Friday 1st February, Zestoa: OLAIZOLA II – IBAI ZABALA beat ARRETXE II – BEGINO 22-6
Many questioned the wisdom of pairing the might of Aimar Olaizola with the inexperience of the untried Ibai Zabala, but thus far the experiment is working, mostly. The empresas made a conscious policy of picking pairs which would be evenly matched, thus creating close matches and greater excitement but at times, the dominance of Olaizola has been so great that he appears to all the world as if he could win entirely alone. This would, however, be to do Zabala a disservice for he has held his own at this level for the most part and has at times looked very solid indeed. It is too soon to tell whether they will have the staying power to go all the way, but on the strength of this showing they can be fairly optimistic. It is true that this year just as last, Arretxe and Begino are clearly the least potent of the couples, but they were destroyed here in no uncertain terms. They kept pace for a short period, Arretxe temporarily hitting with Aimar as an equal, but once the latter got his eye in there was no stopping him. This was as vintage a display of shot play as you are ever likely to see and there was nothing his opponent could do to stem the flow. Zabala played his part ably as Begino endured another bad day. Olaizola and Ibai Zabala move up to third in the table, with this their fourth win. Arretxe and Begino remain entrenched at the bottom with a solitary point. It is easy to forget that, not so long ago, Begino lifted the trophy with Olaizola. Times have changed.
Saturday 2nd February, Idiazabal: EZKURDIA – ZUBIETA beat BENGOETXEA VI – BEROIZ 22-11
Aitor Zubieta’s first match without the ousted Sebastien Gonzalez was a triumph. It was he who made the difference, dominating Beroiz at the back and giving Bengoetxea virtually nothing on a length from which he could hit a winner. When the opportunity did come his way, he proved unable to close the deal. Joseba Ezkurdia, miraculously recovered from what looked like a much more serious shoulder injury, stepped into the fray and looked as if he had always been there. He belied his tender years, and doubtless also allayed the fears of the Aspe bosses that they might have taken the wrong decision regarding Gonzalez. An Ezkurdia flop would have looked very bad indeed. However, it will take more than one golden match to resurrect the title hopes of this pair. With Gonzalez, Zubieta managed only a solitary win, over bottom pair Arretxe and Begino. They still languish in seventh but with a full rotation of matches still to be played, time is on their side. In the early days of the championship, Bengoetxea and Beroiz looked almost unbeatable and every inch the winners. However, as some other pairs have risen, their form appears slightly on the wane. They are still second in the table, with five wins and two losses, but both these defeats have come in the last two weeks. Their immediate future trajectory depends on whether Bengoetxea can keep Olaizola at bay when they clash on Friday at Labrit.
Saturday 2nd February, Pamplona: MARTINEZ DE IRUJO – ZABALETA beat JAUNARENA – BARRIOLA 22-13
Very much on the up are Juan Martinez de Irujo and Jose Javier Zabaleta. They have lost only one match so far, and that 21-22 (to Bengoetxea and Beroiz in week three), and look be growing in both confidence and flair. Attracting much of the praise is Zabaleta, new to this level of competition but taking to the big stage like a natural. It is easy to forget his tender years when one observes his command at the back of the fronton, and sensed the calmness in his demeanour. Aspe have clearly found a treasure, no matter what happens from this point on in the Pairs. Irujo, who has not had a great year by his standards, lagging dramatically behind Olaizola in the quest to be the best, appears galvanised by this new partnership. Jaunarena, another golden young talent here stepping in for Xala, proved easy pickings for Irujo on Saturday but will not be overawed; last week he clearly demonstrated his potential at this level. Barriola, so used to being in charge, could not unseat Zabaleta as the pair in red dominated every aspect of the game. They now sit top of the table in isolation while their opponents slip to sixth with two losses in the past two weekends. Xala will undergo a physical test on Friday to determine whether he can play in Tolosa on Saturdau against Ezkurdia and Zubieta.
Sunday 3rd February, Bilbao: BERASALUZE VIII – ALBISU beat TITIN III – MERINO II 22-9
The Pairs Championship is a slow burning affair. Some couples hit their stride right from the off, winning weekly with seeming total control. Others, such as Jon Ander Albisu and Pablo Berasaluze enter the tournament with high hopes but initially fail to fire. However, as long as any period of malaise is relatively contained, there is time to turn things around and there is a sense that recovery may be on the cards for Albisu and Berasaluze. They opened their account with four straight losses but have now won three in a row, lifting them from the base of the table up into fifth and right in contention for the semi-final places. This latest win was perhaps their most impressive; they flattened the defending champions 22-9 in Bilbao on Sunday, leaving the Riojans looking dejected and clueless as to how to come back. The commander in chief was undoubtedly Berasaluze, who looks to be back in the same kind of form he displayed in December. He hit winners for fun and totally dominated Titin who looked flat footed and stretched to his limits. David Merino, so often such a model of classical elegance at the back, for forced to scrap in order to lift himself out of the traps placed for him by a masterful Albisu, who was clearly the better of the defenders. So petulant was Merino’s body language by the end that he appeared broken in both body and soul. And so, Titin and Merino’s up and down title defence continues. They still sit fourth, holding onto the final qualifying spot narrowly, but there is still far to go.
In the Promocion Championship, Gorka and Cecilio took command at the top with a 22-6 win over Lemuno and Aretxabaleta. Elsewhere, Urrutikoetxea (replacing Tainta) and Ladis Galarza beat Mendizabal III and Merino I 22-14, Elezkano II and Mendizabal II (standing in for Larunbe) beat Olazabal and Arruti 22-18 and Apezetxea and Larrinaga squeezed past Rico IV and Untoria 22-21. For the full Promocion table, see here and for results and fixtures, here.