CASTRES, FRANCE – Stade Francais overtook Clermont at the head of the Top 14, as Six Nations call-ups weakened several of the league’s big guns and three of the top four sides lost on the road.
The Parisians were second going into the 17th round of matches. They were also the only one of the four top sides playing at home as they entertained defending Top 14 champions Castres.
Going into the game, the visitors were just one point and one place below their hosts in the league. It should have been the match of the weekend, but they were overwhelmed in a second-half blitz that took the score from 12-6 at halftime to 32-6 at the final whistle.
Morne Steyn and Rory Kockott had exchanged penalties in a tense and penalty-ridden first period, but the second 40 was all Stade, as Julian Arias first broke Castres’ typically stubborn resistance and then Waisea Vuidravuwalu touched down twice to make sure of the winning bonus point.
That win moved Stade to the top of the table, but with Clermont at lowly Bayonne, few will have expected their lead to last more than 24 hours. But last it has, as Vern Cotter’s side, weakened by international call-ups, lost a kicking contest in abysmal conditions. Morgan Parra, whose rapid return from the injury that kept him out of contention for Saturday’s Six Nations opener against England has surprised many, missed three second-half penalties. Those misses proved vital, as Bayonne’s Martin Bustos Mayano slotted six attempts to make the final score 18-9.
Bayonne’s win moved them, temporarily at least out of the relegation zone, with the game between bottom-of-the-table rivals Biarritz and Oyonnax at Parc des Sports Aguilera was postponed as storms lashed south-west France. Biarritz lost further ground and are now 16 points adrift of the rest of the Top 14. Oyonnax meanwhile drop into the second relegation spot, a point behind Bayonne.
Toulouse have arguably the biggest reason to bemoan international call-ups. They lost seven first-choice players to the Six Nations for the clash – to go with a long injury list, which includes Thierry Dusautoir, Florian Fritz and Luke McAlister.
Those absences will not have helped as they maintained a perfectly imperfect away record in the Top 14 with a 25-5 defeat against Racing Metro at Stade de France. Lions’ colleagues Jonny Sexton and Mike Philips both touched down inside the opening quarter as stuttering Racing proved just how good they could actually be. They charged into a 25-0 lead just after the break, as Marc Andreu, a late call-up to Philippe Saint-Andre’s France for the weekend crossed the whitewash.
The home side looked assured of the winning bonus, until Toulouse’s Timoci Matanavou, on as a replacement for Lionel Beauxis, scored at the end of a sweeping move after the hooter had sounded. Bonus point or not, Racing fans were ecstatic about the victory.
Toulon dropped out of the Top 14 play-off places as they slipped to a 23-10 loss at Brive. It was the expensively assembled Var side’s fourth defeat in their last five league games, and now means they are 10 points adrift of the leaders in seventh.
The unerring boot of Brive’s Gaetan Germain punished every indiscretion – and he had plenty of chances to score as his pack dominated a Toulon scrum weakened by the late withdrawal of Andrew Sheridan. And the scoreline would have looked even worse for the star-studded visitors had Rudi Wulf not touched down three minutes from time.
As well as Stade, Grenoble and Montpellier benefited from a lacklustre weekend by most of the Top 14’s big guns. Bernard Jackman‘s Grenoble moved into fourth with a 25-19 victory over Perpignan at Stade des Alpes. Fabien Alexandre crossed twice to ensure the gritty Isere side claimed the four points, though Perpignan replacements Karl Chateau and Tommaso Allan combined with a try and conversion at the death to make sure the Catalans headed home with a defensive bonus point.
Montpellier, meanwhile, bounced back into the play-off places with a 28-23 win over Bordeaux. Timoci Nagusa scored with just two minutes on the clock to set the hosts on their way, and the game was all over bar the shouting when Pierre Barard touched down shortly after the hour. The visitors were awarded a penalty try seconds from time to head home with a defensive bonus.
There’s no Top 14 next weekend, as the Six Nations takes centre stage. With just four points separating third from eighth, that’s probably good news for a few tired players excused international duty as the run-in to the play-offs kicks off.
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