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Bummed Out In The Basque Country || By: Howard Johnson

April 24, 2020 4 min read

Rugby Rugby's Howard Johnson was really looking forward to his first Basque
derby between Bayonne and Biarritz. So why did it turn into a nightmare?
The Basque rugby derby is reputed to be one of the most passionate in world
rugby. Which is why Rugby Rugby's Howard Johnson was prepared to drive
four hours to witness it, only to end up having “the worst rugby experience”
he's ever had. Here's his cautionary tale

The chance to watch the Basque derby between Bayonne and Biarritz isn't
something any serious rugby fan would turn down. The chance to watch the
Basque derby in a season where one side – Bayonne – is fighting like fury to
preserve its top flight status is even more appealing. And the chance to watch
the Basque derby when the last time the two teams met Biarritz flanker Imanol
Harinordoquy's dad legged it onto the pitch for a spot of impromptu fisticuffs
with the Bayonne boys is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So ignoring the
weather forecast which said just the one word – 'crap' – and the four hour
journey I set off on Saturday morning armed with high expectations and a
waterproof.

On arriving on the French west coast and finding out that for once those pesky
weathermen were right, we set about preparing for the main event the
traditional French way – apéro. For those unfamiliar with the practice, apéro is
merely code for 'getting jolly squiffy before the match', usually by drinking the
Frenchman's favourite tipple, 'pastis', or 'jaune' as everybody affectionately
calls it. 'Jaune' is the French for yellow, which is both the colour pastis turns
into when you add the traditional dose of water to it and, I imagine, the colour
of your liver when you've drunk too many!

Perhaps surprisingly for an Englishman, the apéro does always precursor a
meal, which given the strength of 'le jaune', is a wise, wise idea. For the
culinarily-inclined amongst you, once ensconced in a restaurant I enjoyed an
axoa, a traditional Basque dish of spicy mincemeat served on a bed of rice. For
those of you who couldn't give a stuff about what I was eating, I'm done with
the poncery now. Let's get back to the rugby…

Having been told of the legendary Basque rugby atmosphere I was properly
excited to get my first glimpse of Bayonne's Jean Dauger stadium. To tell the
truth I was disappointed. It's one of those typical old French grounds, a
municipal-feel stadium that has frankly seen better days and which offers very
few amenities, unless you count a fence to relieve yourself against as the
height of customer service. 'But never mind the stadium' I hear you cry.  It's
the fans who make the atmosphere.  Well true, but there again I was a wee bit
underwhelmed. Considering they're just a stone's throw down the coast road I
expected to see hordes of Biarritz boys invading enemy territory. Not a bit of it.
There were away supporters, but you could count them in, if not the tens, then
in the hundreds and definitely not the thousands. This meant, of course, that
the usual banter that you'd expect between rival fans was curiously absent.
Aside from a few half-hearted chants along the lines of 'Imanol, where's your
dad?' there was nothing much to write home about. 'Oh well,' I thought to
myself. Better concentrate on the action on the pitch. Surely there'll be
fireworks there.

Maybe there were. Maybe there weren't. Frankly you'd have a better idea
about that than me. Why? Because the worst part of my Bayonne-Biarritz
fiasco was just about to unfold. I'd been happy to pay 16 euros for my ticket.
Even if it was a standing ticket. In this day and age, with overinflated prices for
sporting events almost the norm, I thought this was remarkably good value.
Wrong! Seriously wrong! 16 euros, I quickly realised, was overpriced by
about… ooh, 16 euros. The standing area around the pitch doesn't go up in a
gradient, but is rather flat from front to back. This means that instead of
watching a rugby match, all you end up doing is watching a few heads bobbing
up and down above a sea of supporters' jackets. Following the game was
absolutely impossible, so after five minutes I decided the best thing to do was
simply to forget about the whole affair. Bayonne won, apparently.

But I wouldn't have been any the wiser if Imanol Harinordoquy's dad had once again invaded the pitch – only this time naked as a jaybird! As far as live sporting
experiences go this was just about the worst I've ever had. Never again will I
complain about having to watch Worcester on a wet Friday night! How those
thieves at Bayonne have the nerve to sell tickets like that is anybody's guess,
but to say that I felt cheated doing a round trip of around 600 kilometres is
like saying tiny French President Nicolas Sarkozy has done well for himself by
getting hitched to former supermodel Carla Bruni. It's stating the bleedin'
obvious!

So thanks for the memories Bayonne, but I won't be coming back to witness
any more of your 'special' Basque derbies. Your food is gorgeous, but your
rugby experience leaves an awful lot to be desired!