CASTRES, FRANCE – Last season’s ProD2 champions Lyon and 2013 Brennus-winners Castres are strong favourites for relegation from the Top 14 following the 20th weekend of the season.
Both sides lost this weekend to slip six points from safety, as all the other drop-fearing sides in the French top flight picked up crucial victories.
Castres got to within less than 30 seconds of their first regular-season Top 14 win away from home since December 2013. They were 19-18 up in a genuine eight-pointer at fellow strugglers Bayonne when Remi Tales – released by the French squad earlier in the week – was caught offside out on the touchline deep into the final minute of the game.
Bayonne’s Martin Bustos Moyano, at fullback while Scott Spedding was on international duty, lined up the difficult 45m shot at goal.
The Bayonne coaching team stood shoulder-to-shoulder at pitchside; Castres fans who dared watch did through their fingers as the Argentinian went through his pre-kick routine. Then he stepped forward, swung his trusty right leg, and the ball sailed straight and true between the uprights and just over the crossbar.
Cue wild celebrations from Bayonne players, backroom staff and fans as the Basque Country side inched closer to Top 14 safety. They are in 10th place with 41 points. They’re not out of danger yet – last season, 51 points was not enough to save Perpignan from the drop.
Earlier the visitors had raced into a 16-9 lead in the opening 30 minutes courtesy of an eighth-minute try from Romain Martial, who chased down a chip ahead from scrum-half Cedric Garcia and benefited from a cruel bounce which meant the ball evaded the defending Marvin O’Connor.
Tales added a drop goal and the boot of Julien Dumora kept the scoreboard ticking in the first half.
Bayonne kept in touch thanks to Christophe Loustalot – who notched his two of his four first-half penalties in the final 10 minutes of the opening period to keep the home side in the hunt.
Superb last-ditch Castres defence had prevented Bayonne scoring a first-half try of their own. They crossed the line, but the ball was held up. And the visitors’ flanker Jannie Bornmann repeated the desperate defensive trick early in the second period to deny the Basque side a try for the second time as the hosts roared back.
Bayonne took the lead for the first time in the game when Bustos Moyano, who took over kicking duties when Loustalot was replaced early in the second period, slotted the second of his three penalties on the evening.
But Dumora fired Castres back in front with just eight minutes to play. Five minutes later, Tales lined up a drop goal that would have put the visitors four points clear with time fast running out, but his kick went wide. It meant Bayonne were within a penalty as the clock ticked down – and Bustos Moyano made no mistake.
Lyon’s prop-sized scrum-half Ricky Januarie darted over from close range after just six minutes to give the Top 14 strugglers early hope in their big challenge against league leaders Toulon at the Matmut Stadium – but that was about as good as it got for the hosts.
Seven minutes later, David Smith scored his 13th try of the season, running in from 35m after Rudi Wulf’s break had scattered the Lyon defence.
Two more first-half turnovers took Toulon out of sight. Powerful work at the breakdown gave Drew Mitchell the chance to feed Delon Armitage for the visitors’ second try and – five minutes before the halftime whistle, Mitchell himself benefited from another turnover to score in the corner and make it 22-8 at halftime.
Toulon failed to add any more points in the second half, but comfortably held Lyon at arms’ length. Stephen Brett notched two penalties, but the hosts were otherwise unable to find a way through the visitors’ organised defence. It ended 14-22.
The victory came at a price for Toulon. Six players were injured. Bakkies Botha and Michael Claassen ended up in hospital, while Virgil Bruni, Juan Smith, his try-machine namesake, and fullback Armitage also picked up knocks.
A late try from Romain Sola earned Brive a potentially crucial bonus point as they beat play-off hopefuls Racing Metro 36-12 at Stade Amédée Domenech.
The hosts were 16-9 up at the interval, courtesy of a 25th-minute try from Dominiko Waqaniburotukula and the metronome boot of fullback Gaetan Germain.
The Franciliens’ points came from the boot of scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, who landed three penalties in the first half and another early in the second.
Germain stretched the hosts’ lead with two more penalties, but although the home side were firmly in control no one could have predicted the late drama that was about to unfold.
Number 8 Sisa Koyamaibole bulldozed his way through three defending Racing players to score with nine minutes left on the clock, following a powerful Brive scrum.
After the hooter sounded replacement centre Romain Sola, who had been on the pitch only eight minutes, danced though the weak tackling of tired Racing defenders to score the crucial bonus-point try.
Oyonnax started the weekend in fifth place in the Top 14 – but dropped out of the play-off places as their four-match winning streak shuddered to a 35-20 halt at La Rochelle.
The Rochelaise survival bid was kickstarted – literally – by fly-half Peter Grant. The game was threatening to turn into a battle of the boot between him and Oyonnax’s Benjamin Urdapilleta until it exploded into action four minutes before the break.
First fullback Kini Murimurivalu touched down for the hosts – then, after 39 minutes, centre Levani Botia Veivuke scored the first of his two tries in 10 minutes.
The second of his brace put the hosts in the promised land of bonus-point country. But they didn’t stay long. Silvere Tian scored for the visitors after 56 minutes, and Viliami Ma’afu added a second try nine minutes later – but Oyonnax had given themselves too much to do.
Two Vincent Clerc tries in six second-half minutes saw Toulouse pull away from Montpellier and hang on to fifth place in the Top 14 in a dismal affair at Stade Ernest Wallon. The game saw the return to action of Francois Trinh-Duc, who came on as a replacement after an hour, and a minute or so after Clerc had gone over for the first of his two scores.
A first half that could be most generously described as “nip-tuck” but more accurately assessed as “bloody awful” ended 6-6. The second period was even tighter until it exploded with Clerc’s first try just before the hour. He added a second six minutes later, and Timoci Nagusa answered back for the visitors three minutes afterwards. Ben Lucas, who held on to kicking duties despite the arrival of Trinh-Duc, slotted the conversion to bring Montpellier into within a score.
But they could not find a way through Toulouse’s defence for a second time, and the game ended 18-13.
If the Top 14 standings remain as they are after the 20th round of the season, then Stade Francais would entertain Grenoble in the play-off ‘barrage’ match at Stade Jean Bouin.
It’s a match that would, right now, shred a few Parisien nerves after the Isere side put on an extraordinary performance to win exactly this fixture 30-21 on Saturday.
It could have been worse for Stade. Jackson Willison scored a try and Jonathan Wisniewski kicked 14 of his match haul of 20 points as Grenoble raced into a 19-7 first-half lead.
Stade’s sole reply came from a converted try by Jonathan Danty – who scored a brace and spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin.
Grenoble extended their lead through Florian Faure two minutes after the restart – but then the visitors began to crumble under a rising tide of Stade pressure.
Danty touched down for his second try and Julien Arias also went over for the hosts. Morne Steyn, making his third start of the season in the absence of Jules Plisson, converted both scores as Stade threatened an unlikely comeback.
But it was not to be. Grenoble held on to consolidate their position in the last of the Top 14 play-off places. Stade remain third, but are now six points behind second-placed Clermont and an automatic semi-final place.
Despite being weakened by injury and international call-ups, Clermont beat Bordeaux 31-23 at Stade Marcel Michelin. Remarkably, despite the scoreline, the two sides managed just one try each.
Jayden Spence touched down for the visitors in the opening half, and John Ulugia responded for the hosts midway through the second period.
Otherwise all the damage was done with the boot. Clermont’s starting fly-half Mike Delany kicked 15 points; his replacement Brock James added a further 11 after coming on 15 minutes into the second half.
In reply, Bordeaux’s Lionel Beauxis notched four penalties and a drop goal, while fullback Ulrich Beyers also scored a penalty.
Feel free to add your thoughts below. And 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.