Sport Champions Cup

Friday 23 February 2018

Life's a beach in Balshaw's French fling

David Kelly and Peter Bills

Biarritz in the spring time is not the worst place in the world to get a cold shoulder. But Iain Balshaw doesn't care. Ensconced with wife Katie and their two young children, this 2001 and 2005 Lions veteran has turned his back on England to pursue his sporting dream.

After being wowed as a 13-year-old on a rugby trip, he had always promised himself that he would move to France at the first available opportunity. "Obviously there was a financial aspect as well as everything else, I've a young family and I want to see them looked after," he explains. "But in fairness there was a lot more to it than that.

"I wanted to have a new challenge in terms of my rugby and in lifestyle. We thought things over long and hard, my wife and I, before we decided to join Biarritz. Now that we're here, it's been unbelievable.

"But the most important thing for me is that my family are 100pc happy. If they're not happy, then I can't possibly be. But I can concentrate fully on my rugby knowing that they're being well looked after."

Although miffed at some sloppy league form, which has parked his side well below the coveted Top 14 play-offs, Les Biarrots' progress beyond the group stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time since their 2006 final loss to you know who has been a boon.


An English presence in the semi-finals of Europe's premier competition is a rarity in itself; that Balshaw finds himself back in the big time after international isolation and club under-achievement has vindicated his decision to abandon his home country professionally, not just personally.

The past is a foreign country. At one stage at the start of the last decade, Balshaw was without peer as an attacking full-back. Just as quickly, he was the game's prime source of ridicule. It is at once a tale of the sport's -- particularly England's -- impetuosity with raw talent and inability to cradle flair.

Brian Ashton first spotted Blackburn native Balshaw as a sinewy teenager playing for Stonyhurst College against Lancaster Royal Grammar. Ashton was then coach of one of the most dazzling attacking sides of the age, Bath, but he had only pitched up to watch his son play for the opposition.

However, his eyes were immediately drawn to the mercurial out-half. "Iain was brilliant," recalled Ashton years later. "I couldn't get him down to Bath quickly enough. There's no point underestimating Iain's natural ability -- it was there for everybody to see. He's got the speed of Christian Cullen and the dancing feet of Jason Robinson."

No pressure there, then.

Balshaw's first-team debut came at the age of 18 and he soon displaced England international Matt Perry at full-back for both club and country. It is no surprise that Balshaw's finest spell in an England shirt -- when he scored five tries in the first four games of the 2001 Six Nations -- came during Ashton's first spell as attack coach under Clive Woodward.

Balshaw has subsequently bemoaned the amount of people offering constant reminders that he has never managed to replicate his form of that year, when Mike Catt and Will Greenwood created space and the No 15 did the rest.

Aside from Balshaw's own contribution, England scored 28 tries in four matches. Balshaw won the World Cup with England but substance had supplanted style long before then.

Even on the 2001 Lions tour to Australia, Graham Henry deployed him more or less as a battering ram. That utterly denuded the player of confidence and his old team-mate Perry turned the tables on him for club and country.

Injuries haven't helped down the years -- six groin operations and two shoulder operations indicating a troubled toll. Still, Ashton brought him back into the fold when installed as Andy Robinson's backs coach in 2006 yet Balshaw only occasionally demonstrated the dash and verve of yore. A dazzling try against Argentina stands out from that time but, even when Ashton was promoted to head coach ahead of the 2007 Rugby World Cup, he left his former prodigy at home and took James Simpson-Daniel instead.

Poignantly, the pair finished their international careers as they had started; with a consummate victory against Ireland in the Six Nations championship a year later. In his 35 caps, he scored 13 tries but his record of being dropped 10 times almost matches Geordan Murphy's dubious record with Ireland.

"I had ups and downs and, in hindsight, there were a few matches in which I played when I'm wasn't fully fit. I'm older and wiser now and I can see all that. But then you'd do anything to play for your country."

Going to France, however, calculatedly reduces his chances of ever doing so again. "I don't think I'll ever play for England again, no matter how well I play for Biarritz," the 31-year-old concurs.

"I thought I'd done well enough last season for Gloucester but it turned out it wasn't good enough. I'm not angry about that. There are young guys coming through. If I was asked, of course I would. I just don't think I'm going to be asked."

The Heineken Cup is refreshing the parts international rugby can't reach. And he appreciates that Biarritz will have to up their game from their narrow 29-28 squeeze against Ospreys if they are to have any chance of gaining revenge for their 2006 Cardiff reverse.

"We missed over 30 tackles and turned ball over 20 times," he points out. "Their first two tries came from us turning the ball over and we were very 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. The Ospreys must be very disappointed they didn't finish off the opportunities they got. If we miss 30 tackles against Munster, we will lose. No arguments there because teams like them pounce on every opportunity.

"They are a class outfit and their team is probably the most experienced in the knock-out stages of this Cup. They have world-class players in key positions and they are definitely not over the hill, as some have suggested.

"They have 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 Munster team plays well."

Inconsistency has dogged the French side's season, losing to the bottom five teams away from home yet performing well against the big guns.

"A total lack of consistency," he moans. "There have been times, in rugby terms, when it has been frustrating. The regime here is not as organised as at English clubs. 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 start to happen, it's not so great and 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 to it.

"But having said all that, in the last six weeks we have become a bit more structured. And when it's flowing well and everybody is flying it is so enjoyable."

He has never played in a final; in 1998, Andy Robinson -- Ashton's successor at Bath -- played Balshaw in every tie until the final against Brive, when Jon Callard stepped in to steer his side home.

"I have never forgiven him," joked Balshaw this week. "I said, 'you picked me for all the other games.' But he was adamant." He's determined now to grab this opportunity.

"This semi will be a massive game, a hell of a tough match," he admits. "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. But we want to deliver a trophy for them this season and this is the one we want."

Closing one door may well open another.

Irish Independent

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