CASTRES, FRANCE – Sometimes, sporting records develop a life of their own and turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. It was true, for the longest time, of Bob Beamon’s long-jump record. It is true of the 95-96 Chicago Bulls season. It is true of Antonio Cromartie’s 109-yard touchdown run. It is also true of new Top 14 leaders Clermont’s winning streak at home.
They have now won 72 games in a row at Stade Marcel Michelin in all competitions. And we are now at the point where they always win there because they always win there.
Truth be told, they didn’t play especially well on Saturday afternoon – but, crucially, they played a lot better than visitors Stade Francais.
Morgan Parra scored all Clermont’s points as they cruised to a 25-13 victory to leapfrog their opponents at the top of the table.
Digby Ioane replied for the visitors, scoring his first Top 14 try in the 74th minute to give the final score a somewhat flattering look. Stade really didn’t deserve to get that close, if 12 points can ever be described as close.
One day, Clermont’s winning streak at home will come to a grinding, shuddering halt. Four more Top 14 teams head to Marcel Michelin this season. Montpellier, Toulon, Castres and Perpignan will all have their shot before this campaign comes to an end – but the season’s best hope came up a long way short.
Another record that is highly unlikely to be broken is the fastest try in the Top 14. And, as of Saturday, it belongs to Oyonnax, who touched down after just 14 seconds at Castres.
The defending champions were forced into a late shuffle of their team after fly-half Daniel Kirkpatrick fell ill. Initially, regular centre Seremaia Bai slotted in at 10… until midfield partner Remi Lamerat picked up an injury 10 minutes before kick off. So scrum-half Rory Kockott, who had been named as a replacement, stepped into the breach at 10, while Bai moved back into centre to fill the hole left by Lamerat.
And it was Kockott’s kick from deep inside his own 22 that was charged down by Thibault Lassalle with less than a quarter of a minute on the clock.
But Oyonnax’s lead didn’t last. Kockott went on to make amends with four penalties, while full-back Geoffrey Palis scored a try as the Top 14 champions won a squeaker 17-16. But, after being 17-10 up with 10 minutes to go, the hosts were made to sweat as Regis Lespinas dragged the visitors back to within one point with four minutes to play. Castres’ forwards, however, took responsibility for the ball, and ground down the clock before a relieved Kockott hoofed the ball into the stands as soon as the hooter sounded.
For the record, the South African-born scrum-half’s future is still unclear. Which means Castres’ next match, against Toulon at Stade Mayol, will be doubly interesting.
The defensive bonus that Oyonnax picked up, meanwhile, was their first on the road this season. But it might not be enough to keep them from going straight back down to the ProD2 a season after coming up – as Bayonne, their closest rivals, beat Brive 9-6. Martin Bustos Moyano and Gaetan Germain exchanged penalties in each half, before replacement Stephen Brett landed the vital penalty with 10 minutes to go.
Bordeaux aren’t known for their try-scoring capabilities, so their five-tries-to-two 38-17 thumping of Grenoble at Stade Andre Moga was something of a surprise.
The win itself was predictable – the Begles are tough to beat on home turf – but the joyous display of running rugby on a miserable Friday night was unexpected pleasure. Wayne Avel opened the try-fest before spellchecker nightmare Metuisela Talebulamaijaina touched down either side of halftime. The much easier to type Heine Adams also scored in either half.
Anthony Hegarty and Richard Choirat replied for Grenoble, but both scores were the very definitions of consolations, as the hosts had already scored four times by the time Choirat crossed the whitewash on the hour.
Top 14 pair Racing Metro and Toulouse will be rueing the absence of their Six Nations stars. Racing headed to Perpignan without the services of Mike Phillips, Dan Lydiate, Jamie Roberts, Jonny Sexton, Dimitri Szarzewski, and Maxime Marchenaud. And how they missed them.
They were on course for another defeat on the road until the 74th minute, when replacement Alexandre Dumoulin scored a try that brought them to within two points. Juan Martin Hernandez then showed nerves of steel to land the conversion to level the scores at 19-19.
And that’s how it stayed.
There was not much to cheer about in Toulouse, either. Luke McAlister used his good hand to sign a two-year contract extension, but that was the best news of the weekend as Montpellier ended their unbeaten run at home in the Top 14 with the last kick of the game.
It was always going to be difficult for the home side, without Yuann Huget, Gael Fickou, Louis Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga, Yoann Maestri, or Jean-Marc Doussain, who were all on international duty; while Thierry Dusautoir, Luke McAlister and Florian Fritz are taking up a fair amount of the physio’s time.
Club president Jean-Rene Bouscatel has made his feelings very publicly known, labelling the FFR and LNR ‘hypocrites and buffoons’.
It was a dour nip-tuck affair at Ernest Wallon, with neither side able to get much of a grip on the game, but it looked like the home side had done enough to salvage a draw when Sebastien Bezy landed a penalty to make it 12-12 with two minutes to go.
But Eric Escande had other ideas. He was handed one last chance to win the game in the 80th minute. He made no mistake to notch up Montpellier’s first ever win at Ernest Wallon and trigger some serious celebrations.
Toulon, meanwhile, returned to winning ways against Biarritz at Stade Mayol – but it was a close-run thing. Not that you’d think it just by looking at the 33-20 scoreline.
With 75 minutes on the clock, the galacticos were 19-20 down, and their pack was going backwards – fast. But then Matt Giteau and Delon Armitage both crossed the Biarritz line in a breathless final four minutes as Toulon ended a match they looked for all the world as if they were going to lose with a bonus-point win.
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