CASTRES, FRANCE – Any concerns that the Top 14’s two-week break would hit bottom-of-the-table Biarritz harder than most clubs in France’s top flight were laid to rest as they won their third match of the season at the weekend. It was also their second victory in a row, and their first away from home.
The Basque Country side’s 14-9 win at Brive brought the hosts’ five-match winning streak at Stade Amadee Domenech to a shuddering halt. Damien Traille’s 21st-minute touchdown laid the groundwork for a victory that has closed the gap to 13th-placed Oyonnax to just five points – aka a bonus-point win.
That win will stand them in good stead for next week’s match against 11th-placed Bordeaux at Parc des Sports Aguilera. But Raphael Ibanez’s side are also riding a wave at the moment, with Saturday’s six-tries-to-two 45-23 mullering of Top 14 big spenders Stade Francais helping them move to within two points of Racing Metro in 10th. It may be asking too much to expect the visitors to pick up their first win on the road next weekend, but expect plenty of tension.
Oyonnax, meanwhile, remain stuck in the relegation zone on 21 points and will be looking nervously over their shoulders as Biarritz close in rapidly. The curse of their gold kit struck again, as they lost a dour encounter at Toulouse 14-3. Three penalties to one was all that separated the two sides until Yann David’s 74th-minute try gave the scoreline a somewhat flattering look. Still, it keeps Guy Noves’ side in touch with the Top 14 leaders.
It has taken 12 of 26 matches in a ridiculously tight season for the table to lose a lot of its congested look. Before the weekend’s games, only five points separated the first 10 clubs. Now, only the top six are separated by a bonus-point win, while the difference between Toulon at the top and Racing Metro in 10th has stretched to nine points.
Chances are not even Racing were expecting much out of their visit to Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin – but they would have expected something better than the abject performance that saw them slip to a 47-14 defeat. Racing’s joint coach Laurent Travers labelled the encounter ‘catastrophic’ in a first-half touchline interview with broadcaster Canal+. He had a point. Clermont were 23-0 up at the time, and looked capable of scoring every time they got hands on the ball – which was plenty. The ciel et bleu, meanwhile, simply looked lost.
Everyone knows it takes time and patience to build a team – even one made of players as talented as those on Racing’s roster – just ask Toulon boss Mourad Boudjellal. But the Laurents – Travers and Labit – must be feeling the pressure. It’s just a question of how long mega-rich Racing owner Jacky Lorenzetti is prepared to wait to see a trophy-winning return on his hefty investment.
Another name synonymous these days with Toulon is Jonny Wilkinson. He kicked all their points in a 15-9 home victory over Perpignan. It was an easier win than the low score and the absence of tries suggests. Two late Perpignan penalties made for a nervy finish and meant the visitors headed home with a bonus point they probably just about deserved – if only for their hard work in defence.
Defending Top 14 champions Castres are arguably the side that has benefited the most from this week’s results, as their 16-20 victory at Montpellier saw them leap five places to fifth. Geoffrey Palis proved an ideal stand-in at full-back for Brice Dulin – who was busy losing to South Africa with the rest of the French national side. The 22-year-old scored all Castres’ points, including the all-important try nine minutes before the final whistle. It was the Tarn side’s first win on the road this season, and appears to have finally, broken the win-lose-win-lose cycle that was a feature of their season until they thumped Biarritz and drew against Clermont in their last two games.
Castres’ next Top 14 opponents, Bayonne, held their nerve to win a 24-21 squeaker against gritty Grenoble, with Martin ‘NervesofSteel’ Bustos-Moyano landing the crucial penalty in the 77th minute. Until his decisive kick, it had been a nip-tuck affair at Stade Jean Dauger.
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