Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque dates back to 1902, when the Biarritz Stade athletics club first created a rugby section. In 1909, Biarritz Sporting Club was born in the town, before the two outfits merged in 1913. BO’s first French title came in 1935, when a team captained by Henri Haget beat USAP 3-0. Legendary outhalf Haget helped Biarritz to another championship win over Perpignan in 1939, but BO failed to claim another trophy for the next 60 years.
The club enjoyed a competitive spell in the late ’80s powered by fullback Serge Blanco and lock Jean Condom, but it was not until the 2000s that BO were back amongst the silverware. In 2002, when Dimitri Yachvili first broke through, the club were crowned champions of France. Bankrolled by Serge Kampf, Biarritz recruited the likes of Imanol Harinordoquy and Damien Traille in ’04, with further French titles secured in ’05 and ’06.
Biarritz suffered Heineken Cup final losses in both 2006 and 2010, but were true giants of French rugby for the decade. The club’s most recent trophy came in 2012, then they beat Toulon in the Challenge Cup final. Unfortunately for the Basques, times are changing.
Biarritz is located in the Pays Basque, on the Atlantic coast of southwestern France, just 17 kilometres from the Spanish border. Eight kilometres away is Bayonne; the rivalry between the towns is fierce. Parc des Sports Aguiléra is BO’s home ground, with a capacity of 15,000. For some big games, Biarritz relocate to the 32,000-seater Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastian, Spain. Club president Serge Blanco hopes plans to modernise and enlarge the Aguiléra to 18,000 seats will be confirmed before the end of the year.
Biarritz made a superb start to last season, winning their first four league matches before a shocking turn in form saw them lose six in a row. After defeat to Connacht in December, Blanco sacked coaching duo Serge Milhas and Jack Isaac. BO’s Sporting Director, ex-France No. 8 Laurent Rodriguez, assumed the position of forwards coach, with Didier Faugeron drafted in as backs coach. Under the new coaching team, Biarritz’s performances improved and they finished the season in ninth.
The Heineken Cup was a disappointment for BO, with just three wins in a group containing Zebre and Connacht. After dropping into the Challenge Cup and briefly flourishing against Gloucester, Biarritz’s thrashing at the hands of Leinster showed how far they have fallen. This season will be the first time since ’99/00 that Biarritz haven’t been in the Heineken Cup. The simple truth is that BO can no longer compete financially with the likes of Clermont, Toulouse and Racing.
Despite that, Blanco remains optimistic for the club he loves so dearly. He told Midi Olympique that “our ambition once again will be to finish in the top six and go as far as possible in the Challenge Cup. I think we’re going to surprise people in a lot of areas. I’m ready to go to war with this group.” Fighting talk indeed, but it would be a shock to see Biarritz back it up on the pitch over the course of the season. There is a real sense of a wounded Goliath about BO, but of course any flailing strike presents real danger for the opposition.
Rodriguez is still in charge of the forwards at Biarritz, but it is backs coach Faugeron who dictates their approach. The former winger had coaching spells with Brive, Agen, Stade Francais and Bayonne before arriving at BO. While les Biarrots’ style of play over the last number of years has been highly structured around Yachvili’s kicking skills, Faugeron has been working to expand their attacking game plan since December.
In his own words: “A player must be ready to come out of the given structure. There are never good or bad places to attack from. I ask the players to be constantly on the alert and reading the game. You can’t create mismatches unless you react in real time.” The fruits of that philosophy were a more expansive attacking game from Biarritz in the second half of the season, and it may finally be time for BO to leave behind the template that brought them so much glory.
Biarritz’s attempts to find an outhalf have landed them Dan Waenga. The 27-year-old Kiwi made his Super Rugby debut off the bench for the Chiefs this season after years of ITM Cup experience with Hawke’s Bay and Bay of Plenty. Waenga replaces Jean-Pascal Barraque, who moved to Toulouse this summer. Yachvili will continue to run the team from scrumhalf, but Waenga’s success in adapting to the Top 14 will be important.
Italian international lock Josh Furno joins from Narbonne and is a player of real potential. The 23-year-old Melbourne-native has played in the back row and possess excellent lineout skills. Tongan international Ueleni Fono (31) joins from relegated Agen. His power can be utilised anywhere across the back row. Loosehead prop Alexandre Menini (29) is likely to push hard for a spot in the starting XV. Having spent his entire career in the Pro D2, his first Top 14 campaign with a poor Mont de Marsan team last season was impressive.
The most exciting signing is perhaps Joe Pietersen from the Stormers in South Africa. The 29-year-old has seven years of Super Rugby experience and is a sharp attacking presence from fullback. Pietersen spent a season with BO’s neighbours Bayonne in ’10/11, where he scored seven tries in 17 games. A wildcard addition is Samoan sevens star Paul Perez (26). He has seven international caps in the fifteen-a-side game, as well as ITM and Currie Cup exposure.
Yachvili is still the man in Biarritz. At 32, he remains the key for les Biarrots. If he can avoid injuries and find his best form, Faugeron’s side will flourish. Yachvili is the side’s playmaker from scrumhalf, and he is given free reign to play the game as he sees fit. It’s hard to stress just how important the French international is to Biarritz. If he plays well, BO do too.
Harinordoquy has been plagued with injuries for the past two seasons, but remains an important cog. His career has been magnificent, but the 33-year-old is not finished yet. Harinordoquy recently stated his ambition to be involved in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and will have benefited from an extended rest this summer. His skills and genius remain but, like Yachvili, the question is whether his body can keep going.
In the centre, Damien Traille is still going at the ripe old age of 34. His experience and defensive leadership are likely to be deployed at 12. Outside him at 13, Benoît Baby had one of the best seasons of his career having finally settled in one position and remaining injury-free. The French international’s attacking threat was one of the main positives of the campaign. On the wing, American winger Takudzwa Ngwenya’s searing pace is always a threat.
Up front, Raphaël Lakafia (24) is a powerful presence in the back-row, while fellow French cap Arnaud Héguy will need to take control at hooker following the retirement of Biarritz hero Benoît August. The loss of flanker Wenceslas Lauret (24) to Racing Metro will also be felt.
There are no Irishmen at Biarritz, but Iain Balshaw has played against Ireland and the provincial sides on numerous occasions. The 34-year-old will miss the start of the season as he recovers from knee surgery, but is expected back in mid-September. Fellow English international Magnus Lund is in his sixth season with les Biarrots. Capped 10 times, he is likely to be used at blindside.
That duo are joined by a compatriot in the shape of Addison Lockley (21). The England U20 lock has signed for the club’s academy after impressing for Moseley in the Championship. Tighthead prop Ben Broster is another name that may be familiar. The 31-year-old was capped twice for Wales. Physical wing Aled Brew (9 Wales caps) scored just one try in 30 appearances in his first season at Biarritz and his place comes under threat from the exciting Teddy Thomas.
Possible Starting XV
15. Joe Pietersen 14. Takudzwa Ngwenya 13. Benoît Baby 12. Damien Traille 11. Teddy Thomas/Aled Brew 10. Dan Waenga 9. Dimitri Yachvilli 8. Imanol Harinordoquy 7. Raphaël Lakafia 6. Magnus Lund/Benoît Guyot 5. Josh Furno 4. Pelu Taele 3. Ben Broster/Francisco Gomez-Kodela 2. Arnuad Héguy 1. Fabien Barcella/Alexandre Menini
Photos: Paul Barnard, Peter Dean, Martin Dobey, bernardphoto.