CASTRES, FRANCE – The final weekend of the Top 14 season before the European break was one that went – mostly – as expected. But two results defied expectation… and, in one case, explanation.
No surprises at Parc des Sports Aguilera. Bottom-of-the-table Biarritz played like a side that has forgotten what winning is like as they lost 12-16. They could – and arguably should – have beaten Perpignan in a battle of attrition, but they are so lacking in confidence that they seem not to know what to do when they find themselves in a strong attacking position.
Perpignan did not play particularly well. They will be the first to admit it. But, the league table depends on results and an ugly win is still four points in the bag. Biarritz at least picked up a bonus point to close the gap on 13th-placed Bayonne to a mere eight points.
Toulon and Clermont made a complete mess of the Allianz Riviera’s new and no doubt expensively laid pitch. A near-capacity crowd at the 35,000-seat stadium in Nice saw the 2013 European Cup finalists – figuratively and literally – rip up the turf.
Clermont must have felt history repeating itself. They enjoyed more of the possession and territory, yet they struggled to turn that advantage into points. Toulon, on the other hand looked dangerous whenever they had the ball in hand. But the big difference between the two sides was in the kicking. Brock James, usually so reliable, missed four out of nine shots at goal, while Matt Giteau was Mr Perfection as he stood in at fly-half for Jonny Wilkinson.
Toulouse, meanwhile, maintained their perfect bonus-point winning record at Ernest Wallon with what turned out to be an easy 28-10 victory over Stade Francais.
The visitors gave Sergio Parisse a week off and left Julien Dupuy on the bench, while Luke McAlister was back in the starting line-up for Toulouse.
And the hosts ripped open the Stade defence time after time, with winger Yuann Huget scoring three tries and Hosea Gear also crossing the line.
The only possible consolation for Stade was that their 10 points was the most scored by any visiting side at Ernest Wallon so far this season.
If Toulouse ever manage to recreate their home form on the road, they will be unstoppable.
Montpellier did their bit, too – and moved to the top of the table in the process. They made sure Oyonnax, fresh from their victory over Toulon, did not get too big for their boots by condeming them to a 45-20 defeat.
Coach Fabien Galthie gave Jonathan Pelissie a week off, allowing Benoit Paillaugue a chance to stake a claim for the number nine starting spot. He didn’t disappoint, either, scoring a try, a penalty and six conversions, and directing operations from the back of the pack.
Bordeaux made light work of Bayonne as they picked up a three-try bonus-point win at Stade Andre Moga.
Pierre Barnard also landed five penalties and converted two of the tries as they racked up 34 points. Bayonne’s Martin Bustos Moyano could only score two penalties in reply.
Grenoble, however, defied expectation to win their second game on the road. Two weeks ago they beat Biarritz at Parc des Sports Aguilera – but that’s no great surprise. This weekend the Top 14’s most ill-disciplined side were at league goody-two-shoes Racing Metro’s Yves du Manoir.
If Grenoble know anything, it’s how to battle for 80 minutes. Which is just what they did, with replacement Valentin Courrent kicking the penalty that took the scores to 20-22 in their favour in the 79th minute.
And what happened at Brive almost defies description.
You could claim it was one of those days, when everything went the home team’s way.
You could claim that Castres were fielding a weakened side – after all Rory Kockott, Remy Tales, Brice Dulin and Richie Gray were not in the reigning Top 14 champions’ starting line-up.
You could claim the visitors did not get the rub of the refereeing decisions.
You could even argue that Castres have not won on the road this season, and that Brive have not lost at home since January.
But none of those ‘reasons’ goes more than part of the way to explaining the 34-0 scoreline. It was all over as a contest in the first half-hour, when Brive crossed the line three times. They rubbed salt into Castres’ gaping wound four minutes into the second period by doing the same thing one more time.
Please let us know what you think about this weekend’s Top 14 matches… and do look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @: RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, DJ Eberle, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Cody Kuxmann and Declan Yeats, respectively.