CASTRES, FRANCE – It will be no surprise to anyone to hear that Biarritz will be relegated from the Top 14 at the end of this season. It has been on the cards for some considerable time but – until this weekend – there was, mathematically at least, a chance that they could pull off a miracle escape.
Now, there isn’t. With four matches to go – Castres and Brive will head to Parc des Sports Aguilera, and there are trips to Racing Metro and Bordeaux – the Basque Country side cannot overtake the side currently in 12th, Bayonne.
Saturday’s nervy 16-10 defeat at Perpignan turned out to be the fatal blow in a season-long slow death for Biarritz. It was a match that was almost as important to the Catalan side as they fought to move away from the relegation zone.
After James Hook had opened the scoring with a fourth-minute penalty, Aled Brew gave the visitors hope with an 11th-minute try. But that was about as good as it got for the Top 14’s basement club. Richard Haughton replied for the hosts nine minutes later, and Hook’s boot did the rest.
It was a result that will allow the Catalans to breathe a little easier in their beds ahead of next week’s trip to Bordeaux.
The Top 14 weekend opened on Friday with a clash of the top two titans at Stade Marcel Michelin between second-placed Clermont and top-of-the-table Toulon. Points difference alone separated the two teams at the start of the game. By the time it ended, the hosts had moved three points clear thanks to a 22-16 victory.
Napolioni Nalaga touched down for the hosts, and prop Xavier Chiocci flopped over the line for Toulon as the two sides traded tries in a tense affair. The encounter remained firmly in the balance until after the hooter, when Toulon – three points behind and desperately chasing the game – gave away a penalty, which the nerveless Morgan Parra duly slotted. Until then, Clermont’s remarkable 74-match winning streak at home was under serious threat. In the end, the difference was six points; less than the three penalties missed by a combination of Freddie Michalak, who made a rare start at 10, and replacement Jonny Wilkinson.
The most brutal game of the weekend came from Stade Pierre Antoine, where defending Top 14 champions Castres were the last side standing in a royal rumble against Brive.
It was a bad-tempered match that really should have been played in a cage. The hosts’ French international Yannick Forestier was sent off for an off-the-ball offence, though it’s doubtful he’d have stayed on anyway, as he hobbled off the field.
The referee also brandished the red card to the visitors’ Damien Neveu – for the same incident – and Dominiko Waqaniburotu, who saw yellow a second time for a dangerous tackle that left Castres’ centre Paul Bonnefond seeing stars.
Somewhere amid all the fighting, a rugby match kept threatening to break out. It came out in flashes, as Castres ran in four tries. Three of them came in a nine-minute spell well into the second half, as the home side made the most of the defender-shaped holes left when two players in the opposing side have been sent off.
Antonie Claassen scored the first of the Top 14 champions’ four tries in the opening period. Then, Remi Grosso, Geoffrey Palis and Bonnefond rubbed salt in Brive’s gaping wounds late in the second period, as the hosts ran out 38-6 winners.
But Castres will be worried by injuries to prop-and-a-half Karena Wihongi, who lasted just three minutes before being replaced, as well as Forestier and Max Evans.
Stade Francais and Toulouse ran in seven tries in a 27-27 thriller at Stade de France. The game was all set to be a showdown between Stade’s scrum-half Julien Dupuy and Toulouse’s fly-half Luke McAlister. Both were hugely influential in the opening skirmishes. Dupuy scored the first try after nine minutes, and McAlister touched down as Toulouse responded immediately.
But the New Zealander, who only came back from a long lay-off last week, injured his back as he scored, and was replaced by Jean-Marc Doussain after quarter of an hour. He will miss next week’s crucial match at Toulon.
Dupuy continued to rule the roost with a magnificent performance for Stade. His pass let Jules Plisson through to score Stade’s second try, when there was just 16 minutes on the clock. Alexandre Flanquart also crossed on 32 minutes, as Stade scored all their points in the first half to lead 27-8 when the bell tolled for the first time.
But he too, is now an injury doubt. He was due on Monday to have a scan on a knee injury that forced him, limping, off the pitch 10 minutes from time.
Toulouse roared back in the second period. Scrum-half Jano Vermaak dived over in the corner even as Stade players were sorting themselves out after coming back on to the pitch for the second half. With 30 minutes left, replacement Joe Tekori took full advantage of fellow replacement Louis Picamoles killer charge to barge over the line – a whole minute after coming on – to set up a tense finale.
But nothing could have prepared anyone watching for what was to come. With seconds remaining and 27-20 down, Toulouse hammered into Stade’s 22. Crash followed bash followed smash as Guy Noves’ unstoppable forces met Queseda’s immoveable objects.
Then, as the bell tolled a second time, a chink appeared in Stade’s armour. Just a small one, but chink it was. Replacement Yohan Montes took full advantage. He battered his way over the line next to the posts. Doussain made no mistake with the conversion and an epic encounter ended honours even.
It’s a result that has done neither side many favours. They now occupy the last two play-off places. Racing Metro and Bordeaux are snapping at their heels, while fourth-placed Castres have a two-point cushion.
Racing won for the first time on the road since September when they beat Grenoble 13-26 in a swamp at Stade des Alpes.
The hosts dominated for the first 10 minutes, with prop Albertus Buckle scoring after just five minutes. But Racing dragged themselves back into the game. Jamie Roberts and Marc Andreu touched down, Juan Martin Hernandez slotted a brace of penalties and Maxime Machenaud notched two penalties and two conversions as Racing first nullified and then – not to put too fine a point on it – overwhelmed Grenoble.
That defeat has dented Grenoble’s hopes of reaching the play offs. They’re now seven points adrift of sixth-placed Toulouse – and have matches against Oyonnax, Montpellier, Bayonne and Toulouse to come.
Bordeaux, meanwhile, kept their play-off dreams alive with a nervy 22-23 win at Bayonne. At halftime, the visitors were 20-10 to the good, thanks to tries from Darly Domvo and Louis Madaule.
But they let Bayonne back in. Joe Rokococko, Marvin O’Connor and Matthieu Ugalde crossed for the hosts as they staged a remarkable fightback. There was even time for Ugalde to miss a last-gasp penalty that would have won the game. In the end, though, a 57th-minute penalty from Pierre Barnard proved to be just enough.
Oyonnax’s Top 14 hopes were dealt a blow as they lost at home for just the second time this season. This time, Montpellier did what the likes of Toulon, Clermont and Castres could not, winning 8-22 as fatigue finally started to catch up with the side from the plastics city.
Looking at the stats, the first half as dull as ditchwater, with only two penalties from Francois Trinh-Duc to show for the two sides’ efforts – but there were disallowed tries, penalties hitting the post, and action aplenty. Timoci Nagusa was the first to cross the try line after an hour – by which time Trinh-Duc had done more damage. It all meant Silvere Tian’s try after 79 minutes was nothing more than a consolation.
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