CASTRES, FRANCE – A try on the stroke of halftime gave Bordeaux the kick in the derrière they needed to make a game of their Top 14 encounter against reigning champions Toulon.
In the end, they did more than make a game of it.
Bordeaux were 20-9 down at the time, after Toulon had roared out of the starting blocks. The hooter had sounded and all the visitors had to do was clear the ball to end the opening period.
But Bordeaux flanker Hugh Chalmers is a man who plays to the whistle, not the hooter.
Rather than hoof the ball into row Z of Stade Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Toulon fullback Delon Armitage – on his first-team return after serving a two-month suspension – tried to run it from behind his own line.
Chalmers caught him underneath the posts and wrapped him up. Panicked, Armitage flicked out a pass to team-mate Sebastien Tillous-Borde, but the ball ended up between his own legs.
All the scrum-half had to do was dot the ball down. Technically, he would have conceded a 5m scrum to the hosts. But this was after the hooter and it would have ended the half. Instead, he tried to pick it up.
He made a hash of it. That won’t have pleased France coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who has recalled the Toulon man for the RBS Six Nations game against Wales next weekend.
Chalmers reacted fastest. Sitting down and still caught in a tangle of limbs with Armitage, he reached out an arm and pushed the ball into the ground.
After several replays, the TMO and referee agreed the try was good. Pierre Bernard, who has also been named in the French squad for next weekend’s Wales game, slotted the simplest of conversions. Suddenly, it was 16-20 and Bordeaux were back in the game.
Earlier, the visitors’ Fijian youngster Josua Tuisova – in only his second Top 14 match – had produced a moment of magic to open the try-scoring in the 13th minute. He looked trapped on the touchline, but danced his way out of three tackles, then cut inside and fired the afterburners to outpace a despairing Lionel Beauxis, who was playing out of position at fullback.
And Maxime Mermoz added a second try on the half-hour, as Toulon dominated the opening period despite losing Juan Martin Hernandez to the sin-bin for 10 minutes following a string of infringements by both sides.
Few could have imagined what would happen next.
Until Chalmers made the most of the rugby tragi-comedy, Bordeaux were out of it. They were falling off tackles. They were struggling at the set piece. They could not string any phases together. They were beaten. They did not look like one of the two best attacking sides in the Top 14.
Toulon did. They ripped through Bordeaux at will. They were in total control.
And then it was halftime.
Seven minutes after the restart, Bordeaux were in the lead, as spellchecker nightmare Metuisela Talebula touched down for the first of his two tries. He added his second nine minutes later, latching on to a perfectly floated mis-pass from hooker Wayne Avei that left him with little to do but jog to the line.
Bordeaux were in the ascendency. Where the visitors had been sharper in body and mind in the opening period, now they looked leaden and shorn of ideas.
Meanwhile, Bernard Laporte was notable by his second-half absence from the Toulon intelligence bench.
They looked tired. And the traitor question whispered its heretical conspiracy in the ears of those watching: is age finally wearying the Toulon galacticos? The average age of the team on the pitch at Chaban-Delmas yesterday was 31 – despite the presence of Tuisova and two young front rowers.
Old warriors Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams are retiring at the end of the season. Juan Smith has already called it a day once, and it seems the future of 35-year-old Chris Masoe, who came on midway through the second half to try and shore things up, is short despite reports he wants a one-year extension to his contract.
At 28-20 down, Toulon didn’t have a bonus point consolation to cling to. But, two minutes from time, Nicolas Sanchez – who spent three years at Bordeaux but was unable to break into the first team – slotted a penalty that meant they salvaged at least some pride and moved to the head of the Top 14.
Their lead would last just a matter of hours. Stade Francais were unable to capitalise, losing 23-6 at Bayonne – but Clermont dragged themselves back from the brink of defeat to earn a draw at Racing Metro that means they can enjoy Top 14 leader bragging rights until at least March 7.
It was a close-run thing, though, at Stade Yves du Manoir. The first half ended 3-3 and was notable only for its litany of handling errors as unstoppable forces crashed into immoveable objects – and for the fact that Jonny Sexton became the first player to fall foul of the Top 14’s 60-second time limit for taking a penalty.
Racing’s pocket battleship Marc Andreu finally found a way through Clermont’s lines after 56 minutes. Sexton hurried himself up to notch the conversion that made it 13-6 with just over 20 minutes to play. With the defences in control, it seemed the solitary score would be enough – but Noa Nakaitaci broke Racing’s ranks five minutes from time to score in the corner.
It gave Brock James a difficult shot at goal from out wide. The Australian made no mistake.
Stade Francais were made to look very ordinary indeed on their long trip to the Basque Country. Bayonne were in control from the off, with Marvin O’Connor chasing a hack ahead to score the first of his side’s three unanswered tries after just six minutes.
Uncle Joe Rokocoko scored Bayonne’s second after 25 minutes, and flanker Jean Monribot made the most of the open spaces left by the yellow-carded Rabah Slimani to give them a more-than deserved bonus point seven minutes from time. All the Paris side, who headed the Top 14 coming into the game, could manage in reply were two Julien Dupuy penalties either side of halftime.
Toulouse held off a spirited Lyon fightback to keep their play-off hopes alive, winning 23-20 after going in at halftime 20-3 to the good.
The first half was closer than the scoreline makes it appear. It took two converted tries in the final 10 minutes to give Toulouse their slightly flattering lead as first Joe Tekori went over then Toby Flood scored. As well as his try, Flood landed 10 of his 13 points with the boot in the opening half. And it looked all over.
No one should, however, write off Lyon until the final whistle. Jerome Porical gave them a sniff of a chance when he touched down five minutes into the second half – and despite Kendrick Lynn’s sin-binning 12 minutes from time, the visitors kept fighting. They were rewarded when Deon Fourie scored after 78 minutes. Lachie Munro nailed the conversion to bring the visitors within three points – but Toulouse held firm for the win that keeps them fifth in the Top 14, one place ahead of Bordeaux.
La Rochelle eased their relegation worries with a 19-12 home win over fellow Top 14 strugglers Brive. A penalty try after 24 minutes briefly broke the monotony of the kicking contest that the game at Stade Marcel Deflandre descended into.
The games at Oyonnax and Grenoble were delayed for an hour due weather conditions in south-east France. In the end, the fact that both matches were played at all is a credit to ground staff, players and officials.
Grenoble edged out Montpellier 20-18 in an ill-tempered chiller at Stade des Alpes, which saw both sides lose two players to the sin-bin. The hosts’ lock Hendrik Roodt scored the only try of the game with just three minutes on the clock before the two sides spent the rest of the match trading penalties.
The visitors’ trio of Jonathan Pelissie, his second-half replacement Teddy Iribaren, and Benjamin Lucas looked to have done just enough to pick up a crucial away win. But, with the scores at 17-18 in Montpellier’s favour, Iribaren picked up a yellow card two minutes from time, which gave Grenoble’s Jonathan Wisniewski one last shot at goal.
It was all he needed.
Oyonnax cast Castres four points adrift at the foot of the Top 14 with a 23-13 win in a bitter, ice-cold, energy-sapping mudbath at Stade Charles Mathon.
The fog of steam pouring off both sets of players was sometimes the only way to be sure of where the action was taking place. And the fog was mostly camped deep in Castres’ half, as the hosts took control.
Despite dominating both possession and territory and having the ascendency at the scrum, errors looked set to cost Oyonnax . As the hooter sounded for the end of the first period, they were 6-0 down, with Regis Lespinas guilty of missing three shots at goal – but they had just won a scrum deep in the visitors’ 22.
And Lespinas picked up a pass from his halfback team-mate Agustin Figuerola to run in unopposed under the posts and make up for his earlier profligacy with the boot.
Three minutes into the second half, Oyonnax refused a simple shot at goal for a penalty to touch 5m from Castres’ line – and were rewarded when the pack shoved Olivier Missoup over the line.
Five minutes after he had replaced fellow centre Romain Cabannes, Castres’ leading try-scorer Thomas Combezou crossed the line for the sixth time this season, to drag the Top 14’s basement side to within one converted try of what would have been a scarcely deserved draw – but Lespinas fired over one final penalty seven minutes before the referee called a halt to the game.
If he didn’t realise it before, Castres’ new short-term coach Mauricio Reggiardo now understands the scale of his problem.
Feel free to add your thoughts below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@: RugbyWrapUp, James Harrington, Scheenagh Harrington, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, Jamie Wall, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Jake Frechette, Jaime Loyd, Karen Ritter and Declan Yeats, respectively.