CASTRES, FRANCE – Toulouse moved to the top of the table with a 13-12 home win over Toulon that – literally and figuratively – was a game of two halves.
It looked for all the world after the first 40 minutes that it was going to be a tough day at the office for the Ernest Wallon faithful.
Old boy Freddie Michalak had kicked the visitors to a 0-12 first-half lead, and three home kickers had missed relatively straightforward penalty kicks as the hosts demonstrated an unusual and bizarre reluctance to go for goal.
If Guy Noves could bottle whatever it was he said to his down-and-out Toulouse team at halftime, he’d be richer than Bill Gates. Whatever it was, it worked.
Two early penalties in the second period cut the deficit to six points before – with nine minutes left – some brilliant work at the breakdown gifted the hosts a turnover on Toulon’s 22 and slick passing sent scrum-half Jano Vermaak over wide on the left.
That touchdown made the score 11-12, but Toulouse’s kicking problems meant the conversion attempt was no formality. The home fans need not have worried. Replacement Jean-Marc Doussain made no mistake.
The game, however, was far from over. There was just a point in it. There were still eight minutes to go. And Michalak had been replaced by Jonny Wilkinson.
The Englishman would have three shots at goal. The first, with 73 minutes on the clock, was a difficult penalty chance from wide out on the left. It slid across the face of the goal. A second penalty, three minutes later was closer and straighter. It drifted wide.
The third, after the hooter sounded, was a nightmare repeat of the 2003 World Cup final.
Toulon’s forwards had pounded into the host’s 22. They had made sure they were pretty much in front of the posts. Wilkinson was perfectly placed. Sebastien Tillous-Borde flicked out a perfect pass. Wilkinson had all the time in the world. No Toulouse man could get close. He set himself. He swung that reliable left foot. The ball sailed straight and true… a couple of metres wide of the posts.
It was Toulon’s third defeat in as many games on the road – and it was a performance won’t have done anything to cool the temper of director of rugby Bernard Laporte. In the aftermath of their Heineken Cup defeat at Cardiff Blues, he branded the stars in his charge ‘pathetic’.
Racing Metro and Stade Francais renewed France’s oldest sporting rivalry in the weekend’s other big Top 14 match.
Not that this error-strewn encounter at Stade de France was a fitting tribute to a fixture dating back to 1891. Neither side seemed interested in holding on to the ball for any length of time, as knock-on after knock-on ruined the referee’s desire to let the game flow.
It all started so well, as Racing’s Luc Ducalcon barged over Stade’s line to score after just three minutes. It was fitting reward for a near-perfect start for the ciel-et-bleu, who thought they had crossed the line a minute earlier – only for the TV referee to spot that Marc Andreu’s foot was in touch just before he put the ball down in the corner.
It all went downhill from there. Racing won 16-12, but that’s pretty much all there is to say about the 77 dull, mistake-ridden minutes between the try and the final whistle that neither the players or the fans will get back.
Castres also scored early as they destroyed Biarritz 39-0 at Pierre Antoine. Winger Geoffrey Palis raced over with barely a minute on the clock.
Two more tries in the opening 40 minutes, courtesy of Romain Cabannes and scrum rock Karena Wihongi ended the game as a contest, but Castres scored twice more courtesy of Brice Dulin and Daniel Kirkpatrick before the clock had ticked past the hour.
The Basque side are now nine points adrift at the bottom of the Top 14. It will take an escape of epic proportions for them not to be playing ProD2 rugby next season.
Oyonnax had joined them in the relegation zone even before they lost 23-10 at Grenoble. The home side were 16-3 to the good at halftime, thanks to a penalty try, and despite a brief Oyonnax fightback early in the second period, the result was never really in doubt – with Fabien Alexandre adding the game’s final punctuation on the hour.
The side from the plastic city in the shadow of the Jura mountains had slipped into the bottom two on Friday night, as a Bayonne beat high-flying Montpellier 24-19 at Stade Jean Dauger to move out of the Top 14’s danger zone.
The hosts had Martin Bustos-Moyano to thank for their win. He scored a try, four penalties and a conversion to make sure the hosts picked up a crucial win. It was a result the hosts desperately needed after a difficult week that saw Welsh scrum-half Mike Phillips suspended. He was sacked on Monday.
Ironically, despite their defeat, Montpellier briefly moved top of the table thanks to their losing bonus point. But their Top 14 reign lasted less than 24 hours. They were overhauled when Toulouse beat Toulon.
Eight penalties and a conversion from James Hook helped Perpignan move up to fifth in the Top 14 as they beat Bordeaux 31-20 at Stade Aime Giral. It was 12-12 at halftime, but Sofian Guitoune’s try and Hook’s unerring boot ensured the hosts pulled away in the second period.
Brive, meanwhile, gave Clermont a serious scare – and, with seven minutes to go, were still in with a major shout of ending the home side’s proud winning streak at Stade Marcel Michelin.
In fact, with 15 minutes left, the visitors were actually three points ahead, but Naipolioni Nalaga’s converted try and two late Brock James penalties helped the hosts pull away from a sphincter-clenching 30-29 scoreline to a rather more respectable 36-29 result.
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