France look to Basque prodigy
By Brendan Gallagher in Paris
Last Updated: 7:35PM GMT 27 Feb 2002
PICK UP a programme for France's game with England on Saturday and you'll read that Imanol Harinordoquy - don't worry he's going to be around for years, you'll get used to the name - hails from St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees. That is not a place name the young man himself would recognise, however. Harinordoquy is a proud French Basque and has always known the town of his youth as Garazi. He has no wish to be awkward but these things matter.
Just 22, he has already made French rugby history in a minor sort of way. He is the first in a long line of distinguished French internationals to keep his Basque Christian name into adult life. Imanol is common enough among Basques either side of the French-Spanish border - many of Harinordoquy's generation being named after the famous Basque singer-storyteller Bertsolaritza, known simply as Imanol.
Harinordoquy, who made an impressive debut against Wales two weeks ago, is the current flag-bearer for Basque rugby. It is a role he takes seriously. Before him there was the enigmatic Jean Dauger, who is generally credited with encouraging and inspiring French flair and improvisation behind the scrum. Alas he was mistrusted by the selectors and won only three caps. An early Stuart Barnes perhaps.
Then there were the teak-tough forwards, characters you did not mess around with. Pierre Dospital, the mighty prop known as Peyo who always led the post-match singing with his Basque ballads, the menacing Pascal Ondarts and powerful hooker Jean-Marie Gonzales.
On Saturday Harinordoquy lines-up alongside Olivier Magne and Serge Betsen in the French back row for the biggest day of his life. He'll look up into the stands to try to locate the 30 or so members of his family who are making the trip, but there will be no visible evidence of his Basque heritage, no brandishing of flags or slogans.
"It's there in my heart, that's all that matters," Harinordoquy said. "I am French and Basque. There is no conflict, I am proud of both."
Like the vast majority of French Basques he has no time for Euskadia eta Askatasuna (ETA) who fight for an independent Basque nation: "I have friends who are involved in the political side of things but that is not for me. My only interest is the culture, the Euskera language, the people, our history and ways."
So you can be different without being subversive, a message that rugby has always epitomised. Protestant and Catholic played for Ireland right through the Troubles. Harinordoquy has already made his mark on the French squad: English speaking, entertaining, laid back, mature beyond his years, sure-fire captaincy material, he embraces the old Basque proverb: Hil arteraino bizi, han arte ez izi, or live until you die and until then don't panic.
Above all he is a formidable rugby talent. After a youth spent dabbling in the traditional Basque sports of pelote and pala, he took to rugby only at the age of 14 when he joined Pau. His progress since then has been swift, and he captained France Juniors and France Under-21 before making his France A debut against Italy last month. Quick enough to shine at open-side flanker against the Welsh, he feels more at home at No 8 where his long-term future probably lies. Along with his powerful club colleague, Damien Traille, he is the brightest of French prospects.
Since first appearing for Pau in the French Championship as an 18-year-old it has been just a matter of time before he broke into the France team.
"Imanol is a tremendous talent," Magne said. "He has pace, strength and aggression. He also has very useful line-out capacity and a good attitude, he takes pleasure from the game. He could become a very great France player indeed."
Funny, the article contains a cheap shot at Basque nationalism. What else could we expect.