Iain Balshaw was a callow 18-year-old who was just beginning his career with Bath when fellow full-back Jon Callard scored all 19 points in the West Country club's 19-18 win over Brive in the 1998 Heineken Cup final in Bordeaux. The teenager must have envisaged many more European glamour ties. Now a thirty-something, he may finally get his chance to play in a Heineken Cup final – but with the French club Biarritz, who meet Munster in the semi-final in San Sebastian this afternoon. It may be his last chance.
Yet even in the Basque country, where pride in Les Biarrots burns as fiercely as those flares their fans ignite at the games, they confess bemusement at their team's form. Balshaw admits: "Against the Ospreys in the quarter-final [which Biarritz won 29-28], we missed over 30 tackles and turned ball over 20 times. Their first two tries came from our turnovers and we were lucky to win. Munster will kill us if we make those mistakes against them.
"When we reviewed the video we knew we had performed badly. Ospreys must be very disappointed they didn't finish off their opportunities. If we miss 30 tackles against Munster, we will lose because teams like them pounce on every opportunity."
How will Biarritz find the balance between semi-final caution and the need to strike out for game-winning tries? After all, they have plenty of "previous" when it comes to being too frightened to play.
Balshaw said: "Yes, there is always a danger of that. It has happened in a couple of games this year. But I hope we will utilise the areas of our game we know we can perform in."
The former England full-back pulls no punches about life with the Basque club. Why have they been better in the Heineken Cup? "Total inconsistency in the league," he says, frankly. "We have lost to the bottom five teams in the Top 14 yet performed solidly against the big teams. We are so up and down in our performances.
"There have been times, in rugby terms, when it has been frustrating. The regime here is not as organised as at clubs in the Guinness Premiership. It is a more relaxed approach here, not as structured as I was used to. You pretty much go out and play off the cuff. I would come in and say 'what are we trying to do here?' and the response would be 'just play'.
"One minute we are fantastic, because when it goes well it is great. But when mistakes occur, we're terrible because there is nothing to fall back on.
"But that is just part of the French way. I get frustrated but you have to adapt. However, in the past six weeks we have become a bit more structured. And when it's flowing well and everybody is flying, it is so enjoyable." If Biarritz find their flow they can tear anyone apart, even without the injured France centre Damien Traille today.
But Balshaw understands the threat posed by Munster. "They are a class outfit, probably the most experienced in the knock-out stages of this cup. They have world-class players in key positions and, in Ronan O'Gara, probably the best open-field kicker in the game when he is on song. He's a huge player for them. But the whole team plays well. This semi will be a massive game, a hell of a tough match.
"I am fully enjoying my time here, it has been a new lease of life for me and my family. I love Biarritz and the people. We want to deliver a trophy for them and there is only this one now. But it will depend how we turn up on the day."Reuse content