawals of Howlett and Ian Dowling have brought Lifeimi Mafi and Denis Hurley into the equation. Munster are fortunate to have in-form options to slot in, as Mafi was excellent in Howlett's place in the defeat to the Ospreys last weekend, while Hurley produced an eye-catching cameo off the bench.

Much has been made of the devastating pace of his opposite number Takudzwa Ngwenya, and with good reason considering he can run the length of a rugby pitch in the time it takes to stir your tea. However, Hurley has proved his worth in the left wing position this season; he played well in the knockout stages in the 2008 triumph and, like Coughlan, he is defined by his consistency.

As expected, Keith Earls returns to the centre next to De Villiers. Munster brought the latter over from South Africa for just this sort of occasion and De Villiers needs to produce tomorrow. The chances of that happening have increased due to the somewhat eccentric Biarritz selection, which sees the Munster square up against Arnaud Mignardi and Ayoola Erinle, with Karmichael Hunt at out-half.

Erinle, at 6ft 3ins and over 17 stone, is an intimidating prospect on the hoof, but suspect on the back foot, a brittle quality he shares with full-back Iain Balshaw and Ngwenya.

Balshaw has a history of imploding against Irish teams and will need his bomb disposal kit tomorrow as O'Gara will undoubtedly test his fielding fettle early on.

Hunt, the New Zealand-born Australian rugby league international, is an enigma at No 10, where his experience is in stark contrast to his opposite number. Undoubtedly a talented runner, Hunt's ability to control a game is more in question and, from Iestyn Harris to Andy Farrell, the list of league converts who have tried to become midfield playmakers in union is littered with failure, with Italy's Aussie stand-off Craig Gower the only, qualified, success.

Then there is the back-row which includes the erratic talents of Magnus Lund on the blindside flank. When the England international is good, he is very, very good, a forceful presence worthy of Alan Quinlan's respect and attention, but he also has the propensity to go missing.

The omission of Fabien Barcella is probably the biggest selection surprise. Barcella announced himself internationally with a startling performance against the Springboks last November, but has struggled with injury since and is short on pitch-time. Even so, it was expected that the 26-year-old loose-head would start with the stated intention of going after John Hayes.


However, Barcella's replacement, the South African Eduard Coetzee, is regarded as formidable scrummager in an area where people know about these things.

Although the loss of Damien Traille is a massively significant blow, given his physical and psychological importance to the team, the fact that Imanol Harinordoquy will run out, despite recent surgery on his nose, has to be a boost.

They also have Jerome Thion in the second-row and Dimitri Yachvili at scrum-half, two players of the highest quality who could have a justifiable sense of grievance borne of not having a front-line role in France's Grand Slam. The Thion-Donncha O'Callaghan and Yachvili-Tomas O'Leary match-ups are ones to be savoured and are pivotal to the outcome of this tie.

Biarritz, although devastated by the loss of Traille, have a single-minded focus going into tomorrow's encounter with plenty of motivational factors. Top of the pile is the fact that their Top 14 campaign is over and the Heineken Cup is their only target.

This is accentuated by the carrot of a Paris final and a possible showdown with Toulouse. Then there is the memory of their defeat to Munster in 2006, a result they have an overwhelming desire to overturn.

And finally, there is the solidarity that comes from being locked away in their private training camp in Hendaye and the determination that comes from not wanting to let their supporters down in a Basque citadel.

Tactically, the Biarritz selection suggests a 50-minute bench-emptying exercise. Hang in with Munster until then and then release Barcella, Florian Faure, Julien Peyrelongue and Philippe Bidabe -- not a bad plan.

Munster also have impact among their reserves, with Tony Buckley, Nick Williams, Peter Stringer and Niall Ronan all capable of injecting momentum.

Logically, Munster should progress to the final. As they showed away to Perpignan and at home to Northampton, Tony McGahan's men are big-game players and when it is most needed, the self-belief kicks in.

Paul O'Connell is a significant loss but Mick O'Driscoll is going well and Biarritz are equally affected by the absence of Traille. So, it should be Munster, then.

But there is a nagging feeling that cannot be shaken that this is the year of the French and that Biarritz will unleash a performance that can just about upset the odds after a titanic battle.

Verdict: Biarritz, just.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport