CASTRES, FRANCE – Last week, Toulouse coach Guy Noves sought to reassure fans who were understandably nervous about the Top 14 giants’ increasingly precarious position. The club had just lost its third match in a row, and had plunged from second in the table to ninth in three short weeks.
“We have no reason to be alarmed,” Noves told AFP following the fifth-round home defeat to Clermont. “That’s not to say a blind eye will be turned to the need to improve our rugby.”
“We would have preferred not to have lost this match but we deserved to lose it.
“Now, we’re not going to spend the season dwelling on it, we’ll try to look ahead.”
Maybe now, behind closed doors at least, the coach may well be alarmed. A maybe even dwell on it a little.
A week after Clermont breached fortress Ernest Wallon, Saturday’s 27-16 defeat at Racing Metro means that the former crown princes of French rugby have failed to win on the road since midway through last season.
In truth, the margin of Toulouse’s beating should have been greater – and, but for Racing’s chronic inability to cross opponents’ trylines, it would have been. The Franciliens ran the game from first whistle to last – but still only registered two second-half tries.
But such was Racing’s domination that only the intervention of the video referee denied them two first-half scored. The first came in the opening exchanges when an inch-perfect sky-high garryowen – or “chandelle” as the French lyrically call it – caused panic in Toulouse ranks. It looked for all the world that Juandre Kruger had gathered and touched down, but replays showed that Vincent Clerc had done just enough to deny him.
For all their pressure, Racing could only end the first period 15-9 up, courtesy of five penalties from Maxime Machenaud. And then, just for a short while, it looked as if Toulouse may just snatch an unexpected victory, when Clerc skated over in the corner to cap a rare period of Toulouse pressure. Flood converted to take the visitors into an unlikely lead.
It stung Racing into try-scoring action. Six minutes later Henry Chavancy cancelled out Clerc’s try – then replacement hooker Virgile Lacombe was credited with a try on the hour that is due to the entire pack.
It is rare that pack tries are a thing of beauty. They’re usually, grinding, grunting, powerful, shock-and-awe affairs – but the speed and ferocity of the 30m maul that brought Lacombe’s try transcended all usual descriptions for forward scores.
It was… there’s no other word for it… beautiful. And it was, somehow, appropriate that it would be the final word.
If Toulouse’s woes are worsening – with another away day at Bayonne on Friday, followed by difficult visits to Ernest Wallon by Stade Francais and Toulon – those of neighbours Castres were eased a little by a 27-18 win over Oyonnax.
It wasn’t a pretty or particularly clever affair, but a second win of the season in only their second game in front of the Stade Pierre Antoine faithful moved the 2013 Top 14 champions from bottom of the table to 12th, level on points with Toulouse.
Brice Mach came up with the ball following a much more typical driving maul in the first half to give the home side the lead after Rory Kockott and Regis Lespinas had traded penalties. Then Kockott celebrated being named in Les Bleus provisional 30-man training squad for the November internationals by scoring a neat solo try early in the second half.
But Castres simply could not get away from dogged Oyonnax. Lespinas’ boot kept the visitors very much in the game – and his well-judged drop-goal meant they were just three points behind the hosts with 13 minutes left on the clock. Only two late penalties from Kockott denied them what would have been a deserved defensive bonus point.
Captain Remi Tales, who – according to Midi Olympique – has turned down a contract extension with the Tarn side in favour of reuniting with former coaches Labit and Travers at Racing Metro, later admitted: “There were no great flights or great deeds, but we have to win this kind of game to restore confidence.”
If Toulouse’s fall from grace has been dramatic, Brive’s has been catastrophic. The Correze side were sitting pretty at the head of the Top 14 following the first weekend’s matches. They are now bottom of the pile, following a 53-13 hammering at home by Toulon.
The visitors were on a revenge mission following last week’s surprise loss to Stade Francais at Stade Mayol. It was just Brive’s rotten luck to be next in line.
But – once again – they only had themselves to blame, as indiscipline proved their undoing. Last week, the bad boys of the Top 14 played half a match with 14 men, as four players were sin-binned. This week, they were a man down for 55 minutes after lock Peet Marais was red-carded for elbowing Romain Taofifenua in a ruck.
His dismissal opened the floodgates. Rudi Wulf bagged a hat-trick, Delon Armitage touched down twice, and Drew Mitchell, Maxime Mermoz and Sebastien Tillous-Borde also scored as the visitors ran in eight tries to one from Sisa Koyamaibole.
Matt Giteau, fresh from signing a contract extension was back from injury, and started at 10, but left kicking duties to James O’Connor and Delon Armitage. The fullback nailed an early penalty and the winger slotted five conversions.
It was was exactly what the reigning Top 14 champions needed after two defeats in three games, and saw them move – briefly – back to the head of the Top 14 table.
Clermont’s own demolition job, a 43-12 win over Lyon at Stade Marcel Michelin, however, meant that Toulon’s reign as Top 14 leaders lasted less than 24 hours.
There wasn’t much in the first half. It ended 16-12, with Aurelien Rougerie the only man to cross the whitewash.
But Clermont stepped up a gear in the second period, scoring 27 unanswered points, leaving Lyon wanting. Camille Lopez slotted five penalties and four conversions in total, while Benson Stanley finished off a stunning, flowing try 11 minutes into the second period as the hosts cut loose to the delight of their fans.
John Ulugia added a third on the hour following an offload from lock Sebastien Vahaamahina, and Fritz Lee scored number four with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Bayonne’s long journey from the Atlantic coast to the Alpine mountains of Grenoble turned into a game of three thirds. The hosts maintained their perfect home record this season with a 24-15 win.
The hosts powered into an early lead, courtesy of prop Richard Choirat, and led 13-6 at halftime. And when number eight Rory Grice crashed over from short range to make it 18-12 just before the hour, they looked in completed control.
But, just as Lespinas had done for Oyonnax against Castres, so Blair Stewart kept the visitors very much in the game. Just three points separated the teams with 10 minutes to play, before fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski ended the visitors’ hopes of an unlikely win at Stade des Alpes.
La Rochelle blew a 10-point lead in the dying minutes of their game against Bordeaux, at Stade Marcel Deflandre, where a late-late Lionel Beauxis penalty cost the hosts their 100 percent home record this season.
The Top 14 new boys appeared to have the game sewn up, before Bordeaux’s Jandre Marais made up for an earlier yellow card by crashing over with just four minutes to play. Beauxis bounced the conversion over via the post to level the scores, before converting the winning penalty with seconds remaining on the clock.
Earlier, Blair Connor had crossed for the visitors, but his sixth-minute try was cancelled out when the referee awarded La Rochelle a penalty try, and fullback Kini Murimurivalu’s score just after the hour left the visitors apparently dead and buried.
The final game of the Top 14 weekend – Montpellier v Stade Francais – should have come with a health warning, it was so dull.
Maybe Stade’s victory at Toulon the previous weekend had set expectations soaring to unmatchable levels, but the visitors lacked the intensity, vision and drive of seven days earlier. They were leaden and lumpen and just not in the game. It took them 43 minutes to register their first – and as it would turn out only – score, a penalty from Jules Plisson.
But, then, the normally firecracker Montpellier didn’t seem particularly interested, either. The first half was almost over before second row Sitaleki Timani scored the game’s first try – and the hooter had sounded for the end of the match when the hosts were awarded a penalty try. It took the final score to 23-3 – and the end, when it finally arrived, couldn’t have come soon enough.
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