Sunday 16th January, Eibar
OLAIZOLA II – BEGINO beat ARITZ LASA – MERINO II 22-15
At the start of the week, this match was anticipated as the first meeting, not only in the 2011 championship but for a long while, of the two great rival forwards, Aimar Olaizola and Juan Martinez de Irujo. When it was announced that Irujo had not recovered in time from his hand problem, many doubtless emitted sighs of disappointment. However, nobody who saw the display at Astelena on Sunday can have left feeling short changed, for the game was scintillating from first until last. Although the unbeaten pairing of Olaizola and Begino in the end had a gear in reserve, nobody expected replacement Lasa, and thrilling young talent David Merino to exert the pressure they did.
In their first two matches, Aritz Begino had been the match winner for the Asegarce partnership, wearing their opponents down with sheer accuracy and dominance from the back of the fronton. However, on Sunday the match winner was Aimar, who finished the game with not one single error to his name. Aritz Lasa, determined to show that he is more than a second choice forward, threw everything at Goizueta’s finest but Aimar was in domineering mood and heaped pressure upon pressure. Lasa pulled off some startling winners, none more strident than the whipped airez which gave him the opening point, but Aimar forced him to take risks, and errors accompanied the flashes of brilliance. Time and again, he sent the blue pair into freefall. On occasion, such as on 5-8, and again at 9-12, they escaped drowning with all or nothing defence, and many of the mid-match rallies were extremely evenly matched, to the extent that they seemed as if they would last for eternity. The points on 12-9 and 12-10, for example, were titanic in scale, the latter in particular, but from 14-16, at which point they were very much still in the game, the constant barrage heaped upon Lasa and Merino began to tell. Lasa blew an easy chance for a txoko winner, and all defiance crumbled, as Aimar called the shots. The point on 19-14, in which Lasa and Merino found themselves the wrong way round just as Begino found the rebote, was symptomatic of their inability to match the increased tempo of the reds. Lasa held a candle to Aimar in patches, but the latter was too intelligent, too astute, and too relentlessly accurate to emulate.
Despite the loss, plaudits rained on David Merino, who at 20 is drawing comparisons with the greatest left-handers of the age. He kept pace with the far more experienced Begino, drawing gasps with his ability to return the ball from the furthest and unlikeliest of places. The errors came as the pressure grew, but at the outset at least, it was the young Riojan who looked the most assured of the defenders. In the end, the two were fairly evenly matched, but Merino it is who is making the headlines, for his promise, his elegance and his fearlessness. He has come of age since the debacle of his opening match with Irujo, and it will be fascinating to see if he can continue in this spirit when his original partner returns.
Olaizola and Begino remain unbeaten, and alongside Xala and Barriola must have moved into favouritism for the championship win. They combine experience, consistency, brilliance, intelligence and coolness in equal measure, and will be hard to stop. Lasa and Merino demonstrated here that in individual points at least, they can be tested, but they were also unable to respond when the heat was turned up. The championship is but young and fortunes can change like the tide, but a clear marker has been laid by the aces of the Asegarce pack.
Scoring sequence: 0-3, 1-3, 1-4, 2-4, 2-5, 8-5, 8-6, 9-6, 9-8, 12-8, 12-10, 14-10, 14-11, 16-11, 16-14, 20-14, 20-15, 22-15.
Winners: Olaizola II 7, Begino 3, Aritz Lasa 8, Merino II 3
Errors: Olaizola II 0, Begino 4, Aritz Lasa 6, Merino II 5
Match time: 75.03 minutes, with 33.46 minutes of actual playing time
Balls played: 681
Image from Diario Vasco, by Jose Carlos Cordovilla