CASTRES, FRANCE – Jules Plisson dropped a clear hint to France coach Philippe Saint-Andre that he is ready to reclaim the national side’s number 10 jersey as he made a match-winning impact in the Top 14 as a replacement for Stade Francais against Bordeaux.
The fly-half was on the pitch for only 17 minutes but coolly fired over the decisive drop goal after the hooter had sounded that snatched victory from the jaws of what would have been heart-breaking defeat.
The Parisians had been in the lead for almost all the match courtesy of first-half power tries from flanker Raphael Lakafia and prop Rabah Slimani which both came in eight minutes of madness.
Morne Steyn, making only his second start for Stade Francais this season, slotted both conversions and added a penalty.
But Stade just couldn’t get away. The hosts looked dangerous with the ball in hand. It took desperate defence to stop scrum-half Yann Lesgourgues’ mazy run ending in a try a metre or so from the line, while handling errors saved the visitors on more than one occasion.
Meanwhile, the accuracy of the boot of Bordeaux’s Pierre Barnard meant the hosts stayed in the hunt. His four penalties made sure the halftime score remained a respectable-looking 17-12. Another, two minutes into the second period, cut the difference to two points.
Enter Plisson. Two minutes after he came on, he slotted a penalty that restored the visitors’ five-point advantage.
Three minutes from time, however, it looked like Stade’s efforts would not be enough. First Louis Benoit Madaule made the most of a one-man advantage after Scott LaValla had been sent to the bin to squirm and burrow and shove his way over the line from a ruck to level the scores. Lionel Beauxis converted to give the hosts a 22-20 lead with a minute or so to play.
But 14-man Stade were not finished. Coolly, and with implacable intent, they phased their way forward. The plan was clear, but Bordeaux could not stop it. With the ball just outside the hosts’ 22, replacement scrum-half Jerome Fillol thought about flicking a pass to Plisson for the drop goal attempt – but rejected it in favour of one more hammer blow from the forwards. It was, he decided, not quite close or straight enough.
It was ice-cold thinking under pressure. The hooter had long gone. One mistake, one handling error, one over-eager clear-out and it would be all over. But there would be no mistakes. The pack smashed its way into Bordeaux’s 22, right in front of the posts.
Now, the set-up was perfect. Fillol found Plisson, deep and safe in the pocket. As Bordeaux rushed up in desperate defence, the fly-half’s boot swung, connected, and the ball flew straight as an arrow through the middle of the uprights. Game over.
The win briefly moved Stade to the top of the table, and meant that Bordeaux were unable to reclaim a play-off place, despite their bonus point.
They had slipped out of the Top 14’s top six on Friday night, when Oyonnax beat Toulouse 9-6 in a chill-inducing mud-soaked encounter at a near-frozen Stade Charles Mathon.
Benjamin Urdapilletta performed miracles with the boot, firing over three difficult penalties – even bouncing one off the crossbar – to give the hosts the win that moved them into fifth place in the Top 14.
The six-point difference in scores meant that Toulouse headed home with nothing, and dropped down to sixth-place in the table.
At the bottom of the Top 14, Castres picked up four potentially crucial points against Lyon in a hostile, brutal match that – in truth – they had no right to win, after flanker Yannick Caballero was sent off after 21 minutes.
Two Lyon players – hooker Jean Philippe Bonrepaux and flanker Pierrick Gunther – and Castres’ prop Yannick Forestier left the warzone of Stade Pierre Antoine with injuries in the first half.
Bonrepaux was knocked out as Castres’ lock Christophe Samson charged into a ruck in the 12th minute. The collision led to a long delay as Bonrepaux was treated on the pitch and then stretchered off, and Samson was sin-binned.
Earlier, Lyon’s Toby Arnold had burst through Castres’ paper-thin defence to score the opening try of the night. Jerome Porical converted to give the visitors a deserved 7-0 lead.
It could have been worse for the hosts. The Lyon fullback had already missed two penalty kicks.
Samson was about to come back on when Caballero was red-carded for slamming into Julien Puricelli with his knee at another ruck.
The incident awoke the home faithful. Stade Pierre Antoine turned in that instant into a bearpit of intimidation.
Despite losing Samson for 10 minutes and then Caballero, Castres went into the break just seven points down.
But the hosts were still in dressing room mode when Porical skated over a minute into the second half. He converted to make it 14-0 and 14 against 15.
On any other day this season, it would have been all over. But Castres, marshalled by a mad-eyed Rory Kockott, roared back on a wall of sound from the stands.
Seven minutes after Porical had sent the visitors into a seemingly unassailable lead, replacement prop Saimone Taumoepeau flopped over from a ruck close to the line to put the hosts on the board.
Kockott could not convert from out wide, but the 2013 Top 14 champions had momentum. And the crowd had their backs.
Another replacement, Max Evans, on for Sitiveni Sivivatu, latched on to a perfect chip from Kockott to score Castres’ second on the hour. It was an astonishing slice of skill from the scrum-half, who shaped to pass from the base of a ruck, stopped, changed direction and kicked over the top in an instant. It deserved a score – and Evans obliged.
Six minutes later, with two Lyon players in the sin-bin as the visitors struggled to stop wave after wave of Castres onslaughts, Kockott darted over from the base of a scrum. Suddenly it was 17-17.
But, with five minutes to play, Stephen Brett – who had taken over kicking duties after Porical was replaced – landed his second penalty to restore Lyon’s lead.
Castres were not to be beaten. Kockott nailed a penalty from the restart to level and – with less than a minute left on the clock – fired over one last kick to make it 23-20.
The win changed little in the Top 14 standings, with the defensive bonus keeping Lyon above Castres by a solitary point – but just four points now separate 14th from 10th. Perm any two from Castres, Lyon, Brive, La Rochelle and Bayonne for the drop this season.
Two of those sides meet next weekend, as Bayonne entertain Castres. Lyon, meanwhile, are at home to Toulon, Brive face Racing Metro and La Rochelle take on Oyonnax.
Clermont overtook Stade Francais at the head of the Top 14 with a routine 28-16 win over Bayonne at Stade Marcel Michelin.
The game was effectively all over after 13 minutes, after Clermont’s number 8 Peceli Yato finished a sweeping end to end move to score his second try of the match in five minutes, after the ball had been overturned a metre or so from their own line.
Bayonne’s hooker David Roumieu barged over Clermont’s line just before halftime to keep the score respectable. But, 12 minutes from time, Julien Bonnaire battered his way through a defence stretched to breaking by another scything attack to put the game beyond doubt.
Montpellier’s challenge for a Top 14 play-off place faltered at home to La Rochelle. Jake White’s side could only muster a 15-15 draw against the relegation-threatened Rochellaise, who will be much happier with the result than the hosts.
Ben Lucas scored all the hosts’ points with the boot, as the nearly fit-again Francois Trinh-Duc watched from the stands.
The game threatened to get away from the home side four minutes into the second period, after hooker Hikairo Forbes with the ball after an unstoppable maul from the visitors. The try made it 9-8, but Jean Pascal Barraque missed the conversion that would have given La Rochelle the lead.
Things got worse when replacement Alex Tulou was sin-binned a minute after coming on.
With eight minutes to go, fullback Kini Murimurivalu made the most of a slice of luck after a wayward lineout throw opened up Montpellier’s defence to give the visitors the lead. But Lucas held his nerve to level the scores after the hooter.
Racing Metro came from behind to beat Grenoble 34-29 in a thriller at Le Havre’s Stade Oceane.
Racing’s scrum-half Maxime Machenaud finished off a smart move to open the try-scoring after 12 minutes, after two Jonathan Wisniewski penalties had given the visitors an early 6-0 lead.
Machenaud’s quick-thinking nearly led to a second try, but a wayward pass after a quick tap penalty was too far ahead of the flying Brice Dulin.
Grenoble’s Xavier Mignot cancelled out Machenaud’s try after 30 minutes, and despite a score from Racing’s Antonie Claassens, the visitors went into the break a deserved 16-12 up.
But two tries for the hosts in the second half – the first from Francois Van der Merwe, and the second for Juan Imhoff – were too much for Grenoble, who could only manage one try from Gio Aplon in reply.
Five teams remain in the hunt for the final two play-off places. Take your pick from Oyonnax, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Grenoble and Montpellier.
Toulon leapt to the head of the Top 14 with a straightforward and thoroughly predictable 34-11 win over Brive at Stade Mayol in the 19th weekend’s final fixture.
David Smith did his hopes of a contract extension with the defending Top 14 champions no harm at all, running in four tries as Toulon ripped Brive open time and time again.
Namesake Juan Smith stopped the winger grabbing all the glory, adding a try of his own in the first half to take the game beyond even the slightest of doubt in the opening 40 minutes.
Replacement Alfi Mafi went over for Brive with 15 minutes left – but by then it was far too little, much too late.
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