Troubled times in the Basque Country

Date published: June 4 2015

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The Basque country – rugby's equivalent of the Merseyside – is in turmoil with insistent rumours of a merger between the region's two great clubs growing louder by the day.

There are many red-blue rivals around the world – Liverpool-Everton and the two Manchester clubs are easy examples from football – but the rivalry between the Bayonne and Biarritz is sometimes more akin to the 'Bloods' and 'Crips' in Los Angeles.

The two great Basque rivals are only separated by a river geographically but their fans are worlds apart. The massive protests earlier this month both at the ground and in front of the town hall in Bayonne showed how desperate supporters are to avoid 'la fusion'.

And it's no surprise. When Biarritz moved their European games to San Sebastian and the Anoeta, Bayonne fans were regularly spotted cheering on the opposition, while a certain Lucien Harinordoquy took such exception to seeing his son Imanol targeted in a derby game that he ran onto the pitch to defence him.

It's no surprise then that both sides have tried to keep the merger talk under wraps and despite widespread reports of secret meetings between the clubs' management, Biarritz boss Serge Blanco has insisted that they will not join forces…

….however his counterpart in Bayonne, Manu Mérin has been less discreet with stories emerging of players leaving training during the latter part of the Top 14 season in tears after being told of the plans to form a single Basque club.

Mérin was almost in tears himself a fortnight ago when he claimed in a press conference that merger talks had stopped after widespread opposition from fans, but it seems it's very much back on, much to the dismay of the supporters.

So why talk of a merger?

Well, times are tough and as the old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Biarritz have made heavy work of life in the ProD2, finishing the season in seventh place and outside the play-offs. As if that wasn't bad enough, they are under investigation from the DNACG with talk of players not being paid and a massive deficit in their budget.

Newly-relegated Bayonne are not likely to fare much better with the expected player exodus already underway. Mat Tait's proposed deal has fallen through, while French international Charles Ollivon and promising hooker Anthony Etrillard are both off to Toulon.

While Joe Rokocoko is expected to stay put, David Roumieu, the heart and soul of the side whose absence through injury was sorely felt this season, is set to join La Rochelle.

With that in mind it's clear that from a sporting perspective, and a financial one, two Basque sides will struggle to compete with the financial heavyweights of the Top 14.

The Basque identity is well much alive and well in the south-western corner of France, even if it has not taken on the military resistance to a far-away authority as it has across the border in Spain.

While many people in this region happily accept their dual Basque-French identities, many would sooner wave the green, white and red flag than the tricolor française.

At surface level, it would appear that combining the economic forces of the two clubs who share that common identity would make sense, but the vast majority of fans would see it as a simple betrayal….and rightly so given the history between the old rivals.

By Ross Hastie and Paul Eddison

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