CASTRES, FRANCE – Once again, as a near apoplexy-inducing Top 14 season draws to a close, the capricious whimsy of the rugby gods has cast pundits’ best-laid predictions to at least three of the four winds.
The idea of Stade Francais losing to Racing Metro at Stade Jean Bouin, where they have been unbeaten all season, was almost unthinkable to us mere mortals. Coming into the derby clash, they were fifth in the table, while their opponents were seventh. They were at home. They were playing much the better rugby of the two sides. Home win. Easy.
And then the rugby gods intervened.
First, they ensured Benjamin Fall would leap high enough to intercept a pass from Morne Steyn that not only stopped a Stade Francais attack in its tracks, but also allowed him to race the length of the pitch to score. Then, they made sure lumbering lock Juandre Kruger was in the right place at the right time to flop over the line to score after 28 minutes.
Antoine Battut added a third try in the second half, which rendered Waisea Vuidravuwalu’s double for Stade moot as the visitors ran out 22-32 winners.
Fourth-placed Castres would surely win at Top 14 basement side Biarritz, who will be playing ProD2 rugby next season. They had a near complete set of internationals at their disposal, after all.
And then the rugby gods played their ineffable game…
Takudzwa Ngwenya ran through two weak tackles to score in the corner in the fifth minute. Dimitri Yachvili converted. And despite tries from Richie Gray and Remi Grosso in the first half, Biarritz went in at halftime 19-15 up.
It looked, however, as if the visitors would be heading home with a win when flanker Jan Bornmann raced unopposed the length of the 22 to score 15 minutes into the second half.
But a late yellow card for replacement prop Mihaita Lazar cost the defending Top 14 champions dear. The seven-man pack couldn’t handle the pressure of Biarritz’s scrum and conceded a penalty try. Yachvili converted to level the scores at 34-34.
Bear in mind, Biarritz’s highest score in any Top 14 game this season – until this match – was 22.
And there was still time for some drama. Castres won a penalty in the 79th minute. As the clock ticked down, Rory Kockott belted the ball into touch deep into Biarritz territory and the visitors hurried down the pitch for one last assault. But the hooter sounded, and referee Romain Poite decided that – rather than allowing the penalty to run its course – enough was enough.
Castres’ coach David Darricarrere wasn’t happy.
Oyonnax needed a win over Grenoble to keep their Top 14 survival hopes alive. And they were at home, where they have only lost twice all season. The odds were in their favour – and so, as it turned out, were the rugby gods. They saw to it that the side from the plastics city picked up their first attacking bonus point of the season with a 40-13 win. Silvere Tian, Ratu Soqeta, and Agustin Figuerola all scored in 12 second-half minutes, after they had picked up a penalty try in the opening period. Benjamin Urdipilleta did the rest of the damage.
Next week, while most Top 14 sides not involved in European action enjoy a break, Oyonnax entertain Bordeaux at Stade Charles Mathon, as the two sides catch up on a fixture postponed from earlier in the season. A win would see them leapfrog Bayonne and Perpignan into 11th. Even a defensive bonus point would move them above Bayonne into 12th. It’s that tight at the wrong end of the Top 14.
Clermont welcomed back Wesley Fofana and Benjamin Kayser for the trip to Brive – and although it’s a tough place to go, a home win was difficult to see, especially as the hosts had lost two players to suspension following the previous weekend’s bad-tempered match at Castres.
But the rugby gods had other ideas. They guided the hand, and the boot, of Gaetan ‘Catalogue Man’ Germain to score 21 of the home side’s 26 points. Not even a brace from Naipolioni Nalaga and one for Damien Chouly could prevent the rugby gods from having their way as this Top 14 game ended 26-24.
At least the funny ball deities and mortal pundits agreed on one thing. Montpellier should easily beat Bayonne at home. They did – 43-27. But, even with foregone conclusions like this, the supernatural powers that be insist on having their fun first. At 19-17, the game was very much in the balance at halftime before the hosts pulled away.
Timoci Nagusa scored a hat-trick for the home team. He was joined on the scoresheet by Mamuka Gorgodze and Alex Tulou, while the referee contributed a penalty try.
In reply, Joe Rokocoko, Matthieu Ugalde and Lisiate Faaoso crossed for the visitors. Montpellier are currently at the head of the Top 14 table, but their defensive frailties will worry coach Fabien Galthie ahead of the regular season’s remaining three games.
Bordeaux are snapping at the heels of the teams in the play-off places. They’re seventh – level on points with Toulouse, in sixth, and Stade Francais, who dropped to eighth following their defeat to Racing. They had no need of the rugby gods, as they cruised past Perpignan 23-8. Metuisela Talebula scored a try – of course – as did Felix le Bourhis, while Pierre Barnard added 13 with the boot.
Which just leaves Toulon v Toulouse at Stade Velodrome. This time the rugby gods acted through Freddie Michalak, who started at 10 for the second game in a row. He scored 27 points as the Var side won 32-28. He was matched almost all the way by Toulouse’s Lionel Beauxis, who notched up 23 points.
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