CASTRES, FRANCE – At the end of the penultimate weekend of the 2014 Top 14 season, things are becoming clearer. For a given value of ‘clearer’, at any rate.
Four teams are now battling it out for three play-off places in the Top 14, while another four teams are scrapping like caged animals to avoid being dragged down to the Pro D2.
Toulon made certain of their place in the play-offs with a bonus-point victory over Perpignan at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona.
The Catalans came into the game ahead of Bayonne and Oyonnax, but still needed all the help they could get. Moving the game from the cauldron of Stade Aime Giral may have boosted matchday revenues and made sense in a warped, weird-ass marketing kind of way, but it did next to nothing for the atmosphere. While a long way from empty, the crowd occasionally looked a little lost and bewildered in the wide open spaces of the 55,000-seat Olympic Stadium.
They didn’t look as lost and bewildered as the Perpignan players at the end of the game, however. They couldn’t seem to comprehend how they lost despite racking up 31 points against mighty Toulon.
The stats, however, don’t lie – and in this case they do tell the whole story. Perpignan scored three tries, courtesy of Joffrey Michel, Guilhem Guirado and Wandile Mjekevu.
James Hook converted two of them – and added four penalties.
But Toulon crossed the whitewash four times. Dynamic forwards Virgile Bruni and Steffon Armitage touched down in the first half, while Rudi Wulf scored twice in the second. Freddie Michalak converted all four, and added six penalties.
The 31-46 final score leaves Perpignan level on points with Oyonnax and Bayonne . With a trip to Clermont to come, they’re staring down the barrel of relegation to the Pro D2.
The result also saw Toulon move back to the head of the Top 14, after Montpellier lost a close encounter of the tense kind at Castres.
Francois Trinh-Duc landed a penalty with the last kick of the game to make the final score 22-15 and ensure the visitors headed back home with at least a defensive bonus point to their name.
Earlier, Benjamin Paillaugue and Rory Kockott exchanged penalties in a game that was more notable for the talking-point decisions of the referee rather than the quality of its rugby.
The game’s only try came from a rare spark of ingenuity two minutes before the break, as Rodrigo Capo Ortega broke the gainline, slipped a pass to Kockott, who was hunted down just short of the line. But his pass off the floor was picked up by Brice Dulin, who skittered over the line.
Retiring Castres legend Romain Teulet came on as a replacement for Dulin just before the hour. In his last Top 14 game at home before he hangs up his boots at the end of the season – slotted two penalties of his own to take his personal points tally for the club to 3,102.
The win moved the defending Top 14 champions temporarily into fourth place. Crucially it meant, they were – for a while – seven points clear of Stade Francais and Bordeaux, who met at a near-empty Stade Jean Bouin.
The Easter weekend may have had something to do with the number of vacant seats, but it was a shame for both teams, who – coming into the match – had every chance of bagging a play-off place. They were just outside the top six, level on 59 points.
After their 37-23 win that maintained their perfect home record in the Top 14, Stade have opened a five-point gap over Bordeaux, and all-but killed off the Gironde side’s play-off hopes.
The game was all over bar the shouting by the time the referee signalled the end of the first half. By that time, Waisea Vuidravuwalu had scored twice, while Antoine Burban and Djibril Camara had also touched down for the hosts.
Clement Maynardier had replied for Bordeaux, but the score was 29-13 at halftime.
Digby Ioane added Stade’s fifth try six minutes into the second period. It all rendered moot Felix Le Bourhis’s brilliant solo effort four minutes from time.
Stade are now level with Toulouse on 64 points, behind Guy Noves’ side – who occupy the final Top 14 play-off place only on points difference.
Toulouse have modern technology to thank for hanging on to sixth place. Without the video referee, they would likely have returned from Oyonnax with just a defensive bonus point to their name. As it was, what initially looked like a nailed-on second-half try for the hosts was denied by a the tiniest knock-on some considerable time earlier in the move.
It may have been the right decision according to the letter of the law, but referees are these days checking further and further back in time with TMOs. A recent case in the Top 14 resulted in a try being disallowed for a minor infringement almost a minute earlier in the game. How far back should these things go?
As it is, the try was disallowed, which meant that Florian Denos’ first-half score would be the last time the hosts notched up a try in front of their home fans this season. His try was cancelled by Jean-Marc Doussain’s 48th-minute effort, while he and Benjamin Urdipilleta played tit-for-tat with the boot.
Replacement Lionel Beauxis had a late chance to win the game for the visitors, but skewed his last-gasp penalty horribly wide. It ended 19-19, which did neither side many favours. Toulouse now have Stade breathing down their necks, while Oyonnax are still in the second relegation spot, despite having notched up a half-century of points in the Top 14 this season.
Grenoble blew a chance to open up a crucial gap between themselves and unlucky-for-some 13th place when they could only draw 21-21 at Stade Lesdiguières against relegation rivals Bayonne. Scores from Fabien Alexandre and Julien Camaniti cancelled out a brace of tries for the visitors’ Marvin O’Connor – which left James Hart and Martin Bustos Moyano to battle it out for boot supremacy.
Neither could get the upper hand.
That result has left Grenoble in 10th, three points ahead of Bayonne in 11th, 12th-placed Perpignan and Oyonnax , who are in the second relegation spot. All three teams have 50.
Brive’s faint hopes of a play-off berth sputtered, flickered and died at already-relegated Biarritz. The Basque side’s gritty scrum half Dimitri Yachvilli marked his final appearance before retirement at Parc des Sports Aguilera with a 12-point haul as the hosts won 19-13.
The visitors were within two minutes of winning the game by a single point thanks to a 67th-minute try from Sevanaia Galala. But then replacement Yann Lesgourgues scored for the hosts – and Damien Traille, cool as you like, slotted the conversion, to give Biarritz four meaningless points.
It’s ironic, however, that they have played better since being relegated.
Racing Metro, meanwhile, beat Clermont 22-6 at Colombes to move level on points with Vern Cotter’s side. It was all about the boot, as Jonny Sexton, Juan Martin Hernandez and Maxime Marchenaud kicked the hosts into a 15-6 lead with four minutes to go. But then Juan Imhoff crossed the line to give the final score a much more flattering look.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@ :RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.