Serge Blanco lets me know if I’m kicking too much says Iain Balshaw

Iain Balshaw in action for BiarritzWorld Cup winner Iain Balshaw knows all about instinctive rugby and would love England to show more of it.
We meet in Biarritz on France’s Basque coast. The weather’s warm; the drink cold and the surf’s up. Remind us ‘Balsh’ what first attracted you to the sun-kissed beaches of the South-West of France?
“I’m loving the lifestyle and more importantly so is my family. France is home; my wife Kate is now a surfer and the kids are at French school speaking the language,” said Balshaw, 33, embarking on his fourth season with Biarritz.
When Balshaw, a replacement in the 2003 World Cup final, left Gloucester for France in 2009, he was not turning his back on England, but accepted he’d had his time, disrupted by injury, in the national jersey.
He keeps one eye on England. “I would like to see more attacking initiative and intuitive skills at times, rather than sticking too rigidly to set plays,” said the Biarritz full-back.
The British Lion says the current England crop is exceptionally talented, with plenty of options at 15 in Ben Foden, Mike Brown and Alex Goode.
“It is important not to chop and change too much and England need to have settled on their squad at least two years out from the World Cup. It is so important to have playing time together, knowing each other’s movements and thought processes,” said Balshaw, who won the last of his 35 caps in 2008.
It was former England coach Brian Ashton who first discovered Balshaw as a Stonyhurst schoolboy in Lancashire.
“He had a panoramic view of a rugby field. His ability to read space, often at the last possible moment, was second to none,” said Ashton of his protégé.
In Biarritz they like their full-backs like that. A certain Serge Blanco, the club president, wasn’t bad at reading space and surging into it.
“Serge is obviously a legend here and really passionate about Biarritz. He’s quick to tell me if I am kicking the ball too much.”
Biarritz had a very poor Top 14, before salvaging their season and gaining a Heineken Cup place by defeating Toulon in the Amlin Challenge Cup final.
“Contrary to what some people think, the European Cup is huge in France and for Biarritz there is unfinished business. We know when we get it right we can mix it with the best in the world,” added Balshaw, who was in the Biarritz side who lost the 2010 Heineken Cup final to Toulouse.
They will be taking on the best in England with Premiership champions Harlequins in Biarritz’s pool.
“Quins play a lovely brand of rugby and are full of confidence. I played against Conor O’Shea, which shows my age, and he has worked wonders at the Stoop. Maybe we’ll get to take the tie across the Spanish border into San Sebastian again. The Basque atmosphere at Anoeta is off the scale.”
Balshaw knows all about passionate crowds from his days with Gloucester. “Playing in front of The Shed is unique. They are equally partisan here, but a little more reserved with their criticism.”
With Bath also on Balshaw’s CV he knows about Derby matches too, but Bath against Gloucester is a vicarage tea party compared to a Biarritz-Bayonne clash.
Heretically, Balshaw moved house from the Biarritz seafront to the Bayonne countryside. “Every time I give anybody in Biarritz my address, they give me that look.”  There is even a video of this great Basque rivalry simply called 4.769 km – the distance between the two clubs.
Balshaw has clearly immersed himself in France, endearing him to among others ‘Monsieur Basque’ Imanol Harinordoquy, the France No 8.
“Imanol wants you to embrace the culture. He is an inspirational leader and would pull anybody up if he sensed they were here on a jolly.”
Balshaw has been joined at the club this season by former Wasps prop Ben Broster and wing Aled Brew from the Dragons. “They are settling in well,” he says.
Balshaw is more than settled, with no plans to return to England yet.
“If I can keep in good shape why not play until I’m 36 and maybe stay in rugby after that. I might even be able to speak reasonable French by then.
“I see my name in L’Equipe and still have no idea if they are praising or criticising me!”
RUPERT BATES

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