- guardian.co.uk, Sunday 23 May 2010 21.30 BST
A magnificent tournament did not get the final it deserved as Toulouse spluttered rather than strutted to a record fourth European title. A strange lack of passion affected both teams, as if familiarity and the warm weather had dulled their instincts. Not for the first time in Paris in recent days, thieves appeared to have sneaked in overnight and stolen all the art.
It was a shame in a number of respects. Toulouse's claims to be considered a mould-breaking side, for a start, must again be put on hold – in their last five Heineken Cup finals (three of them won) they have scored a grand total of three tries, which implies they are as constricted by the big occasion as anyone else. The slender nature of their winning margin last night was almost criminal given the utter domination of the red and black scrum. Just doing enough and playing within yourself is not, ultimately, the hallmark of greatness.
Maybe that was why Guy Noves, the veteran coach who long ago exceeded his wiry bodyweight in silverware, sat stony-faced on the bench for fully two minutes after the final whistle, as his players celebrated. At one point Noves even swivelled around to sit with his back to the pitch, chin in hand, like a frustrated master craftsman who has set out to create a classic piece and ended up presiding over a lazy compromise.
He insisted later that he was happy enough, so perhaps there was simply an element of relief and mental weariness, with Toulouse's entire season having rested on the outcome after their defeat by Perpignan in the Top 14 semi-finals.
Within Novès, either way, lurks a little bit of Brian Clough and a dash of José Mourinho. Here is a man who understands his players but also knows the value of keeping them, and others, on their toes. Like Mourinho, he is also good at identifying weakness in opponents and constructing gameplans accordingly. Five years have elapsed since Toulouse's previous Heineken Cup victory, in Edinburgh (when Novès was carted away by Lothian and Borders police following a touchline argument), and his pre-match message to his players highlighted the need to end that relatively barren sequence. "It's about time," said Byron Kelleher, the All Black scrum-half whose move to France has clearly suited both parties. "We decided to use our scrum as a real weapon and to make sure we gathered points from it … that gives you your foundation."
And so it came to pass. In Paris in the springtime not every young man's thoughts turn to scrummaging and the experienced Kiwi Campbell Johnstone would have enjoyed a more rewarding weekend sat in a deckchair beside the Seine. When Toulouse were reduced to 14 men by a yellow card for the second row Patricio Albacete, for dragging down Benoît August after the latter had kicked ahead towards the 22, David Skrela skilfully responded with two drop goals which restored his side's advantage when they might have wavered.
The closing moments were more tense than expected, Biarritz's Aussie Rules-bound centre, Karmichael Hunt, scoring the only try following a quick tap penalty and neat break by Arnaud Mignardi. Had Maxime Médard not dropped the ball with the try-line looming just after the interval, though, it would have been all over much earlier.
This was scant consolation for Iain Balshaw, who gave an assured display at full-back for Biarritz but was left to reflect on what might have been had the Basques shown the same exuberance as their wonderful supporters. "We weren't in the game for 55 minutes," he said. "We were very flat and had no dynamism. We're just disappointed we didn't perform. I don't think Toulouse played particularly well, they just played smart. Their forwards won them the game."
The Biarritz president, Serge Blanco, like Balshaw, refused to blame everything on the fact his team had not had a game for three weeks, and told them so in the dressing-room afterwards. "He was obviously bitterly disappointed that we didn't turn up," said Balshaw. Maybe, as in the case of Munster before 2006, this will intensify the Basques' desire after two losing finals. That, in turn, threatens to make life even harder for the English, Irish and the Welsh next season.
Even if Toulouse can be dragged back to earth, the likes of Toulon, Racing Métro, Clermont Auvergne, Perpignan and Stade Français will scarcely be any weaker. Magnus Lund, Biarritz's flaxen-haired former England flanker, whose reputation has been enhanced in recent months, does not believe French rugby is miles ahead – "It's too early to tell if that's the case" – but Kelleher feels Top 14 standards have risen sharply in the past three years. By conquering Europe without really stretching themselves, Toulouse have, in a curious way, proved the scrum-half's point.
Toulouse Poitrenaud (Heymans, 68); Clerc, Fritz (David, 71), Jauzion, Médard; Skrela; Kelleher; Poux (Human, 62), Servat (Vernet Basualdo, 72), Lecouls (C Johnston, 64), Millo-Chluski (Maestri, 58), Albacete, Bouilhou, Dusautoir (capt), Sowerby (Picamoles, 71).
Pens Fritz, Skrela 3 Drops Fritz, Skrela 2.
Sin-bin Albacete 49.
Biarritz Balshaw; Ngwenya, Mignardi, Hunt, Gobelet (Bidabé, 58); Peyrelongue, Yachvili (Courrent, 70); Coetzee (Barcella, 50), August (Terrain, 68), C Johnstone, Thion (capt), Hall (Carizza, 60), Lund, Lauret (Faure, 59), Harinordoquy.
Try Hunt Con Courrent Pens Yachvili 4.
Referee W Barnes (England) Attendance 78,630.