CASTRES, FRANCE – The Top 14 play-off quarter-finals SHOULD be remembered for two seismic shocks delivered by Racing Metro and Castres.
But they will equally be remembered for what happened 16 minutes after Toulouse’s Florian Fritz left the field covered in blood and clearly dazed and confused in Friday night’s match against Racing Metro at Stade Ernest Wallon.
He clattered into Francois van der Merwe’s knee in the 19th minute of the match. It was a freakish accident. Just one of those things.
Fritz first tried to stay on the pitch. He couldn’t. Then he tried to walk off for treatment. He couldn’t. He had to sit down. A stretcher was brought out. Eventually, to an ovation from the crowd, he managed to walk, with aid, to the medical room. Gael Fickou came on as a replacement.
Then, quarter of an hour later, and right in front of TV cameras, this happened
Shortly after this scene outside the medical room and maybe despite raised awareness surrounding the danger of concussion and stricter protocols in place to protect players, Fritz, with 12 stitches in his head and still apparently glassy eyed, took to the pitch at Stade Ernest Wallon for the final few minutes of the first half.
He didn’t come back after the break.
Speaking to Canal+ from the bench midway through the second half, Fritz said: “I had a small KO. I don’t remember everything.”
The incident soured what should have been a famous win on the road for Racing at the end of a Top 14 season in which away teams could barely buy a win – at any price.
During the regular Top 14 season, only about 15% of matches were won by visiting sides. And the play-offs are historically even more weighted to the side with home advantage. About 88% of those end-of-season matches have been won by the hosts.
Clearly, neither Racing, or Castres less than 24 hours later, had read that memo.
The Paris side also dared to ignore history. Toulouse and Racing met at the same stage of the Top 14 at the same ground last year. Then, Toulouse won 33-19. Worse for the visitors, the Rose City side had won the last six encounters against Racing at home; and Toulouse had reached the semi-finals of the Top 14 every year since 1994.
Historical imperative dictated Toulouse would win. But Racing are a very different side these days. Coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, who masterminded Castres Top 14-winning season in 2012/13, have taken an expensively assembled set of stars and turned them into a team.
It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t all gone according to plan. But they have won eight and drawn one out of 12 Top 14 games since the turn of the year to race into the play-offs. And, on Friday, they won their first ever Top 14 post-season game.
It was a victory built on the power of the pack and the accuracy of Jonny Sexton’s boot. He kicked all 21 points, while his opposite number Jean-Marc Doussain missed two ultimately relatively straightforward shots at goal.
Those misses would prove crucial, as Toulouse notched up 16 points. Hosea Gear marked what turned out to be his final appearance in the noir-et-rouge with a try. His score, just after halftime dragged the home side to within two points of Racing, after they had gone in at the break 3-12 down.
But they would never quite close the gap. Sexton was unerring. Clinical. Implacable. And whenever Toulouse edged nearer, he would swing that right leg and reopen Racing’s lead. In boxing parlance, he was the killer jab that picked off Toulouse behind a ferocious defence that kept them at bay all night.
And, with the clock ticking down in the final round, he delivered the decisive blow. At 16-18 down and desperate to get the ball, Toulouse were penalised. Sexton stepped up to nail his seventh penalty of the night. With less than two minutes on the clock, the hosts were unable to come back.
Appropriately, it was Sexton who belted the ball into the crowd after the hooter to confirm the victory and set up a match against Toulon in Lille next Friday.
The following afternoon, Castres repeated Racing’s history-defying, history-defining win.
The defending Top 14 champions beat Clermont in the semi-finals of the play-offs last season.
But last year’s match was played on neutral ground in Nantes. Saturday’s match was at Stade Marcel Michelin, the fortress where Vern Cotter’s side had won 77 matches in a row. Where Les Jaunards had not lost since November 2009.
To cap it all, Clermont have reached the semi finals of the Top 14 play-offs every year since 2007.
It wasn’t just history that was against Castres. Their away form – one win, over Montpellier, and one draw, against Biarritz, in 13 matches on the road – has been nothing less than awful. They reached the play-offs courtesy of a near-perfect home record, and a helping hand from Toulon on the final day of the regular season.
The first half was a nip-tuck affair. It was 6-6 when things took a turn for the worse for Castres. First stalwart lock Rodrigo Capo Ortega, then winger Max Evans, were carded. Capo Ortega was barely 10 inches from Gerhard Vosloo when he could not resist tackling the Clermont flanker, who had just taken a quick tap penalty. A few minutes later, Evans saw yellow for a deliberate knock on as he stepped between what could have been a try-scoring pass from Sitiveni Sivivatu – who will be a Castres’ team-mate next season.
The Top 14 champions already apparently uncertain grip on the Brennus was weakening. But they somehow held on to go in at halftime, just 9-6 and 15-13 down.
And they held on in early the second half, as first Capo Ortega then Evans returned. Remarkably, scrum-half Rory Kockott levelled the scores seven minutes in. Three minutes later, he even dared to edge the visitors ahead with the fourth of his five penalties.
And then Top 14 history unravelled for the second time in less than 24 hours.
Remi Lamerat celebrated being named in Philippe Saint-Andre’s France squad to tour Australia next month by crashing over after 62 minutes. Kockott converted the try and notched up another penalty five minutes later to take the scores from 9-12 to 9-22 with little more than 1o minutes to go.
Seventy-eight matches and four-and-a-half years after Biarritz were the last side to beat Clermont at Stade Marcel Michelin, the home were staring unpredictable, unanticipated, unexpected defeat in the face.
And yet Clermont roared back. They hammered and pounded and beat at Castres’ defence – but it held firm. Remi Tales was penalised for a deliberate knock on during one particularly tough passage of play, but unlike Evans, he escaped the bin – perhaps because the ball went up rather than straight down and he could have caught it if he was a little quicker.
And then… three minutes from time, Damien Chouly crashed over. Brock James slotted the conversion to bring the score to 16-22.
That touchdown meant Clermont needed a converted try to snatch victory. They were within 15m of Castres line when – more than a minute after the hooter sounded – something as simple and banal as a knock-on brought the Vern Cotter era to a shuddering halt.
At least Clermont’s new coach Franck Azéma won’t have that weight of history on his shoulders any more. Silver linings, and all that…
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.