CASTRES, FRANCE – In case you hadn’t realized already – maybe because since September you have been living under a rock on the dark side of the moon, and had your music turned up to 11, and made sure you never logged on to sports websites and, anyway, kept your eyes firmly closed in case you saw something that might disturb you – Oyonnax is a really, really, REALLY difficult place to win a game of rugby.
Going into Saturday afternoon’s Top 14 game against Toulon, Oyonnax had played four, won three at Stade Charles Mathon. Their victims included 2013 European Cup finalists Clermont, 2013 Top 14 champions Castres, and 2012 European Challenge Cup winners Biarritz, while born-again Stade Francais escaped with a one-point win.
No one, however, gave them much of a chance against the 2013 European champions and richest club in the world, who featured Jonny Wilkinson, Michael Claassens, Bakkies Botha, Drew Mitchell, Ali Williams, Mathieu Basteraud, Matt Giteau, David Smith, Carl Hayman and Andrew Sheridan in their line-up.
But Oyonnax clearly hadn’t read the script – which clearly stated that they play the part of plucky but ultimately well-beaten underdogs.
It was quite right that Oyonnax should score an early try, with full-back Florian Denos injuring his shoulder going over in the corner. It was supposed to wake Toulon out of their complacency and turn them into a lean, mean rugby machine.
Maybe it did. But Oyonnax tackled and fought and harried and fought and chased and fought and kicked and fought and played and fought from can til can’t. Argentinian fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta kicked everything going. Astonishingly, anything he could do, opposite number Wilkinson couldn’t quite match. Particularly when attempting a last-gasp drop goal to cancel out his Urdapilleta’s near-last-gasp drop goal that gave the host’s the lead once again with just three minutes remaining.
Stade Charles Mathon doesn’t have a roof. If it did, then it – along with every other roof in the town in the shadow of the Jura Mountains – would be halfway to Mars by now as the crowd erupted when the final whistle sounded.
But Oyonnax fans weren’t the only ones celebrating their historic win. Their conquerors last weekend, Stade Francais, also had reasons to be cheerful, as that win ensured that the lily-liveried Parisian side are top of the Top 14.
Stade had overtaken Toulon with an 18-11 victory over Montpellier on Friday night in a match that should be subtitled A Tale of Two Scrum-Halves. While number-nine-of-the-moment Jonathan Pelissie was pretty much anonymous his opposite number, forgotten man Julien Dupuy, ran the Stade show. The final score was not a true reflection of the home side’s dominance.
Meanwhile, two of Oyonnax’s early season victims – Clermont and Castres – both racked up home wins.
Clermont’s 40-11 win over Bordeaux, their 64th victory in a row at Stade Marcel Michelin, looks more impressive than it actually was. For a brief period in the first half, their incredible winning streak at home was at risk after Romain Lonca crossed to give Bordeaux the lead. But Clermont were helped by a combination of Begles’ indiscipline and some pretty strict letter-of-the-law refereeing that saw the man in charge issue seven yellow cards – including three in the last 13 minutes that reduced the visitors to 12 men.
Castres showed flashes of brilliance as they welcomed Racing Metro to Stade Pierre Antoine. Some neat passing and clever interplay allowed Marcel Garvey to score a stunning first-half try, while scrum-half Rory Kockott kicked eight points in the first 40 to give the hosts a lead to build on. But rather than run away with the game Castres struggled in the second period as Racing, via Jonny Sexton, fought back. The Irish fly-half got his side to within one point, before Kockott slotted the final points of the game.
Another of Oyonnax’s scalps, Biarritz, are already a near-insurmountable nine points adrift at the bottom of the Top 14 after losing 27-19 at their closest rivals (in every sense), Bayonne. They visitors cause wasn’t helped when Pelu Taele-Pavihi saw red before the end of the first half. It allowed Marvin O’Connor to cross the line for a try, while Bustos-Moyano slotted four penalties and a conversion in the first period – and although the visitors rallied in the second half, their brave efforts were simply not enough for even a losing bonus point.
Brive also had to play the bulk of their game against Grenoble with 14 men, after Thomas Sanchou was sent off during an eventful first half that also saw the two sides share four yellow cards. Remarkably, however, despite being a man down, the visitors duked it out for the full 80 minutes and were able to head home with a more-than creditable 12-12 draw.
Guy Noves tinkered with his teamsheet for Toulouse’s visit to Perpignan, where they were looking for their first win on the road since March 30. He left Luke McAlister on the bench, starting with Lionel Beauxis at 10. The experiment didn’t last long, however, as shortly after missing an early penalty, Beauxis went off injured. But the mercurial McAlister was unable to prevent his side going down 20-16, thanks mainly to the boot of James Hook, whose late, late long-range drop goal sealed matters after the All Black dragged the visitors back into the game from 14-6 down at half time.
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