Steffon Armitage, the Biarritz captain, kicks winning penalty in the Top 14 'Access Match'
If there’s one thing rugby doesn’t have enough of, it’s penalty shootouts. The tension is just exceptional, trusting your part-time kickers and the forwards who give it all the chat during training thinking they’re all John Eales to convert a penalty from the 22 right in front of the posts, but under immense pressure.
And so for the first time at the professional level since Leicester Tigers and Cardiff’s memorable shootout in the Heineken Cup semi-finals 12 years ago, when Jordan Crane was Leicester’s hero and rugby followers everywhere felt desperately for Martyn Williams who produced the fateful miss, at long last we had another shootout to savour.
For Biarritz and Bayonne, those two Basque rivals who so nearly merged together a few years ago given each club’s respective financial difficulties – a proposal met with widespread opposition – the chance to play France’s top division was on the line.
Bayonne, 13th this season in the Top 14, were fighting to stay in the competition. Biarritz, runners-up in the ProD2 play-offs, hadn’t been in the Top 14 for seven years. Two clubs whose stadiums are separated by just five miles. Fittingly neither side could be separated after 100 minutes, tied in a 6-6 draw.
Biarritz’s former player, the France wing Teddy Thomas, was among the 5,000 supporters sat in the stands unable to watch as the players prepared for the next gruelling few minutes.
Before they get going, you can spot Steffon Armitage getting ready by taking the tape off his ankle and boots…
Gaetan Germain, who has scored 243 points this season and has won games almost single-handedly for Brive and Grenoble and now Bayonne over the years, is up first. He sinks it.
Hugo Zabalza the reserve scrum-half is first up for Biarritz and he is not mucking around. Left-footed, get it out the way. Germain took his time. Zabalza’s in a hurry and drills it.
Manuel Ordas is second up for Bayonne and again, notably takes his time. I’m more of a fan of Zabalza’s approach, particularly if you were a Bayonne player like Ordas taking a penalty with the backdrop of a fiercely pro-Biarritz crowd. Anyway, over it goes, 2-1.
Gilles Bosch has been around for a while, and it’s nice to see him confidently crack this one over to keep things level (and tense).
Guillaume Rouet up next and if you were a Bayonne fan, you were worried for two reasons. That walk to pick up the ball doesn’t look confident at all and then – no kicking tee. Oh boy.
Never mind, drills it anyway.
For some reason watching Steeve Barry step up next feels oddly assuring. Remembered from his France Sevens days – and also because you don’t come across many Steeves with three ‘e’s – there’s a couple of late glances at the posts. And it’s quite high. But we’re level.
Not sure if Theo Costosseque was put off by the avalanche of balls rolling towards him as he lined up his kick…
…but it didn’t seem to matter. Rifled through. All backs so far, bit disappointing.
Do like this approach from Barnabé Couilloud – brother of France scrum-half Baptiste – because he almost seems annoyed by the whole situation. All business here, picks up the tee, job done and thank you.
Now it’s getting spicy. Peyo Muscarditz is chosen for the fifth Bayonne penalty and this takes an age – he starts his run up, then has to stop because he just cannot get the ball to sit on the kicking tee. Imagine the sweaty palms. Horrible.
Eventually everything’s in position, and never has a penalty screamed ‘I just want to get this over and done with’ more. But, Bayonne have done it, five out of five. All the pressure is now on Biarritz…
Francis Saili, a familiar name to Harlequins supporters, is the fifth man up tasked with knocking this one over. There’s a couple of slow looks from the ball to the posts, the kind you see from Damian McKenzie although Saili hasn’t opted for the creepy smile. Over it goes but it feels like the touch judges take an age to stick the flags up. We’re into sudden death.
Which brings us to Aymeric Luc. Now, you’re looking for tiny signs at this point that Luc might be out of luck (sorry), and the deep breaths when he goes to pick up the ball feel slightly alarming.
Up he steps for the kick and the connection looks odd, scooping it to the right, the noise from the crowd telling you the ball has drifted wide before it reaches the posts.
It’s a pretty desperate walk back to his team-mates, just as Armitage, the Biarritz captain and first forward to take a kick, begins his own walk-up.
The first thing to note about Armitage is that he seems calm. How often he practised this moment on a training ground for a laugh would be interesting to know. The Biarritz captain, with a kick to promote his side into France’s top flight after seven years away. It sails over – and then the chaos begins.
And yet in the aftermath, along with the shots of Biarritz supporters surging onto the field, it’s the footage of Bayonne’s players which is moving. Luc crouched down, head in his hands, as hundreds of Biarritz supporters run past him.
Or the sight of Bayonne’s thundering No 8 Afa Amosa weeping on the touchline, knowing his side have been relegated.
After Luc’s miss the Canal+ commentators keep repeating "C’est cruel, c’est terrible", and they’re right – it’s what makes penalty shootouts so appealing, even before you factor in the proximity of these two clubs to each other geographically and the depth of his rivalry.
Commiserations to Bayonne and congratulations to Biarritz on their promotion. Now can we please not have to wait another age to witness more shootouts. Appropriately, Leicester’s hero from the 2009 penalty shootout Jordan Crane sent Armitage a message: "Welcome to the club."