CASTRES, FRANCE – Toulon and Castres will face off in Paris at the end of the month for the Brennus after a Top 14 semi-final weekend in Lille that began with a whimper and ended with a full-throated tension-releasing roar.
The whimper came on Friday night. At the same time as Northampton were edging a thriller against Leicester in the Aviva Premiership semi-final at Franklin’s Gardens, Racing Metro limped, weakly and painfully and dim-wittedly, through their encounter with Toulon in a part of France that’s so far north it’s almost in Belgium.
It was too easy for the Var side, who made sure of a place in their third Top 14 final in a row – and their sixth final in all competitions in three seasons – with a walk-in-the-park 16-6 win at Stade Pierre Mauroy.
Jonny Wilkinson, who else?, was the rugby genius who masterminded and controlled Toulon with all the Machiavellian nous of a battle-hardened general. His kicking off the floor was not as accurate as everyone knows it can be, and he has never been the fleetest of players, but there’s next to nothing he doesn’t know about the game. He saw everything. He analysed everything. He ran… everything.
If, as anticipated, he does retire at the end of the season (he’s 35 on Sunday, the day after the Heineken Cup final against Saracens in Cardiff), he will owe his current club – and the world game – the square-root of nothing.
It was Wilkinson’s garryowen that led to the only try of the game, in the 12th minute. Racing failed to deal with the near inch-perfect kick, Bryan Habana hacked on before generally causing chaos and confusion in what we’ll laughingly call the Racing defence – and Matt Giteau reached out an apparently extendable arm to touch down in the corner.
England’s 2003 World Cup hero nailed the difficult conversion to give Toulon a 7-0 lead inside 15 minutes. Although his opposite number Jonny Sexton’s two penalties closed the gap to just a point by the end of the first half, that was pretty much it.
The game may have been different if the Irishman’s drop goal on the hooter had gone over rather than hitting the post… especially as Wilkinson’s radar had gone temporarily offline.
But it’s pointless to speculate. The kick hit the post. It didn’t go over. It was 7-6 at halftime. And 17 minutes after the restart, it was 13-6 courtesy of two more Wilkinson penalties.
That would have been more than enough. Racing were stuttering and spluttering, huffing and puffing, coughing and dying. Toulon contained them with an ease verging on the insouciant. Sweat was barely broken. The defending Heineken Cup champions could even take off Bakkies “The Butcher” Botha with half an hour left on the clock. His job was done. Racing had been quietly, efficiently, clinically, ruthlessly beaten into submission. They were broken.
But there was time for one more act from Wilkinson. Nine minutes from time, he reprised his World Cup-winning right-footed drop goal to make assurance double-sure.
It really was that easy. It looked for all the world as if Toulon had one eye on next week’s Heineken Cup final. Worryingly for Saracens, who expended precious energy beating Harlequins in their Premiership semi-final, the defending champions will have plenty in the tank when they meet in Cardiff on Saturday.
The Top 14’s full-throated roar came as Castres edged Montpellier 22-19 in an extra-time thriller at the same venue the following day.
Quite why the LNR powers-that-be decided that the Top 14 semi-finals, which featured three teams from the south of France, should have been held in the far north of the country is a question that has left many people scratching their heads.
Fans faced 14-hour-plus journey times on buses and trains to get to the venue, which may go some way to explaining why the atmosphere was so flat at Friday’s semi-final, despite the presence of a near-49,000 crowd.
Less than 24 hours later, in warm sunshine and with rather less drinking time in Lille’s cafes and bars behind them, the fans of Montpellier and Castres gave a much improved performance in their audience role. But the tension and quality of the spectacle unfolding on the pitch may have had a bit to do with their involvement.
It was immediately clear this was going to be a much more intense semi-final than the one which preceded it. Montpellier’s Rene Ranger was sent to the sinbin for a dangerous aerial challenge in the opening seconds, and Castres’ Remi Grosso followed him eight minutes for a similar infringement.
It was 3-6 in favour of the defending Top 14 champions when, in the 32nd minute Racing Metro-bound number 8 Antonie Claassens muscled his way over Montpellier’s line. Rory Kockott converted to make the score 13-3, with a matter of minutes to halftime.
They could have been further ahead. Yannick Cabellero could not hold on to the ball with the line beckoning – and a remarkable tackle on a diving Max Evans from fullback Pierre Berard stopped what looked for all the world like a certain try.
Montpellier do not boast the best attack in the Top 14 without reason. Almost immediately after the defending champions’ try, Ranger burst through a flimsy Castres defence to touch down under the posts. Francois Trinh-Duc added the two points. And it stayed at 13-10 at halftime.
Kockott extended Castres’ lead four minutes into the second period – but there must be something about Mauroy. His kicking went awry, just as Wilkinson’s and Sexton’s had the night before. Even Trinh-Duc wasn’t immune. He was terribly, horribly short with a penalty that should have been in his range.
Castres’ fly-half Remi Tales also caught the kicking disease. He was perfectly placed for a drop goal after the final hooter sounded, with the scores level at 19-19, but hooked his kick.
Which meant extra time. The Top 14’s second semi-final had become a game of two 10 minute halves.
As it had been for the previous 80 minutes, extra time was a perfect demonstration of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Montpellier attacked, attacked and attacked again. Castres’ repelled everything.
When Castres did counter, they were dangerous. Remi Lamerat was inches short of the line when Timoci Nagusa brought him down.
Just as the first half of extra time drew to a close, replacement centre Seremaia Bai nailed what would turn out to be the crucial drop goal.
But Castres have their pack – and particularly hooker Brice Mach – to thank for keeping them ahead. Montpellier’s scrum had the edge all game, but when it mattered – when the Herault side had a scrum 5m from the Top 14 champions’ line – Mach hooked the ball against the head. Attack repelled. Job done.
Now, the Tarn side have a week to rest before heading up to Paris to face Toulon in a repeat of last season’s Top 14 final.
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.