CASTRES, FRANCE – Toulon’s workmanlike opening-night victory at Bayonne last week prompted some pundits to say that the champions had laid down an early marker for the rest of the Top 14. If that was the case, then on Saturday, they threw down the gauntlet and proceeded to grind it into the Stade Mayol dust just to emphasise the point.
It just happened to be league new-boys La Rochelle’s misfortune that they were Toulon’s opponents. They have no influence over the fixture list. But they were under the gauntlet as the Var side crushed it under their combined star-studded heels.
La Rochelle made their first crucial mistake early on. They crossed the Toulon line after just a minute. Ex-Waratahs winger Alofa Alofa dotted down in the corner to put the final emphasis on a neat backline move.
That try had an undesired effect. Toulon woke up.
Virgile Bruni underscored his international credentials by bullocking over from 22m out, after picking up a perfect pop pass from Matt Giteau.
La Rochelle’s second crucial mistake was their indiscipline. For the second Top 14 match in a row, they were forced to play with 13 men, after Kevin Gourdon and Thomas Synaeghel were sin-binned. Against Toulon, this is not recommended.
Toulon, masterminded by Giteau – who is clearly channelling Jonny Wilkinson in the number 10 shirt – added two more tries, with first David Smith and then Mathieu Bastareaud crossing the whitewash.
Then Giteau added a fourth shortly before halftime.
The second half was no better for La Rochelle. The Top 14 champions scored again two minutes after the restart, with a superb individual try from Drew Mitchell. A sixth try, Smith’s second, followed soon after. This one was all his own work as he charged down Jean-Pascal Barraque’s kick, picked up the loose ball and scored.
Delon Armitage then picked up another perfect miss-pass from Giteau to score Toulon’s seventh.
It was then – with the game lost – that game La Rochelle made their third mistake. They scored a second try, as Barraque dived over.
Toulon could have let bygones be bygones. They had the try-scoring bonus. They could have seen the game out. They didn’t. Chris Masoe and James O’Connor made La Rochelle pay for their impertinence with two more tries. It ended 60-19, and moved Toulon to the top of the table, while keeping La Rochelle firmly rooted to the bottom.
After their so-near so-far exploits at Toulouse last weekend, Oyonnax were on the road again. They headed to the southwest coast of France, to face Bayonne.
But that’s pretty much where any semblance to last week’s match ended. On the opening weekend, the side from the plastics city were left rueing what they believed was a late refereeing mistake as they lost by a single point against their more illustrious Top 14 opponents.
This time, their defeat was not in doubt.
Joe Rokocoko rolled back the years as he returned to the wing after spending much of last season in the centre. He touched down twice in the first half, and set up Scott Spedding early in the second half as the hosts turned up the heat on Oyonnax.
The visitors didn’t melt easily, however. Guillaume Boussès picked up Benjamin Urdapilleta’s offload out of a tackle to barge over a minute after Rokocoko scored in the fifth minute.
But they could not stop Bayonne scoring three more tries in the first half – through Rokocoko, hooker Gregory Arganese, and inside centre Santiago Fernandez.
Blair Stewart rubbed salt into Oyonnax’s gaping defensive wound by converting all four.
Calling a first-half try a consolation may seem unfair, but when lock Thibault Lassalle went over for Oyonnax on the stroke of halftime, it simply made the score a slightly more respectable 31-12. And Spedding’s 43rd-minute touchdown finished them off. The game ended 38-12.
At least Oyonnax and La Rochelle managed to score tries. It’s more than last season’s losing Top 14 finalists Castres managed in the Midi Pyrenees derby at Toulouse.
Impressive young centre Gael Fickou and Yoann Huget combined for the first try of the game, while Toby Flood and Rory Kockott traded penalties as the first half ended 13-6.
That’s as good as it got for the visitors – who never looked like ending their 36-year losing streak at Ernest Wallon. Early in the second half, Florian Fritz’s hands were quicker than the eye as he took and gave in an instant to give Jean-Marc Doussain a clear run to the tryline.
If that try was high quality, the next – five minutes later – was even better. This time Doussain was the provider. Maxime Medard, at full tilt, picked up his inch-perfect crossfield kick and ran in unopposed.
There was still time for Thomas Ramos, on as a replacement for Clement Poitrenaud, to pick up a red card three minutes after coming on for kicking Castres’ prop Mihaita Lazar at a ruck.
That didn’t faze Toulouse. After the referee spotted Ibrahim Diarra’s off-the-ball obstruction to rule out Johnny Beattie’s try, replacement scrum-half Sebastien Bezy darted in from close range to finish off the four-try 35-6 mauling.
Brive, Top 14 leaders after last week’s opening round, came back down to earth with a tryless losing 6-21 bump at home to Clermont. In a match dominated by the referee’s whistle, the visitors made the most of their kicking chances, after a unusually inaccurate Morgan Parra handed kicking duties over to Jaunards new boy Camille Lopez.
He nailed four penalties and a drop goal, after Parra had earlier landed two of his own but missed a couple that he would expect to score.
Brive could only manager two Gaetan Germain penaltes in reply. It was a disappointing game for neutral viewers who may have been expecting a tryfest, after Brive managed four and Clermont three on the opening weekend.
The weekend’s thrillers were supplied provided by Montpellier v Grenoble and Bordeaux v Racing.
For the second week in a row, Montpellier staged a thrilling, gruelling, nail-biting fightback at Stade Yves du Manoir. The difference this time was that they were able to edge the result with the final kick of the game.
After being 9-0 up at halftime, the hosts suddenly looked in serious trouble when Grenoble scored twice in seven minutes through Albertus Buckle and Ratu Ratini to make the score 9-17 with less than 20 minutes on the clock.
Alex Tulou dragged them back into it with a try from the base of the scrum with four minutes to go. It was 17-17.
It looked liked they had blown it when Ebersohn was penalised for slapping at the ball at a ruck, gifting Grenoble’s kicker Jonathan Wisniewski a 45m shot at goal.
He fired it wide.
Charl McLeod then committed the same infringement on the Grenoble line, allowing replacement scrum-half Jonathan Pélissié a shot at goal after the hooter.
He made no mistake.
Three tries in the final eight minutes turned Bordeaux’s Top 14 clash against Racing Metro into the weekend’s second nails-bitten-to-the-quick encounter.
Bordeaux prop Patrick Toetu made the most of some great work by his flankers to blitz over after 10 minutes, but the first of two tries from Racing’s new wingman Teddy Thomas allowed the visitors to take the initiative early in the second half.
Then, centre Julian Rey latched on to a chip through from Sofiane Guitoune to score under the posts after 72 minutes. Racing responded six minutes later through Thomas before Guitoune closed out the game with a 79th-minute try. The Parisian bluebloods headed home with nothing to show for their efforts as Guitoune’s late-late score ensured they missed out on a defensive bonus point. The final was 30-21.
Whatever was said in the Lyon changing room at halftime should be bottled and sold for a massive profit.
Converted first-half tries from Digby Ioane and Jeremy Sinzelle, plus two penalties from Jules Plisson gave Stade Francais a commanding 20-8 lead over the Top 14 new boys when the bell tolled after 40 minutes at Stade Jean Bouin.
Enrico Januarie’s score looked like it would be nothing more than a consolation, with Stade’s pack firmly in control and the backs finding hole after hole in an increasingly desperate Lyon defence.
But a penalty try just after the hour and a score for veteran centre Mosese Ratuvou eight minutes from time had the hosts hanging on for grim death. They survived. Just. It ended 23-20.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@ :RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.