Top 14 Recap: Now Things Are Getting Interesting

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CASTRES, FRANCE – Whoever argued that promotion and relegation are bad for rugby can not have been paying attention to the Top 14 recently.

With three rounds left in the regular season, four points – a straightforward victory – is the difference between relegation to the ProD2 and a two-leg play-off against an English Premiership side for a place in next season’s European Champions Cup.

This carrot-and-stick scenario has just become very real for Montpellier, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Brive, Grenoble, Castres and Bayonne after a weekend in which four of the top six lost.

Inconsolable: Jules Plisson on the Stade bench

Inconsolable: Jules Plisson on the Stade bench

Plisson’s World Cup place in doubt as Stade lose ‘Le Clasico’
Jules Plisson’s World Cup chances are in serious doubt after he suffered a dislocated shoulder in Stade Francais’ 21-12 ‘Le Clasico’ defeat to Toulouse.

He had kicked them into a 9-8 late in the first period, but his departure through injury – and a red card for centre Jonathan Danty for throwing a punch at Vincent Clerc after he was tripped by the veteran winger proved costly as Toulouse enjoyed the bulk of the possession the second half.

Stade had seemed firmly in control in the opening stages, before Toulouse grabbed the game’s opening try from their first serious foray into the hosts’ 22 midway through the first half.  Scrum-half Nicolas Bezy made the crucial break before offloading to fullback Maxime Medard.

Bezy thought he had scored his team’s second try – but his long-range effort was ruled out for a high tackle in the build-up.

As 14-man Stade wilted under the constant Toulouse pressure, French international flanker Yannick Nyanga crossed for Toulouse’s second try five minutes from time.

Toulouse moved into third place in the Top 14 at Stade’s expense, as their early season woes become a fast-fading memory.

Lyon stare down barrel
No one’s quite prepared to call it yet, but Top 14 basement side Lyon are as good as relegated – only maths can save them now from an immediate return to the ProD2 – after a 37-22 home defeat to Bordeaux left them 12 points adrift at the foot of the table.

Quick getaway: Blair Connor scored in Bordeaux's Top 14 win over Lyon

Quick getaway: Blair Connor scored in Bordeaux’s Top 14 win over Lyon

There are still a maximum of 15 points up for grabs – but last season’s runaway ProD2 champions – who spent big in the close season to mount a Top 14 challenge – need bonus point wins over La Rochelle, Grenoble and Oyonnax. Even then, they still have to rely on two of Bayonne, Castres, Grenoble and Brive losing all their remaining games.

Lyon’s fate was effectively sealed in the opening 26 minutes of Saturday’s match, as Bordeaux raced into a 20-3 lead, courtesy of tries from Blair Connor and Sofiane Guitoune, and the perfect boot of fly-half Pierre Bernard.

A 10-minute fightback rekindled the faint flame of hope, as first hooker Damien Fitzpatrick then fullback Jerome Porical crossed for the hosts – but Bernard’s boot kept Lyon at bay, despite a third try from replacement scrum-half Ricky Januarie on the hour. The writing was deeply etched into the wall of the Matmut Stadium when Bordeaux winger Connor scored his second try with eight minutes left on the clock.

La Rochelle shock Toulon at death
Mali Hingani scored with the last move of the match as La Rochelle snatched a dramatic 32-29 win over Top 14 and European champions Toulon.

Sweet victory: La Rochelle's unbeaten run continues

Sweet victory: La Rochelle’s unbeaten run continues

Bernard Laporte had made 14 changes to the side that beat Leinster in Marseille last weekend. Only Freddie “Call Me Mercurial” Michalak kept his place in the starting line-up, following his Champions Cup nightmare last week.

The match practice clearly worked as he put in a much-improved performance, kicking 19 of his side’s points.

La Rochelle went ahead in the fourth minute when Alofa Alofa chased down his own chip over the Toulon defence to touch down. But, the visitors struck back immediately, stretching the home defence before one of their own young stars – Josua Tuisova – went over in the corner.

Then it was an old head’s turn. The 39-year-old Sireli Bobo showed off all his experience to see a gap that wasn’t there, then burst through it to score his 50th try in French rugby.

The match was just 23 minutes old when Mamuka Gorgodze went over for Toulon’s second try. Michalak added the extras as the Var side built a 20-14 lead. But the hosts hit back when fullback Kini Murimurivalu had the legs to get to the ball first following teenage centre Elliott Roudil’s cute grubber kick in behind the visitors’ defence.

Still the first half drama was not over. Scrum-half Julien Audy crossed again for the hosts five minutes before the break, but his score was disallowed.

Toulon regained the lead through two Michalak penalties, before he then cancelled out a Grant three-pointer, but Higani’s try after the hooter ensured La Rochelle’s timely late-season unbeaten run continued.

Bonus for Bayonne in nine-try thriller
Bayonne moved briefly out of the Top 14 relegation zone with a bonus-point 42-33 win over Grenoble.

Triple threat: Scott Spedding scored a hat-trick for Bayonne

Triple threat: Scott Spedding scored a hat-trick for Bayonne

South African-born France international Scott Spedding scored three of the home side’s six tries. He touched down twice in the first half, while ‘Uncle Joe’ Rokocoko also crossed to give 13th-placed Bayonne a 21-12 halftime lead.

Spedding’s third came on the hour in a try-packed second period. Matthieu Ugalde and Martin Bustos Moyano had scored for the hosts in the opening 10 minutes after halftime, while Grenoble finally joined the try-scoring act. Their first was a penalty try on 47 minutes, before replacements Jono Owen and Paul Willemse touched down to give the scoreline an air of respectability.

The defeat leaves Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble just one point above the relegation zone, with matches against Clermont, Lyon and Toulouse to come. Bayonne’s run-in is just as tricky, with trips to Montpellier and Bordeaux, and the visit of La Rochelle in their immediate future.

On the charge: Castres' winger Remy Grosso

On the charge: Castres’ winger Remy Grosso

Grosso runs riot as Castres hammer Clermont
There’s no wonder Clermont are reportedly interested in signing Remy Grosso from drop-fearing Castres. The winger – who is rather unfairly nicknamed the Aveyron Lomu – scored his fifth, sixth and seventh tries of the season as the 2013 Top 14 champions roared to a 31-10 bonus-point win over the Champions Cup finalists.

After the Bayonne result, a bonus point was just what Castres needed to escape the bottom two.

The comprehensive defeat meant Clermont lost ground to Toulon at the top of the table, and left them perilously close to losing their coveted second spot in the table, which brings with it a bye week in the opening round of the end-of-season play-offs.

Clermont started brightest. Their halfbacks in particular – Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez – had more spring in their step and more snap in their passes than rivals in the match and for the French international starting slots, Rory Kockott and Remi Tales.

And when Jean Buttin scored in the corner after just four minutes, it looked like Clermont’s 40-year hoodoo at Stade Pierre Antoine was about to end.

That impression strengthened when Castres captain Rodrigo Capo Ortega was denied a try for crossing, and then Kockott hammered the upright with his first kick at goal. It was the first of four kicks at goal the Castres scrum-half missed on the night.

But that was as good as it would get for Clermont, Lopez and Parra. Kockott and Tales would become increasingly influential as the game wound on.

Kockott turned over Parra at a Clermont scrum, allowing Grosso to score his first try after half an hour – and although the scrum-half again battered the upright with his conversion attempt, Castres were increasingly in control. Their scrum was in the ascendancy, and their defence held firm against anything that the visitors threw at them.

Grosso’s second, courtesy of two sleight-of-hand off-loads from midfield duo Remi Lamerat and Thomas Combezou, came on the stroke of halftime. And when Sitiveni Sivivatu popped up to pick up an offload from Tales and bunny-hop over the line 12 minutes into the second half, the Tarn side were in complete control.

But the bonus-point try proved hard to come by. Combezou was held up over the line, and untimely errors stopped attack after attack – until replacement prop Yannick Forestier ploughed over from short-range to score the hosts’ fourth try.

Four minutes from time, an interception from Lamerat allowed Grosso to race clear and seal the win with his third of the night.

Montpellier late show earns point
Montpellier fullback Ben Lucas converted winger Yohann Artru’s 79th-minute try to earn his side a scarcely deserved defensive bonus point at the end of a dismal match at Brive.

A completely forgettable first half ended 3-3, before the Zebra’s own kicking machine Gaetan Germain landed four unanswered second-half penalties to take Brive all-but out of sight.

Oyonnax dent Racing’s play-off hopes
Oyonnax boosted their play-off hopes with a 21-16 win over Racing Metro at Stade Charles Mathon.

Play-off battle: Oyonnax beat Racing Metro in the Top 14 on Saturday

Play-off battle: Oyonnax beat Racing Metro in the Top 14 on Saturday

The visitors raced into a 10-0 lead inside 10 minutes, thanks to a converted try from winger Juan Imhoff, and Maxime Machaneaud’s eighth-minute penalty – but six penalties and a drop goal from Benjamin Urdapilleta proved enough for Oyonnax to pick up another four points after their tension-filled 11-10 win at Clermont in the last round of the Top 14.

Sixth-placed Oyonnax, who occupy the last of the play-off places, are now six points ahead of Montpellier – and just five points behind second-placed Clermont.

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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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