Friday 30th January
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO/GONI III beat OLAIZOLA I/PATXI RUIZ 22-8
This has been a horrible tournament for Asier Olaizola and Patxi Ruiz. Coming into this match they had three losses to their names and one solitary win which they managed simply because their opponents were even worse than they were. This may seem harsh but one might have expected more from this Asegarce pair who have clear championship pedigree: Olaizola is a former pairs champion, albeit ten years ago, and Patxi has a manomanista title to his name, but despite these seeming stamps of quality they have looked disorganised, ill at ease and out of sorts. What would it take to lift them? Their supporters were surely hoping that this match would give them some form of home advantage; Patxi Ruiz was born in Estella and clearly, judging by some vociferous chanting of his name, he still has his fans in the Navarrese town. But if a homecoming victory were to be enacted, Juan Martinez de Irujo had clearly not read the script.
Honours appeared even in the first two points. Irujo tested Patxi by hitting long but in contrast to previous weeks, the local boy seemed solid despite eventually ceding the point when he found himself too far forward. In the next play, Irujo missed a wide open space and an obvious winner to tie the game. Would this most mercurial of pelotaris have another off-night? The answer was unequivocally in the negative. Irujo ruled the front half of the playing area and suffered nobody to encroach on his territory. He served superbly and swiped the ball in all conceivable directions throughout the encounter, hitting with such arm swinging force that one almost feared for his shoulder. Whether slinging the ball into the corner and sending Patxi skidding on his front in a hapless dive or repeatedly whipping it past Olaizola at an impossible angle, Irujo ran rings around his adversaries. It would be unfair to say that Olaizola was bad; he did prove able to beat Irujo at his own game with a stinging gantxo of his own and in many of the long points which characterised the middle section of the game appeared to be a match for him, but he did not seem capable of shutting him down or outmanouvering him. He also made significantly more errors than his opponent, and often at extremely unfortunate moments; instead of making the Aspe pair fight for the final few points, two Olaizola misses made a present of the win.
Aspe also held all the aces in the defensive play, where Fernando Goni was simply stunning. His long range hitting was so accurate and powerful that he had a nonchalant answer to everything Asier and Patxi could throw at him. After Irujo’s opening salvo, kudos must be given to the Asegarce pair for their change in tactics. Realising that they needed to nullify the Aspe forward, they began hitting long to pressurise Goni, a similar ploy to that adopted by Xala and Laskurain in their recent defeat of the defending champions. However, whereas Oier Mendizabal succumbed to the pressure, Goni continued in his role as human metronome and returned everything that came his way, with interest. Asier and Patxi won two mammoth points in a row during this passage of play, but as a consequence of hard work and determination rather than any mistake from Goni. They looked elated to have troubled the scoreboard but the effort it had taken must have registered in their minds. In contrast, the Aspe pair won points almost at will.
Patxi Ruiz was not in the same league as Goni, although he played rather better than in recent weeks. As the game proceeded, more and more of his long balls bounced short. He did show quite some determination, notably with the score at 2-5 against him when he returned two seemingly impossible balls to the delight of the crowd but ultimately, the consistency was lacking. In the face of Irujo, it was no wonder that he succumbed to demoralisation and it was thanks to him that the game went out with a whimper; his half-hearted effort to retrieve a ball hit down the wall betrayed a man who knew he was beaten.
So, Estella’s own could not stop the rot and he and Olaizola remain firmly rooted at the bottom of the table. Meanwhile, given the scale of this victory, Irujo and Goni are now primed to climb higher. They will have to wait for this weekend’s remaining matches to see whether this will become reality, but if Irujo continues in this vein, the sky could well be the limit.