Sunday 15th February
Atano III, San Sebastian
MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – GONI III beat OLAIZOLA II – ZEARRA 22-8
This was supposed to be an epic. Juan Martinez de Irujo and Aimar Olaizola are two of the greatest exponents of forward play we have seen in many years and as befits their status, they have a long and turbulent rivaly, tinged with huge respect. The last time these starry pelotaris met at Atano III, Olaizola took home the Cuatro y Medio crown at the expense of Irujo in a match which dominated the sporting media, eager to delve into the characters of the finalists. Irujo is known as an often erratic genius, one day barnstormingly brilliant, the next error ridden and off colour. In contrast, Aimar is frequently summarised as the great tactician, calculating and brutal, and cool as the proverbial cucumber. Which Irujo would we see today, and would Aimar be able to out-think him? A sell out crowd could hardly wait for the answer, but the match which promised so much turned out to be a one sided showcase for Irujo.
The forward from Ibero was simply stunning. From the off, the front half of the fronton was his territory and his alone as the winners came thick and fast. Three breathtaking gantxo winners left the Asegarce pair stranded and impotent and he employed the drop shot with impunity, manouvering his opponents with seeming ease to create a mouthwateringly open court for his purposes. He did not commit an error until the score stood at 9-2 in his favour. Two more errors were to follow but by then it barely mattered; the crucial point was all but in the bag.
And what of the usually great Olaizola II? A combination of factors led to his downfall, the first being that Irujo was so well and truly on song that he never allowed the Goizuetan to find his stride. For Aimar throughout his career, txapelas have seemingly grown on trees and he managed to show a few glimpses of his pedigree with three textbook crosscourt winners, but otherwise, things never went his way. On a day when the brilliant Irujo rather than the erratic one came to the party, he made too many errors to compete; his bad day conincided with his opponent’s superlative one. Olaizola may have the excuse of an abdominal problem, stories of which were doing the rounds before the match. Although there was no obvious sign of pain, he did look ill at ease and maybe this was due to more than just Irujo’s onslaught. Irujo seemed to indicate that he did not appear quite right in his post match interview, but whatever the reason, Olaizola will need to put today behind him and concentrate on next weekend, remembering the great player that he is.
The battle of the defenders was not quite so crucial but still played its part. Oier Mendizabal was replaced by Oier Zearra owing to a problem with his right hand. Commentators assumed that the absence of his usual partner would be Aimar’s major worry, but in truth, Zearra played well enough. His performance was solid at times but he did make errors, notably from the back where he was tested purposely by the Aspe pair. Goni III was the better of the two, providing an excellent and dependable foil for the attacking might of Irujo.
Next weekend will be a nailbiter for both pairs. Olaizola and Zearra, top of the standings after last week, would have had one foot in the semi finals had they pulled off a win here but they now join the plethora of pairs on four points and will almost certainly need to beat Barriola and Gonzalez next week, the only potentially saving grace being their points difference. If Irujo and Goni had lost tonight, they would have had a monumental struggle on their hands to qualify. As it is, they have given themselves the best possible chance; they lie top for the moment, level on points with Olaizola’s pair. In this topsy turvy tournament, what may happen next weekend is anybody’s guess.
Scoring sequence: 0-1, 1-1, 9-1, 9-2, 9-5, 10-5, 15-5, 15-6, 19-6, 19-7, 19-8 and 22-8