CASTRES, FRANCE – A week before Heineken Cup champions Toulon face Cardiff at Stade Mayol, Grenoble stunned the stuttering stellar side with a last-gasp smash-and-grab raid that shook the Mediterranean fortress to its foundations.
With Toulon six points to the good and just two minutes on the clock at the end of a gritty nip-tuck encounter, Ratu Ratini latched on to a loose pass from Jonny Wilkinson and raced more than 50m to score unopposed under the posts to gift replacement kicker Julian Caminiti the easiest of conversions.
Before Ratini’s 78th-minute interception, scrum half Vincent Courrent – with his boot, and with a try-saving tackle on Steffon Armitage – and Fabien Gengenbacher had combined to keep the Isere side in the hunt. But it looked for all the world that the last two of Wilkinson’s seven penalties would prove decisive.
As the Fijian touched down to send Grenoble fans into rapture, Toulon’s director of rugby Bernard Laporte stormed from the stands. Laporte’s sudden departure prompted club owner Mourad Boudjellal to wonder publicly whether the former France coach would quit the club.
The win pushed Grenoble in to the play-off places, one place behind Toulon’s galacticos, who have stalled in fifth place, eight points behind leaders Clermont. The rouge et noir have lost three of their last four Top 14 games.
Bernard Jackman’s gritty side have now done the double over Toulon in the Top 14. They have also beaten Biarritz and Racing on the road, while Toulouse, Castres, Stade Francais, Bordeaux and Oyonnax have all fallen at Stade des Alpes.
Less than 24 hours earlier, defending Top 14 champions Castres limped to a 15-9 victory over Bordeaux at their Stade Pierre Antoine stronghold. After hours of rain in the Tarn town, conditions weren’t in anyone’s favour, but the hosts – who fielded a weakened side, without Rory Kockott, Antonie Claassen and Brice Dulin – were guilty of a wasting of possession and territory time and again. In the end, Geoffrey Palis’s boot proved the difference between the two sides.
Stade Francais consolidated their position in second place with a widely expected 18-6 win at Top 14 basement side Biarritz. It was the nightmare start to their centenary year that no fan of the Basque Country side wanted. It was, however, one that many widely feared. They are now 13 points adrift of local rivals Bayonne at the bottom of the league.
Toulouse took advantage of Toulon’s home slip-up to leapfrog into fourth place, level on points with the Var side, by completing a comfortable 19-12 victory over Clermont at Ernest Wallon. A try by full-back Maxime Medard secured Toulouse’s ninth home win of the season, though questions remain about the final pass from Yuann Huget. According to the rules – and the video referee – the pass was good because Huget’s hands were pointing backwards, but replays suggested that the ball had gone forward by some distance.
Oyonnax, meanwhile, eased their relegation worries with a 6-0 win at home over Racing Metro. If conditions at Castres were unfavourable for rugby, they were simply brutal at Stade Charles Mathon. The pitch was barely playable – and the hosts were without the unerring boots of Benjamin Urdipilleta. Instead, it was left to Regis Lespinas to kick the decisive penalties, one in each half, and the rest of the team to tackle their hearts out in the face of wave after wave of assaults on their line as the clock ticked down.
Perpignan ended a five-match Top 14 losing streak with a 20-8 victory over Bayonne at Stade Aime Giral. Tries by Soufiane Guitoune and Luke Garraway, which were duly converted by James Hook, were more than enough to beat the second struggling Basque Country side, for whom Bastien Fuster touched down for a consolation try.
Montpellier slipped out of the play-off places on Saturday evening, despite picking up a barely deserved defensive bonus point at Brive. The Herault side were in danger of heading home with nothing to show for their night’s work in dreadful conditions after Gaetan Germain had kicked the hosts into a 15-6 lead early in the second half. But Mr Reliable Francois Trinh-Duc held his nerve to slot an after-the-hooter penalty, after replacement scrum-half Eric Escande had missed two shots at goal.
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