'Galacticos' need hard yards from Harinordoquy

Hugh Godwin
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On a short ride from the airport to the town centre in Biarritz, where Leicester were taking on the locals last October, there was time enough for a pearl of wisdom from the taxi driver. "The rugby team?" he said. "Ah, you mean the galacticos."

It was not meant as a compliment; a point Imanol Harinordoquy, the Biarritz and France back-rower, was able to clarify last week. "Was he from Bayonne?" asked Harinordoquy in a break from preparing for the return fixture this afternoon at Welford Road.

Indeed he was, I recalled - the driver had gone on to favour me with his uncomplimentary opinion of Saracens, whom Bayonne had played recently in the European Challenge Cup. "It's just a little joke from our friends," said Harinordoquy. "Bayonne are our great rivals and neighbours. That's why they say that."

A little joke, perhaps, but it is not only backbiting parochials who have made the reference in France, and in any case, isn't the best comedy rooted in truth?

Will Leicester be hosting the Real Madrid of rugby this afternoon? It cannot be denied that Biarritz went on a Bernabeu-style recruitment drive last summer to add to an already impressive squad. Among a dozen new faces to arrive in Basque country were three top-notch Frenchmen - Harinordoquy and Damien Traille from Pau, and the hooker Benoît August from Stade Français - and the exciting Argentina centre Federico Martin Aramburu.

Last week the French sports newspaper Midi Olympique announced their 2004 World Player of the Year, compiled from votes from journalists in 10 countries. Biarritz had five men in the top 65 (Serge Betsen eighth, Harinordoquy 44th, Dimitri Yachvili 46th, Traille 57th, Nicolas Brusque 65th). Stellar indeed.

Yet the on-field performances have had a Milky Way soft-centre reminiscent of Beckham, Ronaldo and company. Biarritz are off the pace outside the play-off spots in the French championship, though they have it within themselves to catch up. They can score spectacular tries, as when twice carving Leicester apart in the first half of the 23-8 win at the Stade Aguiléra.

But, by their coach's own admission, they are falling short of the standards set by the best. Patrice Lagisquet has accused his side of "retreating into their shells" at vital moments; witness the lacklustre effort at Wasps which brought a 25-12 defeat.

"We have a good team," said Harinordoquy, "but we've only really showed what we can do in two or three matches. There is much more to come." And when he added, "If there is a team who is 'galactic', it is Toulouse or Stade Français", he is referring to the perceived chances of winning cups and leagues. Biarritz, the champions of France just three times in more than a century (in 1935, 1939 and 2002), do not yet have that allure.

As for being big spenders, those in the know in France say that Clermont Auvergne are out on their own in brandishing the chequebook. Stephen Jones, the Wales fly-half, might have been turning out for Leicester today were it not for a rumoured £250,000-a-year deal with the Montferrand club. Still, the average wage for an international at Biarritz is an attractive £130,000 a year; about half that for a good club player.

Even with the resources of the country's fourth or fifth richest club available, Lagisquet has had to experiment. Two days before Christmas, a bruising 26-6 win over Béziers saw Traille, world-renowned as a rangy centre, cover at fly-half for the injured sometime France No 10, Julien Peyrelongue, and his understudy, Benjamin Dambielle.

After a 10-day break, Biarritz returned to training last Monday, and Traille remains in the pivotal role. "It is difficult to say whether it is better to have competition and be ready, or to have had a good rest," said Harinordoquy, who has not played since damaging an ankle against Calvisano on 4 December.

"We've had a very hard week of training, partly to achieve some harmony with Damien. I don't think he has played at fly-half for a few years. But he can pass well on both sides, left and right, and his kicking is good. He has the skills and he could be a revelation, who knows?

"We'll need to attack. If we sit and watch Leicester play, we'll be in trouble." Lagisquet concurs, to judge by the positive noises he has been making about an expansive game centred on Traille, Harinordoquy and August. And Biarritz have disregarded Leicester's substandard performance in that first meeting in France. "We prefer to watch videotapes of them at their best," said Thomas Lièvremont, the captain and one-third of the back row, with Harinordoquy and the brutally effective Betsen.

Harinordoquy, vice-captain in France's 2004 Grand Slam team, recalls playing at Welford Road as a raw 19-year-old. "We lost and it was a hard match but I enjoyed it," he said. "They have a good stadium and a good crowd."

And what of Martin Johnson, whose achievements perhaps outstrip even a Zinedine Zidanein whichever code? "He is emblematic, a man respected by all his opponents," said Harinordoquy. "When he goes on the field he keeps his team-mates concentrating at all times. We don't have a strong guy like Johnson."