Sunday 12th February, Bilbao
TITIN III – MERINO II beat MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – BARRIOLA 22-18
Bizkaia was treated to a hard and tense encounter on Sunday afternoon, as Titin and Merino took over an hour and twenty three minutes to overcome their more favoured rivals with a combination of fervour and resolve. The Riojans made as clear as case as they have so far for a place among the top four as they took their fifth point, putting them third and level on points with Irujo and Barriola in second.
Irujo dominated the early play, making his presence known right from the gun with a forceful txoko winner. Titin ran and reached for everything his rival threw at him, but despite reading him well was often found wanting when it came to finishing points off or salvaging them. Irujo showed greater capacity for controlling the positioning of his opposition as he demonstrated neatly on 1-3 and 1-4, producing near identical plays in which he trapped the Riojans forward before planting the ball over their heads. Merino’s classy long range hitting helped to keep the reds in touch, but it looked like they would struggle to bridge the gap.
However, three errors on the bounce from Irujo rather changed the complexion of the encounter; not only was Irujo fallible but the formerly trailing pair now found themselves level at 6-6. This was the time for the reds to capitalise but alas they failed to do so and the game moved into a phase characterised by both brilliance and mistakes. Irujo took his pair ahead at 7-8 with a spectacular gantxo and followed this in the next point with nonchalant drop into space but the next nine points saw a catalogue of errors from all four. Despite Merino’s first two errors in the game and a fluffed volley from Titin, the Riojan pair came out of this passage the better as Irujo reinforced his ability to do all the hard work before missing the easy drop. Barriola, who had at times struggled to match his less experienced counterpart Merino, needed to steady the ship with his usual metronomic calm but was found wanting. When Titin whipped one cross court it was 13-13, and he strode into the lead with a ganxto/drop routine in the next play.
Little separated the partnerships as they reached the endgame; they found themselves tied on fourteen, fifteen and sixteen. However, a wide ball from Irujo on 16-16 opened the gate for Titin and Merino and the veteran forward took his chance with aplomb, producing inspired shots to take it to 18-16. Even the two errors committed by Merino could not change the momentum now, as Irujo and Barriola both slipped up to allow a Riojan victory by three points.
At the start of the game, it was hard to imagine that the eventual winners would find a way to hang onto the coat tails of Irujo and Barriola, but hang on they did, and more. Neither forward had a stellar game, but Irujo’s significant error count was extremely costly. Merino, growing in stature by the month, looked the more reliable of the backs despite problems with his hands. He will miss the next game in a bid to recover for a final push to the line and will be replaced by his older brother Miguel. This enforced rest is the one downer for the winning pair, whose confidence must now be sky high. Irujo and Barriola, who once sat proudly atop the table, have sunk since their defeat to the unbeaten Olaizola II and Beroiz. This loss is another setback and is bound to affect them mentally, but despite the masses closing in from behind they are still in a position of strength. They can and will move on.
Scoring sequence: 0-2, 1-2, 1-5, 3-5, 3-6, 6-6, 6-7, 7-7, 7-11, 9-11, 9-13, 14-13, 14-15, 16-15, 16-16, 19-16, 19-17, 20-17, 20-19, 22-19
Winners/errors: Titin 7/4, Irujo 11/10, Merino 1/4, Barriola 0/4
Match time: 83 minutes with 36 minutes of actual play
Balls hit: 797