Top 14 Recap: It’s Getting a Bit Tense Now

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CASTRES, FRANCE – Proof, if it was needed, that simply keeping an eye on the Top 14 table tells only a fraction of the story. A glance at the ladder suggests nothing much happened – there were only three positional changes on the 22nd week of the season, with none of the top 10 making any moves.

But they were significant positional changes – and, on the pitch, very significant things indeed happened.

Oyonnax stunned Clermont in the Top 14

Oyonnax stunned Clermont in the Top 14

Clermont beaten at home
You read that right. Clermont – the side that dismantled Northampton in the European Champions Cup last weekend; the side that, until last season’s Top 14 play-off quarter finals, had won every home match since November 2009; the side that has won 12 in a row at Stade Marcel Michelin since an early season defeat to Montpellier – lost at home.

Opponents Oyonnax had fly-half Benjamin Urdipilleta to thank for the win. He nervelessly slotted the 74th-minute penalty that put them 11-10 in front. Christophe Urios’s side then survived wave after wave of late and increasingly desperate Clermont attacks to tighten their grip on the final play-off place.

Clermont coach Franck Azema changed his entire starting line-up to give many of his European heroes a week off ahead of next weekend’s semi-final against Saracens at St Etienne. But his side still featured the likes of Zac Guildford, Mike Delany, Thierry Lacrampe, Benson Stanley, Aurelien Rougerie, and Julien Bardy.

It looked for all the world as if normal service would continue, as the hosts went in at the break 7-3 up, thanks to a crashing no-frills try from number 8 Peceli Yato. Brock James – called into service from the bench earlier than he would have hoped as he came on as an 18th-minute replacement for Delany – converted.

Clermont were nothing like as slick as last week, but they seemed to have the measure of Oyonnax. Then, ironically, former Northampton prop Soane Tonga’uiha scored for the visitors after 54 minutes to give Oyonnax the lead. But a second James penalty nine minutes seemed to be the last word – until Urdapilleta had his quietly dramatic final say.

Toulon won, but may have lost Leigh Halfpenny next week

Toulon won, but may have lost Leigh Halfpenny next week

Halfpenny hurt in Toulon’s Grenoble test
Fullback Leigh Halfpenny could miss Toulon’s European Champions Cup semi final against Leinster in Marseille next weekend after injuring his shoulder in the first-half of the defending Top 14 champions’ 35-24 win at Grenoble.

Although the Welsh international did not return to the Stade des Alpes pitch after halftime, he had already made his mark on the game, slotting 13 points in an entertaining opening 40 that featured four tries.

Rory Grice scored a third-minute try for the hosts but Toulon hit back 10 minutes later as Matt Giteau touched down. Halfpenny converted, and added two penalties of his own before Nigel Hunt’s converted try put Grenoble back in front after 30 minutes. But another Halfpenny penalty and a Bryan Habana try left the hosts trailing 23-14 at the break.

Indiscipline cost Grenoble. In the second half, Delon Armitage slotted two quick-fire long-range penalties to cancel Jackson Willison’s 46th-minute try, and Freddie Michalak kicked Toulon’s eighth penalty – his second – with nine minutes remaining.

Albertus Buckle scored a fourth – meaningless – try for the hosts three minutes from time, as Toulon opened a three-point gap at the top of the table, and the hosts’ hopes of sneaking into the play-offs faded into grey.

Toulouse had Louis Picamoles to thank for their Top 14 triumph

Toulouse had Louis Picamoles to thank for their Top 14 triumph

Picamoles’ late show plunges Bayonne into drop zone
Louis Picamoles scored the all-important try three minutes from time as Toulouse snatched a 20-17 victory from the jaws of defeat at Stade Ernest Wallon to send Bayonne crashing into the Top 14 relegation zone.

The visitors had looked on course for what would have been a well-deserved win on the road thanks to Uncle Joe Rokocoko’s first-half try and penalties from Martin Bustos Moyano and Scott Spedding.

Moyano opened the scoring from the kicking tee before the hosts’ Patricio Albacete scored the game’s opening try in the opening 10 minutes. But it was Bayonne who led at the break courtesy of Rokocoko’s try five minutes before the whistle.

Luke McAlister and France international Spedding traded second-half penalties, but Picamoles’ late score snatched the win that kept Toulouse firmly in the play-offs running and – with results elsewhere going against them – saw Bayonne drop to 13th.

Brive cast Lyon seven points adrift at the foot of the Top 14

Brive cast Lyon seven points adrift at the foot of the Top 14

Lyon in big trouble after Brive defeat
Big-spending Lyon find themselves seven points adrift at the foot of the Top 14 after an agonising 22-20 defeat at relegation rivals Brive.

Last season’s Pro D2 champions outscored their hosts two tries to one, but the boot of Gaetan Germain was the difference. The fullback kicked 17 points, as the Zebras put clear water between themselves and the league’s dreaded bottom two places.

George Smith scored his first try for Lyon after 25 minutes to help visitors to a 10-6 lead at halftime. They extended their advantage early in the second period courtesy of Waisea Sukanaveita’s converted try four minutes into the second period.

That should have given them a platform to strike out for what would have been a crucial away win, but Brive replied through Benito Masilevu three minutes later – and three unanswered penalties from Germain made certain of the win.

Remy Grosso scored Castres' try against Bordeaux

Remy Grosso scored Castres’ try against Bordeaux

Castres edge out of bottom two
Like Grenoble, Bordeaux’s hopes of reaching the Top 14’s end-of-season play-offs are rapidly disappearing over the horizon. Saturday’s 22-20 defeat at Castres’ Stade Pierre Antoine was their fourth in a row, and leaves them in ninth place, six points adrift of the all-important top six – and just five points above the drop zone.

The hosts, meanwhile, moved out of the relegation spots for the first time since the beginning of January 2015, as they came back from 10-0 down to edge a close encounter of the cagey kind.

Bordeaux centre Julien Rey scored the first try of the game after 18 minutes, benefiting from a bout of schoolboy defending to dot down as Cedric Garcia and Geoffrey Palis made a horlicks of an innocuous kick ahead. The visitors should have been further ahead, but a forward pass 5m from the hosts’ line meant spellchecker nightmare Metuisela Talebula’s easy run-in was for nothing.

Rey’s try sparked 2013 Top 14 champions Castres into life. Wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Remy Grosso began to scythe their way through the Begles’ defence, while the forwards started to dominate the scrum.

After desperate Bordeaux defence held up Johnnie Beattie over the line, it was just a matter of time before the hosts scored – and Grosso made sure it was not a long wait. He roared through a gaping hole in the visitors’ stretched defence to touch down near the posts.

Fullback Palis, who had earlier missed two relatively straightforward penalties, converted. A penalty seven minutes later levelled the scores. And another, on the stroke of half-time after Bordeaux second row Berend Botha was sin-binned for a shoulder charge, gave Castres the lead for the first time.

Palis punished another Bordeaux infringement to put his side 16-10 up after 50 minutes as the second half turned into a nervy, boot-dominated affair.

Bordeaux replacement Baptiste Serin halved the deficit with 12 minutes remaining, but Castres looked to have sealed victory when Julien Dumora, on for Palis, sent over two penalties in the final 10 minutes.

But Bordeaux hit back. Blair Connor somehow kept his foot out of touch as he dived over in the corner in the last minute to set Castres’ supporters nerves jangling – and ensure that the visitors headed home with a defensive bonus point.

La Rochelle came within seven minutes of beating Stade Francais

La Rochelle came within seven minutes of beating Stade Francais

Danty denies La Rochelle
La Rochelle are now unbeaten in six Top 14 matches after they drew 19-19 with title challengers Stade Francais on Friday night – but the hosts will have been disappointed with the result after leading by seven points with seven minutes remaining.

But then Jonathan Danty scored to send Stade briefly to the head of the Top 14.

An injury list as long as Jason Eaton’s arm meant that Eliott Roudil made his first start this season for Bayonne – and he made an immediate impact, scoring in the opening minute.

The teams then traded penalties with Plisson nailing four, before converting Danty’s late try to steal a share of the points, and Fabien Fortassin firing over a drop goal and a three penalties.

In truth, it was not a great night for the kickers. Both Fortassin and Plisson missed kicks they really should have landed.

Racing Metro drew with Montpellier

Racing Metro drew with Montpellier

Montpellier fight back to hold Racing
Young fullback Johan Goosen missed a last-minute penalty as fourth-placed Racing Metro were held to a 24-24 draw at Stade Yves du Manoir by Jake White’s Montpellier.

The hosts scored four tries – two each for number 8 Antonie Claassen and scrum-half Maxime Machenaud – to the visitors’ two, but 14 unanswered points in the final quarter gave the visitors an unlikely share of the spoils.

With time running out on his Top 14 career, Jonny Sexton converted both Racing’s first-half tries. And despite Milheil Nariashvili’s touchdown for the visitors after 32 minutes, victory seemed assured for the hosts as both Claassen and Machenaud dotted down again after the restart.

But they reckoned with Ben Lucas. He landed two penalties before Timoci Nagusa danced his way through Racing’s defence for a superb individual try. Another Lucas penalty in the 79th minute levelled the scores – before Goosen missed one last chance to snatch the win for the home side.

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James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"

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