CASTRES, FRANCE: Eight teams are in the leading pack for a place in the Top 14 playoffs, with just seven points separating Clermont in first, from Racing Metro in eighth – and just four between Montpellier, in second, and Toulouse, in seventh.
The gap between eighth and ninth, however, has grown to six points, as the leading sides make a break at this key time of the season.
Clermont are hanging tough at the top of the table despite losing a close encounter of the smash-and-grab kind at Grenoble.
With 10 minutes to go, the visitors were 13-9 up, and looked set for a win at Stade des Alpes – something Toulouse, Heineken Cup winners Toulon and Top 14 champions Castres have not been able to manage this season. But then, just weeks after his late-late interception try at Stade Mayol sparked a chain reaction that led to Bernard Laporte’s 13-week ban, Ratu Ratini raced the length of the pitch to give his side an unlikely 16-13 lead.
Even then, Clermont looked set for a win as Fritz Lee barged his way over at the end of a patient move. But the video referee could not confirm that he grounded the ball and denied the try.
It was the second time the visitors had been denied by the video referee. Midway through the first period, Benson Stanley scorched through Grenoble’s defence to touch down under the posts. But the video referee spotted an off-the-ball incident early in the move, near halfway, which meant the try was disallowed. It was deemed serious enough for Lee to spend 10 minutes reflecting on his actions in the sin bin.
French international hooker Benjamin Kayser came on as a replacement – and promptly picked up an injury that has ruled him out of the rest of the Six Nations. Castres’ Brice Mach discovered after his side’s match at Toulon that he has been picked as cover.
Kayser was not the only international to fall by the wayside on a weekend which saw the FFR release Les Bleus’ players back to their clubs, but ask – ever so nicely – that they be rested for this week’s Top 14 fixtures. Some clubs did. Some didn’t – Mourad Boudjellal made it perfectly clear that Mathieu Bastareaud was available for selection. He played… and picked up an injury, which won’t please national coach Philippe Saint-Andre.
Montpellier jumped two places to second with a rampant 50-19 victory over Perpignan at Stade Yves du Manoir. It was just one of those days when Fabien Galthie’s side were in irrepressible mood. One days like this, they are the most exciting side in the Top 14.
The stage was set in the breathless opening exchanges. Perpignan were 10-6 up after 10 minutes. Two minutes later, it was 13-10 to Montpellier after Rene Ranger scored the first of his two tries. A mere two minutes after that James Hook had leveled the scores again.
After a brief breather, while both sides regrouped, the floodgates opened. Alex Toulou touched down and Ranger scored his second in five minutes just after the half hour, while Benoit Paillaugue converted both and added a penalty of his own to give Montpellier a 33-16 halftime lead.
Another brace of second-half tries, courtesy of Toulou again and Eric Escande, condemned the Catalan side to their biggest defeat of the season.
Stade Francais had every chance to retake the lead in the Top 14 in the final match of the weekend in a Brive swamp.
But Stade Amedee Domenech is a graveyard for visiting teams. Toulon have lost here, as have Toulouse, Castres and Montpellier. Stade Francais can now add their name to that list, after heading back to Paris with nothing to show for the evening’s efforts following a 28-12 defeat.
Despite the conditions, Brive were not afraid to run the ball, and were rewarded with a bonus-point win. The last of their three tries came after the hooter as, with Stade desperately chasing a touchdown that would give them at least a defensive bonus point threw caution to the wind; Thomas Sanchou intercepted a Morne Steyn pass and raced 60m to score in the corner.
Toulon moved level on points with Castres after grinding out a 19-13 win over the reigning Top 14 champions at Stade Mayol.
Hours before the match it was finally revealed that Castres’ scrum-half Rory Kockott had turned his back on what was undoubtedly a big-money move to Toulon. Getting him out of the pre-contract he signed with Toulon is set to cost the Tarn side in the region of €400,000. It’s a price Castres appear prepared to pay, but it’s a blow for Toulon, who have already missed out on the services of Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar. It almost certainly explains the reaction of the fans of the Var side…
‘Please respect the kicker’, reads a big-screen graphic at Stade Mayol whenever a penalty kick or conversion is lined up. That was never going to happen after Kockott’s decision was revealed on Friday night. He missed his first two penalties amid loud jeers – and each miss was welcomed like a Matt Giteau try.
He was also singled out for some ‘special attention’ by Toulon’s players. Ali Williams caught him twice and Delon Armitage may find himself in bother with the citing commissioner for a little bit of ‘extra’ after a tackle.
In the eye of Storm Rory, Jonny Wilkinson was pure zen. He notched three from three to give Toulon a 9-0 first-half lead in a game where defence held the upper hand.
The game threatened to explode into life as first Remi Grosso and then Matt Giteau – making up for missing a crucial tackle on Grosso – traded touchdowns in a three-minute spell. But then Wilkinson calmed matters again in the 73rd minute with his fourth penalty.
There was still time for Kockott to have one last chance to pick up a defensive bonus point for the visitors as Castres won a penalty wide out in the 79th minute. Despite the boos, his aim was true. There was also time for Mathieu Bastareaud to come on as a replacement and pick up a shoulder injury that may rule him out of France’s Six Nations’ trip to Wales next weekend.
Toulouse won their first Top 14 game away from fortress Ernest Wallon this season with a 6-16 over bottom-of-the-table Biarritz at Parc des Sports Aguilera. Gael Fickou, who – with Bastareaud a major doubt – will be looking to be named in the starting line-up for France next weekend, scored the only try of the game just before halftime, as the visitors headed into the break 13-6 to the good. The least said about the second half, the better.
Racing Metro hung on to their hopes of a play-off place with an 18-8 win at home over Bayonne. Six penalties, courtesy of Maxime Marchenaud and Jonny Sexton were good enough for the home side, despite replacement Santiago Fernandez’s second-half try. Worryingly for Racing – and France – however, prop Luc Ducalcon picked up an injury that means he is a doubt for Les Bleus next weekend.
Oyonnax have more reasons than most to thank Racing Metro as they try to hang on to Top 14 status. The side from the plastics city could do nothing but sit and watch the weekend’s other matches as their game against Bordeaux at fortress Charles Mathon was called off.
It was the second time in three weekends that Oyonnax have had a crucial home game postponed. It may prove costly in more ways than on at the end of the season.
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