Biarritz recorded their sixth loss in seven games on Saturday as they went down 27-21 at home to Grenoble. The Basque club are rock bottom of the Top 14 and already five points behind Brive in 13th. With the most toothless attack in the league and the second worst defence, things are looking ominous for Serge Blanco’s club. Only seven fixtures into the season, the former European giants look a smart bet for relegation.
The fact that Biarritz were Heineken Cup finalists as recently as 2010, when they narrowly lost to Toulouse at the Stade de France, makes this situation all the more difficult to comprehend. Biarritz won French championships in 2005 and 2006, as well as losing the Heineken Cup final to Munster in 2006. A Challenge Cup victory in 2012 was a brief break from decline, rather than a sign of continuing strength.
That period of success was built around the excellence of Dimitri Yachvili, Imanol Harinordoquy and Damien Traille. The magnificent trio possessed intelligence, aggression, skill and above all a huge desire to win. Now 33, 33 and 34 respectively, they are simply not the same players. While their mental strengths remain, physically they aren’t as sharp or decisive. Harinordoquy hasn’t even made it onto the pitch this season due to a knee injury, a sign of physical decline due to age perhaps.
On the pitch, Yachvili and Traille aren’t the same players they once were but have still been the two best performers for Biarritz in many games. Traille in particular seems desperate to help his club out of the mess they find themselves in, and at times has been looking at his teammates in shock. He appears genuinely hurt that Biarritz can’t compete at the level they used to. That Yachvili and Traille are still amongst the stand out players for the club is an indictment of the current squad.
No matter who the coach is, no matter who the president is and no matter how much luck goes their way, if a squad doesn’t have enough ability, they won’t win games. Biarritz’s problem is as simple as that. They are in the throes of dealing with a shockingly long injury list, but looking at the players to return, it is hard to see them improving the team measurably, Harinordoquy aside.
The Top 14 continues to grow year on year, with more money being pumped in. Even a club like Grenoble, promoted as recently as 2012, were able to boost their budget by 25% ahead of this season. Every single club in the Top 14 increased their operating budget over the summer, except one. No prizes for guessing it was Biarritz. While the decrease was only in the region of €350,000, it meant that coaches Didier Faugeron and Laurent Rodriguez couldn’t target any high-profile new recruits.
It’s hard to pick any club in France’s top division who didn’t improve their squad over the summer in the transfer market, apart from Biarritz. Even the promoted clubs Brive and Oyonnax added quality to their existing rosters. The biggest additions for Serge Blanco’s club were Dan Waenga and Josh Furno. While both are good players, and the former has been a rare positive for the club so far, the simple fact is that Biarritz were left behind by the other Top 14 clubs’ ambition.
IT magnate Serge Kampf bankrolled Biarritz to their success in the mid 00s and at one stage they were amongst the richest clubs in France. Now, the nouveau riche like Racing Metro and Montpellier have passed them by. Biarritz cannot compete with the sheer spending power of the likes of Jacky Lorenzetti and Mohad Altrad. While it is always possible that the Basques could find a millionaire willing to return them to former glories, it would need to happen soon.
As Kampf’s investment diminishes in scale compared to the new owners in the Top 14, so does the influence of club president and Biarritz icon Serge Blanco. The likes of Mourad Boudjellal at Toulon see the former France fullback as a relic of the past. Blanco has expressed opposition to the Heineken Cup breakaway, but his word in increasingly less heeded. In days gone by, Blanco was influential in high places but those days are at an end.
Things won’t get any easier for Biarritz in the coming weeks, even if their injury problems do ease. Next Saturday, they make the 17-kilometre trip to Bayonne for the Basque derby, always a heated, passionate affair. The weeks following that fixture see them face Perpignan, Castres and Racing Metro, all better teams. It’s still early in the season, but it’s hard to be optimistic for Biarritz.
After Saturday’s defeat at Grenoble, coach Faugeron was asked if he is worried about relegation. The 53-year-old wearily replied, “We can’t think about the Pro D2 yet.” With each passing week, it becomes more likely that Faugeron, Blanco, Kampf, Yachvili, Traille and Harinordoquy will have to think about France’s second tier.
Every giant has to fall eventually, but it will be fascinating to see if Biarritz have a fight left in them still.