Top 14 Recap: Travel Sickness Strikes Again

Jonny Wilkinson scored a rare try as Toulon thumped Oyonnax in the Top 14
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Logo_Top14_2012CASTRES, FRANCE – The curse of the road struck again in the Top 14 this weekend, with six of seven away sides heading back to their respective hutches battered, bruised… and beaten.

The power of home advantage is getting beyond a joke. Planet Rugby has done the math and worked out that, before this weekend, visiting sides have won only 12% of games in the Top 14 this season – compared to 33% in Super Rugby and 44% in the Aviva Premiership. They’ve even come up with a number of hypotheses, too, though some are worthy of Monty Python’s great theorist Anne Elk.

To make matters worse, none of the losing six – who included play-off contenders Stade Francais, Clermont, Castres and Grenoble – picked up a defensive bonus point. With five scheduled weekends in the Top 14’s regular season remaining, 10 teams are in the mix for the six play-off places.

Toulon benefited most from the Top 14’s collective travel sickness. They leapt to the top of the table with a nine-try 64-10 demolition of 14-man Oyonnax at Stade Mayol.

Jonny Wilkinson scored a rare try as Toulon thumped Oyonnax in the Top 14
Jonny Wilkinson scored a rare try as Toulon thumped Oyonnax in the Top 14

Maxime Mermoz started the try-frenzy in the seventh minute, while Jonny Wilkinson slotted eight of nine conversions, as well as opening proceedings with a cheeky drop three minutes before Mermoz crossed the whitewash – and a length-of-the-pitch first-half touchdown of his own.

It was his first Top 14 try since early in the 2010/2011 season. French broadcaster CanalPlus ran the numbers, and worked out that he ran 92m in total to score – not bad for an old fella. Drew Mitchell added a brace either side of halftime, and Matt Giteau, almost inevitably, also scored.

The visitors’ cause wasn’t helped when hooker Jody Jenneker was sent off with four minutes left in the first half. But they were already 31-3 down at the time, so the writing was already on the wall.

Oyonnax are now firmly rooted in the relegation zone. They are seven points behind 12th-placed side Perpignan and, although they have two games in hand, against Bayonne and Bordeaux at home, it’s increasingly hard to see them escaping the drop back to the Pro D2 after just one season in the Top 14.

Toulon owe their week-on-week rise from third to first to Montpellier and Bordeaux.

Montpellier beat Stade Francais at Yves du Manoir in what was the cliched definition of a game of two halves. The first period was a dour affair that ended 0-0. Fifteen minutes into the second half, the score was 12-10, with Rene Ranger and Benjamin Paillaugue crossing the whitewash for the home side, while Jonathan Danty scored for Stade.

That’s how the scores stayed, until after the hooter sounded, when Timoci Nagusa delivered a knockout blow. It ended 19-10, and Stade headed back to Paris with nothing to show for their Friday night’s work.

Less than 24 hours later, Bordeaux dragged themselves into the play-off reckoning with a 26-16 win over Clermont at Stade Jacques Chaban-Delmas.

Bordeaux's Metuisela Talebula
Bordeaux’s Metuisela Talebula

Metuisela Talebula has been the Girondons’ man to watch all season. He added two second-half tries to the 10 he’s already scored this season, while Pierre Bernard added four penalties and two conversions, as Bordeaux came back from 13-3 down at halftime to beat Clermont for the first time since returning to the French top flight in 2011.

Elvis Vermeulen had earlier touched down for Clermont, as they briefly threatened to buck the home power trend.

Grenoble dropped out of the top six on the back of a 31-6 defeat at Brive. Riaan Swanepoel, Arnaud Mela and Francois Da Ros all touched down, while Gaetan Germain did his thing with the boot. It was a win that, like Bordeaux’s, means the Correze side are in with a shout of making the Top 14 play-offs. In fairness, Grenoble aren’t out of it, either, but this loss has done their chances no favours.

Maxime Marchenaud in action for Racing Metro against Castres in the Top 14 on Saturday
Maxime Marchenaud in action for Racing Metro against Castres in the Top 14 on Saturday

Racing Metro shored up their shaky season with a 25-15 victory over defending Top 14 champions Castres at Colombes.

Maxime Marchenaud and Rory Kockott – who are likely to be fighting it out for France’s second scrum-half slot once the South African qualifies for Les Bleus on residency grounds in August – traded penalties all evening. But winger Juan Imhoff was the ciel-et-bleus’ hero, scoring after just three minutes and again with 10 minutes to go as a near-full-strength Racing ran out comfortable winners in the end.

There was, however, concern for both club and country, as Dimitri Szarzewski hobbled off with an ankle injury. And, despite their victory, Racing can’t seem to break into the play-off places. They’re seventh, three points behind Castres.

Louis Picamoles had a point to prove to national coach Philippe Saint-Andre as Toulouse beat Perpignan in the Top 14
Louis Picamoles had a point to prove to national coach Philippe Saint-Andre as Toulouse beat Perpignan in the Top 14

Toulouse came into their game on Saturday against Perpignan having not won in the Top 14 since Sunday, January 5. They consigned that unwanted record to history in emphatic five-try fashion. Luke McAlister returned from injury to marshal the forces, while Louis Picamoles’ destructive performance will have Philippe Saint-Andre wondering if he’s done the right thing in dropping him for the Six Nations’ game against Scotland next weekend.

The writing was on the wall for the Catalan side after six minutes, and before a point had been scored, when Romain Taofifenua was sin-binned. It didn’t get much better for Perpignan after that…

And so, to the only away win of the Top 14 weekend. Bayonne beat neighbours Biarritz 11-8 in a tension-fuelled derby that was only decided seconds before the hooter sounded when replacement Matthieu Ugalde, who had only been on 10 minutes, held his nerve to slot the crucial drop goal.

The Top 14 is now officially on a break until March 21, though Oyonnax are due to play one of their vital catch-up games against Biarritz on March 14.

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About James Harrington 196 Articles
James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"