CASTRES, FRANCE: The clock is ticking down on the Top 14 season and this weekend brought with it more than its fair share of promotion and relegation issues – not to mention a reasonable smattering of controversy.
With the Rugby World Cup looming and seasons ending – adding just a dash of relegation and promotion flavour – national coaches across the planet are surviving on a tension-fuelled diet of nerves and fingernails as they pray to the rugby gods to look after their favoured players.
But the capricious deities clearly weren’t smiling on poor, beleaguered France coach Philippe Saint-Andre this weekend – as World Cup outside chance Freddie Michalak broke his hand to join fellow fly-half Jules Plisson on the pre-squad selection injury list.
Meanwhile, even as five Top 14 sides live in fear of the drop, just four ProD2 clubs remain in the race to join Pau in climbing to French rugby’s top flight. The play-off semi-finals have been confirmed, with Mont-de-Marsan set to face Albi, and Perpignan taking on Agen.
Racing Metro 19 – Stade Francais 28
Stade captain Sergio Parisse was sent off for this incident in which he made contact with Racing fullback Brice Dulin while contesting a 19th-minute garryowen.
Replays showed the Italy number 8 was pulled back by Bernard Le Roux as he set up to challenge Dulin for the ball. Le Roux’s ‘intervention’ meant Parisse was unable to challenge cleanly – but referee Jerome Garces, who will officiate at the World Cup, had no hesitation in sending him off after checking TV replays.
With the scores level at 6-6 at the time, the red card incensed and galvanised Stade – who, with no Plisson, had called on their misfit adopted son Morne Steyn to fulfil kicking duties. He did not let them down. He kicked seven penalties and converted Jeremy Sinzelle’s acrobatic 44th minute try to outscore his Leinster-bound opposite number Jonny Sexton 23 points to 14.
Sinzelle’s score in the corner, in which he outjumped the Racing defence to latch on to a chip over the top from Julien Dupuy then got the ball down a fraction of a second before his feet landed in touch, took Stade virtually out of sight. So Maxime Machenaud’s try from the base of a 5m scrum 10 minutes later was little more than scant consolation for big-spending Racing – who drop to sixth in the Top 14, the last of the play-off places.
Lyon need more than a miracle – they need maths
Lyon 16 – La Rochelle 16
A draw at home to La Rochelle means it is still mathematically possible for Top 14 basement side Lyon to survive the drop. There are two games left in the regular season – and a possible 10 points up for grabs – which could be just enough for last season’s runaway ProD2 champions to escape the black hole-pull of relegation.
But then time travel is also mathematically possible. Which is rather more likely to actually happen than it is to see Lyon playing Top 14 rugby next season. But at least a scintilla of a hint of pride was restored as they finally ended the run of eight consecutive defeats that has plunged them to the depths of the table.
So, for now, the agony of faint hope remains after replacement fullback Lachie Munroe’s 76th-minute penalty earned the hosts a share of the points.
Lyon were first on the scoreboard thanks to the boot of fullback Jerome Porical, but La Rochelle were first to cross the tryline – courtesy of impressive defence-stretching work from centre Malietoa Hingano midway through the first half. He then offloaded to midfield partner Levani Botia, who raced in.
Lyon took the lead seven minutes later thanks to a typically energetic score from hooker Damien Fitzpatrick.
The game was reduced to a tryless penalty mart in the second period, as the visitors just about made certain of their place in the Top 14 next season, as they stretched their unbeaten streak to eight.
Toulon party in Med Sun
Toulon 37 – Castres 21
Any hopes that relegation-threatened Castres may have had that Toulon would still be suffering a post-Twickenham hangover were quickly dashed as the newly crowned three-time European Champions ran in five tries to party with their new trophy on the Cote D’Azur.
Such was Toulon’s dominance that they were 23-7 up by halftime – and 37-7 ahead with 15 minutes of the game left. But two Castres tries in the final seven minutes denied the defending Top 14 champions an attacking bonus point.
The party started before the match, as the new European Rugby Champions Cup trophy was paraded before a full-to-bursting, baying Stade Mayol. And it kicked up a gear 11 minutes into the game, when Steffon Armitage reminded everyone – especially Stuart Lancaster – just what a dangerous player he is. His try, blasted over from short range was not a thing of beauty, but scores in rugby are not marked on artistic impression.
Six minutes later, Castres’ Romain Martial was quickest to Julien Dumora’s clever kick ahead to score the first of the visitors three tries. But their joy was shortlived as Xavier Chiocci, of all players, picked up Ali Williams’ tap down some 30m from the line and broke through too many defenders to score straight from the restart.
And when Josua Tuisova scored the try of the match with 10 minutes left in the first half, the only question remaining was how many points would Toulon score. He beat two Castrians en route to the line, after Matt Giteau’s monstrous scything miss-pass scattered the visitors’ defence.
The stats told the sorry story – Castres had missed more than 50% of their first-up tackles in the first half.
The talented Tuisova added his second three minutes after the restart – again benefiting from a perfect pass, this time from Armitage. With 15 minutes left, Leigh Halfpenny made the most of more dismal defensive work from Castres, as Remi Lamerat failed to deal with Drew Mitchell’s grubber kick.
By this time Rory Kockott had come on – and he inspired the bonus-point-denying fightback. First, he darted over from close range. Then his break from inside his own 22 led to a try for captain Romain Cabannes five minutes from time.
Montpellier keep play-off hopes alive
Montpellier 33 – Bayonne 16
But, they were unable to pick up an attacking bonus point, despite hammering at Bayonne’s line as the clock ticked down.
Hooker Charles Geli scattered defenders like confetti as he barged over from close range after 13 minutes to give the hosts the lead. But, after Sitaleki Timani was given 10 minutes in the bin for a high tackle on Marvin O’Connor, Bayonne went ahead when Lisiate Fa’aoso ripped a brutal hole in the defence to score.
The tryscorer then turned sinner shortly before halftime. He was rewarded with 10 minutes extra resting time, and Ben Lucas slotted the resulting penalty to ensure the scores were level at the break.
Coach White’s well-chosen halftime words had the desired effect on the home side. Francois Trinh-Duc started the getaway with two perfectly judged drop goals before Akapusi Qera and Robert Ebersohn ran in tries in the closing 10 minutes.
Chequered Bordeaux leave it late on final visit to Andre Moga
Bordeaux 26 – Oyonnax 23
Bordeaux bade a winning farewell to their old happy hunting ground Stade Andre Moga thanks to Marco Tauleigne’s 77th-minute try. But even then the drama wasn’t quite over…
Pierre Bernard – who could now be on Philippe Saint-Andre’s fly-half radar – and Benjamin Urdapilleta traded early points before Jayden Spence ripped open the hosts defence and let Blair Connor fly for the game’s opening try after 26 minutes.
Two more Urdapilleta penalties dragged visitors Oyonnax back into contention, with the scoreline reading 16-12 at halftime.
Both teams were reduced to 14 after Jefferson Poirot and Marc Clerc saw yellow following a flare-up 13 minutes into the second period, before Bordeaux sealed the win with Tauleigne’s late score.
But Oyonnax had the last word. Florian Denos touched down with the final play to steal a defensive bonus point and – with results elsewhere going their way – move above Racing Metro in the Top 14 play-off race.
Huget and Flood drown Brive
Toulouse 67 – Brive 19
The battle for man of the match in Toulouse’s nine-try demolition of hapless Brive came down to two men. French winger Yoann Huget ran in three of the hosts tries, while Toby Flood scored 27 points.
Toulouse flew out of the blocks. Huget scored his first two tries between the 13th and 15th minute of the game. And then hooker Corey Flynn added their third as the first quarter ticked out.
The first-half try-scoring was not over. Maxime Medard added another for the hosts after 33 minutes, and Brive’s captain invincible Arnaud Mela delivered a note of defiance with a score two minutes before the break.
Gaetan Germain added two long-range penalties to make it 32-19 early in the second period, before Medard scored his second and Toulouse’s fifth try.
Brive’s mission impossible became even more difficult Francois Da Ros was yellow carded for an unnecessary trip on scrum-half Sebastien Bezy. And Toulouse added two more tries through Schalk Ferreira and Louis Picamoles after the Zebra’s fullback Germain joined Da Ros in the bin.
There was still time for Huget to complete his hat-trick in the closing minutes. Flood converted – then scored Toulouse’s ninth try of the match as the hooter sounded.
Suddenly Grenoble fear dropping out of the Top 14
Grenoble 17 – Clermont 37
Thomas Domingo emerged from a mess of players with the ball to open the scoring after four minutes. Before the first half was over Noa Nakaitaci and Wesley Fofana added scores that oozed pure class – the latter squeezing through a perfect Fofana-shaped hole in Grenoble’s defence.
The hosts finally found a response – in the unlikely form of lock Hendrik Roodt – shortly before the referee blew for halftime. But it offered little more than temporary respite.
Less than 15 minutes into the second half, Nick Abendanon dropped another heavy hint Stuart Lancaster’s way with another try of beauty and joy forever. Last week, he left Toulon players standing with a perfect chip. This week, he hit the perfect line to run through Grenoble’s defence like a white-hot knife through runny butter.
Replacement prop Albertus Buckle crashed over in conciliatory defiance for the hosts with eight minutes remaining – but Clermont had the last word as Fofana scored his second to earn the visitors a try-scoring bonus.
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