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Saturday interview: Iain happy to fly the England flag
BLACKBURN-born Iain Balshaw was among the first wave of English players to cross the channel and ply their trade in France.
In the five years since, the World Cup winner has fully adopted the French way of life in Biarritz – the club he joined from Gloucester back in 2009.
But come this evening, the 34-year-old – known as Le Roast Boeuf to his team-mates – will revert to the Englishman abroad when England kick off their Six Nations campaign in the Stade de France.
“I love the way of life in France but I am English and will be cheering England on,” said the former Stonyhurst College pupil who will be a pundit in Paris.
“There is plenty of banter flying about among the players and you know when the Six Nations is back because they roll out the Le Roast Boeuf nickname.”
Balshaw, like Jonny Wilkinson, has been one of the more successful of England’s exports, out-lasting the likes of James Haskell and Riki Flutey who made the move around the same time.
He helped Biarritz reach the Heineken Cup final in 2010 – which they lost to Toulouse – and is a firm favourite with the fans at the Basque club.
“When we moved here, we were told to embrace the culture and the way of life and that is exactly what we have done,” added Balshaw, who came on as an extra time replacement in that epic 20-17 World Cup final win over Australia in 2003.
“My three children are all fluent French speakers and I do my best to speak the language too.
“I always wanted to come out here because I wanted my children to learn another language and another way of life.
“Of course there were the financial advantages for me to come but that was not the only reason.”
Understandably, there is little Balshaw misses from life in East Lancashire, apart from family, friends and baby-sitters.
“In the summer months, the kids finish school and we can go down to the beach and go swimming or surfing. We can also pop over the border to Spain as well.
“As much as I love East Lancashire, you can’t really do that!”
But Balshaw has fond memories of life in the North West where his mum Margaret used to be a switchboard operator at the Lancashire Telegraph while his dad Fred, who died five years ago, was a caretaker at St Mary’s Prep School.
“I still have a friends and family in the area and I am in contact with them via email and phone calls,” said Balshaw who also went to St Mary’s Prep School.
“But I don’t get back as much as I can, mainly because of me playing rugby and the kids being in school.
“But I was born in Blackburn and it is a place I still a hold close to my heart. Apart from not seeing my family, the thing I miss most is not having relatives to call on for baby-sitting duties!”
Balshaw is eagerly awaiting this evening’s clash which he thinks could go along way in determining who will the Six Nations.
And for him, it is a return to the ground where he made his first England appearance on foreign soil at the inaugural Six Nations in 2000.
And the passion and rivalry is something he cherishes and misses.
“For me, there is no tournament in the world like the Six Nations,” said the former Bath and Leeds Carnegie star.
“The history, the passion, the intense rivalry between the teams is something you just can’t beat.
“I remember playing in that game against France and it is something I will never forget.
“It is something I really miss.”
He believes this year’s tournament is too close to call.
“It will come down to the smallest of margins,” he said.
“There are no stand-out favourites and it could come down to the team that manages to sneak an away win.
“The Six Nations is all about momentum so England playing in France on the opening weekend is massive.
“If they can nick a win, they could go on a win it. But then you have to throw Wales and Ireland in to the mix as well. It is far too close to call.”
Balshaw has plenty of happy memories off the pitch as well as on it – a notable one being best man at a ‘Royal Wedding’ when his former Gloucester and England team-mate Mike Tindall tied the knot with Zara Phillips, daughter of Princess Anne.
“That was fun,” he recalls. “Especially when it came down to the speech!”
Balshaw is currently side-lined with a knee injury which has kept him out of action for the last 10 months.
He said: “It has been very frustrating. I picked up a knee ligament injury but there was some complications which has kept me out a lot longer than I thought.
“It has been a very slow recovery process but the key is not to rush back.”
The full back, now in the twilight of his career, has no plans to rush back to England either.
“Whatever happens, I am at Biarritz for the next two years but I would love to stay in France, either playing or in some sort of coaching capacity. I am settled here and so is my family.”
So for the foreseeable future, Balshaw, the Englishman abroad, will remain Le Roast Boeuf.
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