Top 14
French giants plunged into crisis
Martin Gillingham
October 8, 2013
Biarritz have suffered a shambolic start to the season © Getty Images

The name of the local airport rather gives away their proximity to one another: Biarritz-Anglet-Bayonne. Fly in from the west and moments before touchdown the green acres of Parcs des Sports Aguilera, home of Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque, appear below and to the left. Meanwhile, if you take off from the same runaway towards the east, moments after the wheels have lost touch with the tarmac it's the grey concrete fa├žade of Bayonne's Stade Jean Dauger which looms large in the viewfinder.

Anglet is the only one of the three communes which doesn't give its name to a Top 14 club though, if things continue as they are, it's something all three will have in common come the end of May.

Bayonne are in 13th place with three wins from nine matches (16 points) with the only side beneath them Biarritz who have won just once and have eight points. It's all looking a bit grim in the south-west corner of south-west France.

With a recent history of off-field shenanigans Aviron Bayonnais come across as a basket case but when it comes to dodging relegation bullets they have form.

Their most recent close call was two seasons ago when Didier Faugeron was the unlikely hero. In January 2012 - and with Bayonne seemingly destined for Pro D2 - he became the club's third head coach of the season. Expectations were low. So much so that when Faugeron took the job it was on a temporary deal; his successor had already been signed up to start in June. Yet what Faugeron achieved in a little over three months bordered on the miraculous - five wins and a draw from 11 games. It saved Bayonne their Top 14 status and Faugeron left the following day.

By a quirk of fate or, more accurately, the sacking of Biarritz duo Jack Isaac and Serge Milhas, Faugeron's powers of resuscitation have, once again, being called upon. But this time the patient is graver and the prognosis hopeless.

Faugeron succeeded Isaac and Milhas in December last year, defeat at a dog track (Connacht's Sportsground) condemning the pair to four days in the dog house followed by the sack. President Serge Blanco's decision to dismiss the coaches had been prompted by not only certain elimination at the pool stages of the Heineken Cup but also the prospect of a second straight Top 14 campaign without play-off qualification.

Ten months on, a 12th place league finish would be worthy of celebration.

Biarritz have lost their last seven matches - three of them at home - and even if we grant them victories in their two remaining home games of 2013 (against Racing Metro and Bordeaux-Begles) it's highly likely they will go into 2014 in 14th place and with just 11 games to save their skins.

"Recently, when one Bayonne player switched his allegiance to Biarritz his family's doctor told him they were no longer welcome at his practice"

No other club has won more French titles in the last 12 seasons than Biarritz's three. At the same time they have coveted success in Europe: twice beaten finalists in the Heineken Cup (2006 and '10) and Challenge Cup winners in 2012.

Has there been a sharper and more dramatic decline in the professional era?

The answer is probably "no" though that's not to say Biarritz's predicament comes as a shock. You may recall that in this column two months ago I predicted Biarritz to be among four sides scrapping to avoid the drop.

Biarritz have depended too much on a handful of individuals who are now ageing and more prone to injury. Imanal Harinordoquy, 33, Dimitri Yachvili, 33, and Damien Traille, 34, are all in the twilight of their careers and the club has no obvious succession plan. Promising talents such as Fabien Barcella and Rafael Lakafia remain unfulfilled while the likes of Wenceslas Lauret and Jean-Pascal Barraque have sought their fortunes elsewhere.

Then there's the elephant in the room: the fly-half problem. Julien Peyrelongue, who earned six caps for France almost a decade ago and is now in his 13th season at the club is the fall-back option. It seems that every summer a new 10 arrives only to fail and be released. The former Crusader Matt Berquist was last year's false prophet. This season another New Zealander is being tried out, Dan Waenga.

Off the pitch, the commercial growth of the game in France has changed the landscape. The bigger numbers involved suite more the big cities and those closely associated with powerful corporates (Toulouse and Clermont) while the emergence of even more flamboyant and fanatical owners (Jacky Lorenzetti and Mourad Boudjellal) has taken individuals' investment into a new league.

The understated wealth of more established men (Serge Kampf and Pierre Fabre who died in July) is being dwarfed and is seeing small town clubs like Biarritz and Castres left behind. Remi Tales lifted the Shield in Paris last summer but it's hard to imagine a club of the scale of Castres or Biarritz doing it again without significantly greater investment or reinvention. An overall annual budget of 20 million euros is the bare minimum these days.

A merger involving the two Basque clubs is mooted from time to time but given the enmity between the clubs - recently, when one Bayonne player switched his allegiance to Biarritz his family's doctor told him they were no longer welcome at his practice - it's hard to see it happening unless one of the two clubs falls so far that it becomes more a takeover rather than a pooling of similar or equal resources.

On the plus side for Biarritz, Serge Kampf's Capgemini logo still shines brightly across the white and red jersey while the multi-millionaire's passion for the game and club he has helped bankroll for years continues to burn a hole in his pocket. Just this summer he wrote a personal cheque for 2 million euros just to keep the league's financial watchdog, the DNACG, off the club's back so that they could take their place on the Top 14 start line in August.

Two months later, it's a race in which Biarritz find themselves last and just a couple more setbacks away from being well and truly tailed off. Pro D2 beckons.

Biarritz president Serge Blanco has had little to smile about recently © Getty Images
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