If soccer is the most widely followed sport in Hegoalde, the big sport in Iparralde has traditionally been rugby union. Indeed, in November 2011 the two main Basque teams, Aviron Bayonnais and Biarritz Olympique played the hundredth anniversary derby game, highlights of which can be seen here. In that hundred-year span, the teams from Baiona (3) and Biarritz (5) had won the French Championship 8 times, with Biarritz also reaching the final of rugby union’s Heineken Cup (a Europe-wide competition) on two occasions (in 2006 and 2010).
Through the twentieth century rugby became synonymous with the Basque Country in France, where it enjoyed deep roots embedded in traditional rural communities. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that a prototypical Basque style of rugby (and rugby player) emerged: in other words, Basque rugby was robust and proud with a “never-say-die” attitude. Players were almost obsessively attached to their teams, defending their colors at all costs as if defending their culture, and enjoyed a close-knit network of relations with fans. To see the Baiona fans in full voice, click here.
If one position has come to exemplify Basque rugby players, it was that of prop forward (or simply “prop”), the two “pillar” positions at the front of the scrum; in other words, the strongest players in the team who have to put up with their own players pushing from behind and the opposition pushing against them during scrums. According to Wikipedia, “Some of the more successful props have short necks and broad shoulders to absorb this force as well as powerful legs to drive the scrum forward.” Some of the great Basque props include the “indomitable” Jean Iraçabal (b. 1941), Jean-Louis Azarete or “Zaza” (b. 1945), Peio Dospital or “Doxpi” (b. 1950), Pascal Ondarts (b. 1956), considered by The Times of London to be one of the 10 most frightening players ever to represent France, and, more latterly, Jean-Michel Gonzalez or “Gonzo” (b. 1967). Yet the most famous Basque rugby player of all time was not a prop but mostly played in the fullback position: the great Serge Blanco (b. 1958), the “Pele of rugby.” Currently, Aretz Iguiniz (b. 1983) carries on the great tradition of Basque props, but Imanol Harinordoquy (b. 1980), who plays in the number 8 position at the back of the scrum, is probably the best-known Basque rugby player at present.
Most of the aforementioned players flourished in the late twentieth century, at the end of the great age of Basque rugby. In contrast, the twenty-first century has witnessed a shift toward the “complete” professionalization of rugby, as opposed to what Alban David* terms the “skewed amateurism” of the 1970s through the 1990s that had replaced the truly amateur foundations of the sport. And this shift has ultimately undermined the strong local foundations of Basque rugby. Nowadays players from all over the world play in the top club sides. Money is the order of the day and those local loyalties do not mean so much as they once did.
Ironically, during the initial stages of this professional shift, both the major Basque teams enjoyed some degree of success: Biarritz won the French title in 2002, 2005, and 2006, as well as twice reaching the final of the Heineken Cup; and Baiona returned to the top-flight of French rugby in the early 2000s. Yet now, with both major Basque teams relegated to the second tier of French professional rugby, there have been calls to merge the two sides into one professional team representing Iparralde. This has provoked a widespread debate that goes to the very essence of Basque rugby itself. On this debate, see Gavin Mortimer’s article “Should Basque clubs Bayonne and Biarritz join forces?” in Rugby World.
Ironically, the gradual shift to a more professional setting appears to be enhancing the development of rugby in Hegoalde, but that’s a topic for another post.
*Alban David, Histoire du rugby au Pays Basque: De 1900 à aujourd hui. Éditions Sud Ouest, 2014.
See Cameron Watson’s Modern Basque History: Eighteenth Century to the Present for a general overview of sport (both traditional and modern) in Basque culture.
See also Playing Fields: Power, Practice, and Passion in Sport, edited by Mariann Vaczi, which includes a diverse collection of articles that address a variety of topics such as gender and sport, the local-global dynamic in contemporary sports, and the affective dimensions of sport as a whole.