CASTRES, FRANCE – Any highlights package of the fourth round of France’s Top 14 this season will look more like a countdown of the contenders for try of the season than a review of just one night of matches.
It was a night that featured 41 tries. Toulon ran in nine, Clermont seven, Castres six, and Perpignan five; Bordeaux, Montpellier and Toulouse scored three times; and Stade Francais, Grenoble and Biarritz all added one to their season’s tally. Brive, Bordeaux and Racing Metro were the only sides not to break down their opponents’ defences on what must go down as really, really, really bad nights at the office.
Pity poor Brive. It wasn’t their fault that they were scheduled to face Toulon at Fortress Mayol this evening. It wasn’t their fault that Toulon had lost at Grenoble on Saturday. It was, however, their fault that they took the lead with an early penalty.
After that, Toulon showed no mercy. Brive’s lead lasted all of 50 seconds. Then the hosts scored at will, from pretty much anywhere. Brive would have been quietly pleased to go in at halt-time only 20-12 down – but would have been willing the hooter to signal the end of their pain from early on in a cruel second period. When it finally did, the scoreboard read a wince-inducing 62-12.
Clermont were arguably even more brutal as they extended their home-run to 62 wins in the last 62 matches. As Vern Cotter perched high up at the back of Marcel Michelin, like a bald, baseball-capped god playing ineffable rugby with the affairs of the men on the pitch, his side crossed the line seven times and refused to let Bordeaux score once. Not even a penalty, or a drop goal. It ended 55-0. It could have been worse, too. At least Clermont demonstrated compassion of sorts and stopped scoring with 15 minutes to go…
Those big wins were easy enough to predict, but the rest of the evening’s fixtures were more difficult to call.
Stade Francais came into their match against Castres at the top of the table, but any notion that they would build on Friday’s 38-3 demolition of Biarritz was firmly brushed aside at Pierre Antoine. The hosts welcomed Brice Dulin and Remy Grosso back from injury, while Marcel Garvey scored for the fourth time in as many games, as the hosts took a dominant first-half performance that was not reflected in a sphincter-clenching 12-10 score and turned it, courtesy of 40 more minutes of thrilling attacking rugby, into a 38-10 mauling.
Gnarled rugby gnome Guy Noves masterminded Toulouse’s 30-6 home win over the Top 14’s pretty boys Racing Metro. It moved Toulouse from 10th in the table to fourth, such is the topsy-turvy nature of the Top 14 this season, while Racing dropped from sixth to a slightly scary 11th. Noves’ side still face a difficult run up in the league before European rugby kicks in, but will his September gamble actually pay off? If it does, maybe he should enter a big-prize lottery.
Bordeaux and Montpellier scored three tries each as they tore lumps out of each other in what looked, judging by the scoreline, like a 29-36 thriller. It was actually nothing of the sort. It was all over bar the shouting by half-time as the visitors, who were 16-23 to the good at the time, showed rather more fight for the game in the second period than they did against Brive last time out.
In another encounter that was pretty much done and dusted by the time the referee took the players in at half time, James Hook was Perpignan’s captain for the night as the Catalan side ran in five tries against a Grenoble outfit that looked as if Saturday’s win over Toulon had taken rather more out of them than they’d care to admit.
Someone must have pointed out to Oyonnax that they do much better in their red kit than in that gold one. They picked up their second win of the season when they beat Dimitri Yachvili 24-22 at Stade Charles Mathon. It would have been an even bigger winning margin, too, but Eagle Takudzwa Ngwenya finally decided to get involved in the game shortly before the final whistle and score a try that allowed Yachvili to convert and drag the scores back to something approaching respectability.
And there you have it. There’s a long way to go in this already crazy Top 14 season, but – unless you’re a Racing fan – the top of table looks pretty much as it should right now, with Clermont, Toulon, Castres, Toulouse, Stade and Montpellier all occupying the top six. How long it will stay this way remains to be seen.