CASTRES, FRANCE – For seven of the 14 teams in France’s Top 14, this season’s revels are ended. Over. Done. Completed. Time for a break before returning for training ahead of the 2014/15 campaign.
For the other seven, there’s unfinished business.
You could, perhaps, feel a little sorry for Stade Francais. Although they are one of the sides with unfinished business, it’s not the unfinished business they were hoping for after finishing seventh in the Top 14.
Their unfinished business is a play-off against the side that finishes seventh in the Aviva Premiership for a place in the top-tier European competition next season.
Actually, maybe you shouldn’t feel sorry for Stade. Had they shown just a little more discipline against Toulon, they could well have been looking forward to a play-off quarter-final at Clermont – and already been assured of a place in European Rugby Champions Cup, or whatever it is the Heineken Cup will be called in 2014/15 instead.
On a day when every Top 14 match kicked off at the same time, they went in at halftime at Nice’s Allianz Riviera 10-3 up thanks to Hugh Bonneval’s try – and when Toulon second-row Konstantine Mikautadze was sent off for a ridiculous display of petulance, the game looked to be theirs to lose.
The card inspired Toulon. Drew Mitchell had recently cancelled out Bonneval’s score – and then Freddie Michalak took over.
Although Stade prevented 14-man Toulon from crossing the whitewash again, they did give away crucial penalties. Michalak converted three of them to lift Toulon into a 17-10 lead.
And when Digby Ioane was sent off for upending Bryan Habana with a tackle that was more suited to a WWE bout than a Top 14 game, they gave the advantage right back to their hosts.
The game had one last twist. With three minutes to go, replacement hooker Michael Van Vuuren barged over in the corner to give Morne Steyn a difficult last-ditch chance to level the scores from out wide.
His kick sailed wide.
Toulon v Stade would have walked away with the award for Top 14 nip-tuck contest of the week had it not been for the clash between Clermont and Perpignan at Stade Marcel Michelin.
You really do have to pity poor Perpignan. Not many people gave them anything approaching a hint of a scintilla of a soupcon of a chance going into this final game of the season. But they duked out a gritty, enthralling encounter against a side that has won its last 76 home games.
James Hook converted Wandile Mjekevu’s 26th-minute try, and added four penalties and a drop goal to give the Catalan side a barely credible 22-19 lead after an hour. But then his kicking opposite number Morgan Parra slotted a penalty to take his personal tally for the match to 14. For the record, Wesley Fofana touched down to add the remaining five points.
As the tension mounted, Perpignan grew ragged and tetchy. Hook’s radar went awry and they made mistakes. Even so, a 22-22 draw would have been enough for Perpignan to avoid relegation…
And, with nine minutes remaining, the visitors gave away one last penalty.
Parra buried them. Alive. It wasn’t a killer blow. Not quite. That would come elsewhere and – ironically – at about the same time.
After 103 years in French rugby’s top flight, a 71st-minute penalty in the last game of the 2013/14 Top 14 season meant that Perpignan’s future in the highest echelons of the game was out of their hands. It depended on the results of Bayonne v Castres and Brive v Oyonnax.
Bayonne were in the process of doing Perpignan no favours. They ran out easy 23-13 victors against the defending Top 14 champions, whose record away from home has been appalling in this campaign. Rory Kockott had kept Castres in the game in the first half. His two penalties meant they were only four points adrift, after Matthieu Ugalde sent Bayonne wild with a 26th-minute penalty.
But that old soldier Joe Rokocoko went over just before the hour to ensure the game was all over as a contest. Remi Tales scored a face-saving try two minutes from time to ensure the scoreline looked like two teams had turned up to play.
The result in Toulon meant that, despite their defeat, Castres clung on to the last play-off place. They now face a trip to Clermont next Saturday as their defence of their Top 14 title takes the hard road.
So, Bayonne ensured their Top 14 status at the last – and offered no hope for Perpignan.
But Brive… Brive looked like they just might be able to help.
When Parra slotted his 71st-minute penalty for Clermont at Marcel Michelin, the Coreze side were nine points ahead of Oyonnax , thanks to the reliable boot of Gaetan Germain and a try from Jean Baptiste Pejoine. At this point, Oyonnax were looking down the barrel of the Pro D2.
No one, however, has actually bothered to teach Christophe Urios’s side the secret of giving up when the going gets tough. Winger Jonathan Bousquet dived over on 73 minutes to make the score 19-15. Benjamin Urdipilleta converted… and Oyonnax condemned Perpignan to relegation.
Montpellier, meanwhile, made mincemeat of Racing Metro to ensure they finished second in the Top 14 and booked direct passage through to the play-off semi-finals in Lille on May 17, where they are set to face the winners of Clermont v Castres.
They ran in five tries in a 44-10 romp. Olivier Wynand scored twice, while Rene Ranger, Thomas Combazou and Francois Trinh-Duc also touched down. The fly-half, who must be pushing for a place on the plane to Australia this summer, converted all five and added three penalties. Jonathan Sexton was the only Racing player to get his name on the scoresheet.
The game was also memorable for the return of the influential flanker Fulgence Ouedraogo, who came on as a replacement in the 54th minute to make his first appearance on a rugby field for five months.
Thierry Dusautoir also returned to rugby action after a long injury lay-off. He has been unavailable since the Heineken Cup match against Zebre in January, but started the last game of Toulouse’s regular season against Grenoble.
Hosea Gear scored three, Jano Vermaak two and Louis Picamoles one to turn the last home game of the regular season into a 38-8 thumping. It also saw Toulouse leapfrog both Castres and Racing into fourth place, which means they will be at home in the play-off quarter-finals – against Racing next Friday. Whoever wins that match will head to Lille on May 16 for a semi-final against Toulon.
Florian Lescadieu scored the definition of a consolation try for the visitors, whose season had stuttered to such an extent that they finished in 11th.
But six tries in Montpellier and seven at Toulouse were eclipsed by the 10 at Bordeaux. The hosts ran in eight as they turned a halftime 32-17 advantage into a 54-20 win. Metuisela Talebula came on as a replacement just after halftime and scored two tries to take his personal tally for the Top 14 this season to 16. He was joined on the scoresheet by Romain Lonca, Charles Brousse, Felix Le Bourhis, Alikisio Fakate, Cameron Treloar, and Wayne Avei.
Yann Lesgourgues and Teddy Thomas crossed for the visitors, who ended a dismal season with just five wins to their name.
While Biarritz and Perpignan are heading down, Lyon are on their way up, having secured the Pro D2 title with several weeks to spare. They will be without the services of Sebastien Chabal, who officially announced his retirement on Monday, May 5.
They will be joined in the Top 14 next season by one of Agen, who could bounce straight back into the top flight having been relegated last season; La Rochelle, who were last in the Top 14 in 2011; Pau (2006) and Narbonne (2007).
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