By Gavin Mortimer
FOR ALL the talk in recent weeks about Jonny Wilkinson, and will-he-or-won’t-he sign on for another stint at Toulon, there’s another Englishman in the south of France in a similar situation.
In fact the similarities don’t stop there. Iain Balshaw and Jonny Wilkinson first played in the same team in 1997, the all-conquering England schoolboys’ side that also featured Mike Tindall. Born one month apart (Wilkinson is the younger), they went on to win honours for England and the Lions, and capped it all on 22 November 2003 by helping England to win the World Cup.
The pair moved to France in the summer of 2009, Wilkinson to Toulon and Balshaw to Biarritz, and the former England full-back has enjoyed three and a half seasons of sun, sea, sand, and the odd bit of success. In 2010 Biarritz reached the final of the Heineken Cup, only to lose to Toulouse, but last season the Basque side defeated Wilkinson’s Toulon in the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Balshaw’s contract expires at the end of this season but he’s sure “something will be sorted out in the next three of four weeks”; the ‘something’ hopefully being a contract extension that will allow him and his family to remain in Biarritz for a couple more years.
“I’ll be 34 in April but I feel I’m in good nick and I want to keep playing up to my 36th birthday,” he explains. “That’s the plan, at least. By then I would have had 18 years at the professional level and that’s quite a long time – unless you’re Simon Shaw!”
The 39-year-old Shaw is still going strong at Toulon and Balshaw suspects he’s benefiting from the warmer climes of the south of France, just as he’s done since moving from Gloucester in the summer of 2009. “The quality of life in Biarritz is amazing,” says Balshaw, whose kids are aged eight, six and two. “They’re all bi-lingual and the youngest, Coco, who’ll be three in March, speaks more French than English.”
There’s a family feel to Biarritz with the players and their families spending a lot of time in each other’s company away from the rugby field. “Our kids got to the same crèches and schools and we all try and meet twice a month for lunch somewhere,” explains Balshaw, who’s great mates with Imanol Harinordoquy.
The big man has had a rotten time of it of late, missing the first four months of the season with a knee injury. In that time Biarritz suffered six defeats on the bounce, a bewildering run of results considering they’d started the season in fine form, winning their first four matches in the Top 14. “Our inconsistency can get very frustrating,” admits Balshaw. “We have so much quality in the squad but we just need to find some stability and greater consistency. It’s hard to try and put a finger on why it is. It must be a mental thing but if we knew what exactly we could rectify it!”
Mathematically, Biarritz could still qualify for the last eight of the Heineken Cup but as befits a plain-talking Lancastrian, Balshaw isn’t expecting to be involved in the tournament beyond next week when the group stage concludes following defeats at Connacht and Harlequins.
“Our main focus now is finishing in the top six of the Top 14 (and qualifying for the play-offs),” he says. “We’re seventh at the moment and we’ll need to up our game in the second half of the season if we’re going to do it. I think the first four places are already sewn up so there’ll be four or five teams going for the remaining two spots.”
The Top 14 doesn’t pause for a breather during the Six Nations, but Balshaw will find time to sit down and watch England. The last few years have been barren ones for England back play but Balshaw believes coach Stuart Lancaster is now spoiled for choice with creative footballers.
He’s a particular fan of Alex Goode, the Saracens full-back, who wore the 15 shirt during the autumn internationals, but thinks he may be better deployed elsewhere. “Goode is one of those players who always seems to have time on the ball, and he’s got a spark about him. I wonder perhaps if he shouldn’t play 12 in a sort of Matt Catt/Will Greenwood role.”
Balshaw would give Ben Foden the full-back’s shirt for the Six Nations, and also play Mike Brown on the wing, and he’s delighted to see how Freddie Burns has kicked on since the days he knew him as a teenage prodigy at Gloucester.
Balshaw was himself once a teenage prodigy at Bath. Now he’s a grizzled veteran at Biarritz but he’s still full of running. It must be the sea air.
Follow Gavin Mortimer on Twitter @gavinmortimer7