Category: Basque rugby

USA Men’s Eagles National Rugby Team face Tonga in Basque Country

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Every Fall rugby fans in Europe are treated to a series of great rugby matches known as the Autumn Internationals, in which the best teams from north and south hemispheres compete. As part of this series of games, USA Rugby’s Men’s Eagles are in Europe right now and on Saturday, November 19, are poised to take on Tonga in Anoeta Stadium, Donostia-San Sebastián.

The Men’s Eagles arrived in the Basque Country on Sunday, November 13, to a warm reception by a group of dantzaris at Loiu Airport.  Check out the Facebook site of Rugby Challenge Donostia-San Sebastián, the organization behind this historic match.

This is a major event for rugby fans in the Basque Country, pitting the world’s 15th and 17th ranked teams against each other. The organizers hope it will serve as a springboard to both promote rugby union in Hegoalde or the Southern Basque Country and showcase Donostia-San Sebastián as a potential venue for future international games. The game, which will be broadcast by the Rugby Channel, kicks off at 5 pm local time (8 am PST; 11 am EST) on November 19. And if you do watch the game, whether in the Basque Country or from afar, you may even see the traditional Tonga war dance, performed before each match – the Sipi Tau (here below in compeitition with the New Zealand Haka):

Just out of interest for this site, Basque-American Iñaki Basauri, a loose forward who plays professionally in France, did play for the Men’s Eagles although he is not part of the current lineup.

See also: https://www.youtube.com/user/USARugbyTV

How two Basque sportswomen balance their professional and sporting lives: Maider Unda and Patricia Carricaburu

Today we’re going to take a look at how two Basque sportswomen at the top of their game balance their commitments both inside and outside the sporting arena. In both cases, they take part in their respective sports for the love of playing rather than for any major financial remuneration. And both women demonstrate a strong connection to the land of their birth.

Born in 1977, Maider Unda is one of the top Basque sportswomen today. She is from the Atxeta baserri in Oleta, a neighborhood of Aramaio, Araba, where she still lives, herding sheep and producing the renowned Idiazabal cheese in partnership with her sister. She is a successful freestyle wrestler who, in the 72 kg category, finished in fifth place at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and won the bronze medal at the 2012 Games in London. In the same category she has also won a bronze medal at the World Championships (2009), a bronze at the European Games (2015), and a silver (2013) and two bronzes (2010, 2012) at the European Championships. She is currently attempting to qualify for this year’s Summer Olympics, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in August.

In the following report (in Spanish) she discusses her professional and sporting life, including how she took over the family farm after her parents retired:

Check out Maider’s personal website here.

Born in 1988, Patricia Carricaburu, from Altzürükü, Zuberoa, is a French international rugby player who plays in the prop forward position, in which Basques have a long and noble tradition of playing. She was part of the French team that won this year’s 6 Nations Tournament, the premier championship in European rugby. At the club level, she made her debut for local team US Menditte, nicknamed the “Neska Gaitz” or “Bad Girls,” in Mendikota, Zuberoa, before moving to the RC Lons team, near Pau in Béarn.

Check out this report on Patricia (in French), which as well as including some glowing comments about her by the coach of the French national team and fellow Basque, Jean-Michel Gonzalez, also shows her in her day job as an accountant in an automobile repair shop in Maule, and includes her singing traditional Basque songs–another personal passion inherited from her family–toward the end of the clip (at approx. 2m 30s). Indeed, she also sings in the Bedatse Liliak (Spring flowers) group, with friends from her home village:

Women, and gender issues more generally, in sport is one of the principal themes running through Playing Fields: Power, Practice, and Passion in Sport, edited by Mariann Vaczi.

April 20, 1913: Aviron Bayonnais wins French rugby championship for first time

On April 20, 1913 Basque rugby team Aviron Bayonnais (Baionako Arrauna in Basque) defeated Paris-based SCUF (Sporting club universitaire de France rugby) 31-8 to be crowned champions of France for the 1912-13 season. It was the first time that the team–and indeed any Basque team–had won the championship, established in 1892. And it is still considered one of the great final championship deciders in the history of French rugby. See this ESPN article for a fuller account of the famous final.

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French rugby championship winning side Aviron Bayonnais, 1914.

What really marked this victory, and the team as a whole, was its spectacular playing style, known as the “Bayonnais way,” which revolutionized the rugby of that era. This was in the main down to Harry Owen Roe, a Welsh rugby player who had relocated to Baiona to work as a shipping clerk and join the ranks of the team. He introduced new methods of speed, offense, and “total rugby” (in which all members of the team, whatever their position, were encouraged to run at the opposition). This was copied from the Welsh style of rugby at that time and incorporated into the Aviron Bayonnais game, and this kind of play would have a huge impact on French rugby as a whole in the years to come. Indeed, for some it even represents the origins of what has been termed the “French flair” style of rugby.

Founded in 1904, Aviron Bayonnais subsequently finished runners-up in the championship two years in succession (1922 and 1923), losing out on both occasions to Stade Toulousain (still, today, one of the great forces in European rugby). However, the team went on to more success and indeed enjoyed its golden years during the 1930s and 1940s, winning the championship on a further two occasions, beating arch rivals Biarritz Olympique in 1934 and then, nearly a decade later, SU Agen in 1943. It contested two more championship finals, against USA Perpignan in 1944 and, most recently, against SU Agen in 1982, but was unsuccessful on both occasions.

If you’re interested in the topic, check out 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, including some discussion about the importance of rugby in Iparralde. This work is also available free to download here.

 

Basque Rugby: A Victim of Professionalization?

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).

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Biarritz Olympique fans celebrate the team’s 2006 championship win over Toulouse. Photo by TaraO, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Aretz Iguiniz, the latest in a long line of classic Basque props. Photo by Blaquestone, via Wikimedia Commons

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.