CASTRES, FRANCE – The midweek second third of the bonkers nine-day trilogy of matches for all sides in the French Top 14 produced an astonishing 41 tries and some monster scores.
There was no repeat of that tryfest in the final instalment on Sunday, as exhausted players heaved their battered bodies around glutinous, rain-sodden pitches up and down France one more time, praying that their aching limbs would hold up long enough for them to crawl into the ice bath at the end of the match, close their eyes and look forward to a blissful five days on the physio’s table before they have to do it all again.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to talk about – with Toulouse failing to register a point at Montpellier, Clermont coming down to earth with a bump at Stade, Oyonnax maintaining their perfect home record in the Top 14, and Biarritz now in deep trouble.
Toulouse coach Guy Noves has plenty to do in the next few weeks if his side are to recover from a third defeat in five games. On the plus side, three of their next four matches – against Biarritz, Castres, and Stade Francais are at home, where they have picked up their two wins of the season so far. That will be a crumb of comfort after they left Montpellier on Sunday afternoon without troubling the scoreboard – and with the embarrassment of a second-half try-conceding mix-up in the in-goal area between should-know-better French internationls Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard, after the home side’s slippery scrum half Jonathan Pelissie had opened the scoring on the half-hour. It was the Herault side’s third victory in this tough nine-day three-match stretch and, such was the quality of his team’s performance, that Montpellier coach Fabien Galthie even threatened to break into a smile when he thought the TV cameras weren’t looking his way.
Any concerns Guy Noves may have are nothing compared to those of the coaches and players at the side they face next at Ernest Wallon, Biarritz. The Basque side slumped to their fourth defeat in five games and are languishing at the bottom of the Top 14 table, already three points adrift of 13th-place Brive. To be fair, they managed to give Toulon a run for their money for about an hour on Sunday – but bravery in defeat does not win league points, and the big-spending side from Var had more than enough in reserve to pull away in the final 20, even without Jonny Wilkinson, who was substituted early in the second period following a knock.
Wednesday was close to the best of days for Clermont, when they pummelled Bordeaux 55-0 at Marcel Michelin. While nowhere near their worst day, Sunday’s 23-16 defeat at Stade Francais must have been a harsh wake-up call. It’s not as if they can blame the weather, either. Paris enjoyed the best of the French weather and the ground underfoot was pretty firm, so Brock James’s trio of missed penalties can’t be blamed on the conditions. The fact is, they were outplayed, outfought and out-thought for 80 minutes by a Stade side led from the front by a rejuvenated and never-less-than fearsome Sergio Parisse.
Racing Metro also enjoyed some late French summer sun – not that you’d know it, as they limped to a 19-16 home win over Perpignan. The visitors gave usual boot boy James Hook a rest by naming him among the replacements. It might have been a bit of a mistake as the game quickly turned into a predicted battle of the boot. Jonny Sexton is starting to repay his new club handsomely – he scored 14 of his side’s points – while Tommaso Allen notched up 12 of his side’s 16.
That all-conquering red kit worked again for Oyonnax, as they recorded a 19-9 win over Castres. Rain and the referee helped them along the way, but there’s no doubt the Top 14’s new boys deserved their win. The hosts were never behind, but the result was a long way from certain until the 78th minute when full back Silvere Tian made the most of increasingly desperate Castres passing to run in an interception try – his third in two games. Oyonnax are on the road next weekend, but return to Stade Charles Mathon a week later to face Stade Francais. They have every right to fancy their chances against anyone at home.
Meanwhile, seven successful penalties helped Grenoble to a 21-14 home win over Bordeaux – who, like Perpignan, gave usual kicker Pierre Barnard a break. It wasn’t pretty, but it was effective, and it moves the Isere up into sixth place, behind Oyonnax – and ahead of Castres – on points difference.
Brive have made things a little bit easier for themselves with a 17-10 victory on home turf against Bayonne. They’re still stuck in 13th, but – unlike bottom club Biarritz – they have not let the rest of the Top 14 get away from them. They’re only a point behind Bayonne in 12th, and only three away from Oyonnax in sixth.