CASTRES, FRANCE: Five teams – Castres, Lyon, La Rochelle, Oyonnax and Grenoble – came into the third weekend of the Top 14 season without a win to their name.
Now, the no-wins-this-season list of shame has been reduced to zero, and the gap between first and 14th cut to a bonus-point win.
League new boys La Rochelle should be honoured with the bulk of the plaudits. After a tough couple of weeks on the road – they opened their account with a 37-15 defeat at Brive before last weekend’s chastening 60-19 thumping at Toulon – they proved they are not in the Top 14 just to make up the numbers.
And it’s now clear to every other Top 14 side that it won’t be easy to win at Stade Marcel Deflandre.
The signs could not have been less promising before kick-off. After conceding 97 points in two games, few gave the Charente Maritimes side much of a chance against a Toulouse side that came into the match with a perfect season record.
But Guy Noves’ aristos, who had the biggest budget in the Top 14 last season and whose spending power this season, an estimated 35.2m euros, is more than double the 14.47m euro budget of their opponents last weekend, again fell foul of the curse of the road.
The hosts nearly got off to a second flyer in as many weeks, but were denied a try after just one minute. And like last week, that early shock woke up their opponents. Hooker Corey Flynn scored after eight minutes, and despite veteran Sereli Bobo’s 11th-minute riposte, Toulouse were 14-7 up before the midway point of the first half after Joe Tekori stretched out an impossibly long arm to score their second.
But the boot of Julien Audy had dragged the scores back to 16-17 when the whistle blew for halftime.
He then kicked La Rochelle into a deserved lead early in the second half, before the returning Luke McAlister marked his first start of the season with a try to snatch back the advantage with 25 minutes to go.
Not a chance.
Alofa Alofa touched down twice in eight incredible minutes, as La Rochelle not only took back the lead but also seized the initiative by the scruff of the neck. And Audy rubbed salt into Toulouse’s wounds to take the final score to 37-25.
Despite the win, La Rochelle remain rooted to the foot of the table.
Last season’s ProD2 champions Lyon have already proved that they deserve to be in the Top 14, with two gritty performances in defeat in their opening two games. However, they were still missing that all-important win going into their first home match of the season against Brive.
It wasn’t a pretty encounter, with referee Laurent Cardona feeling the need to wave the yellow card around six times – four times in the last 14 – as he tried to maintain something approaching order in a game between two sides that evidently believed rules were things that affected everyone else only.
But, among the bouts of indiscipline, a game of rugby occasionally broke out – and Lyon had the better of it. When they did bother to do something extravagant and daring, like play the game, they looked dangerous. Toby Arnold scored twice, at the death of each half to give the hosts a 24-6 victory.
After scoring four tries in the opening match, Brive have failed to cross the whitewash since and – having topped the table at the end of the first round – now find themselves in 12th place.
Stade Francais were one of just two Top 14 sides that got the better of Oyonnax at Stade Charles Mathon last season.
History would not repeat itself on Saturday.
A harder, more clinical Oyonnax put the Paris side to the sword. It was 13-0 inside 20 minutes, after Yves Donguy scored his second try of the game, and although Jerome Fillol got the visitors on the scoreboard shortly before halftime, and ensured Stade were still just about in the game 10 minutes into the second period, Oyonnax were yet to have their final, emphatic, say.
Two converted tries in the final four minutes, through Benjamin Urdapilleta and Roimata Pune, gave the hosts a deserved 33-6 bonus-point win.
Last season’s losing Top 14 finalists Castres picked up their first win by trouncing Bayonne 30-6 at the still-being-redeveloped Stade Pierre Antoine. Truth be told, the final score flattered the visitors, who spent the bulk of the game with their backs to their tryline.
In the end, despite their dominance, Castres only managed to cross Bayonne’s line three times – through Marcel Garvey, Julien Dumora and Brice Mach. Rory Kockott converted all three, and added a brace of penalties as the 2013 champions finally got their season started.
Ratu Ratini scored a hat-trick of tries as previously winless Grenoble ended Bordeaux’s perfect start to the season.
After two narrow defeats away from home, Bernard Jackman’s Isere side finally got the win they deserved at Stade des Alpes – but the head coach will be far from impressed that they conceded two tries in the closing minutes.
Until then, Grenoble had been utterly dominant. As well as Ratini’s headline-grabbing triple, Nigel Hunt and Rory Grice scored for the hosts – who had 20 points on the board before Lionel Beauxis kicked Bordeaux’s first, belated, reply.
Beauxis added two more penalties in the second half – but that looked like it was going to be as good as it got for the usually free-scoring visitors. Then, replacement Yann Lesgourgues and Sofiane Guitoune both crossed as Grenoble went to sleep.
But they could only add a veneer of respectability to the final 37-23 scoreline. The fact remains Bordeaux were comprehensively beaten.
On Friday night, Montpellier became the second visiting side to win in three games at Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin, after Castres ended the Jaunards’ 77-match winning streak in the play-offs last season.
The game turned on a slice of luck and last-minute tactical masterclass from coach Fabien Galthie. At 20-18 up, Clermont won a penalty in their own half that should have all-but ended the game. But Brock James missed a safe touch and kicked the ball dead.
That was the slice of luck. Instead of Clermont having a lineout deep in Montpellier’s half, the visitors had a scrum just inside the host’s half. Galthie signalled that his pack should aim for a double-shove that they had clearly practised on the training ground.
They executed it perfectly. Clermont’s pack crumbled and gave Francois Trinh-Duc one minute for a shot at goal from 45m out.
It was the sort of kick that, under pressure, even the best can miss.
Not Trinh-Duc. Not this time.
Seconds later, the game was over. It brought to a close an epic final 10 minutes of a game that had, in all honesty, been a pretty dour affair. Trinh-Duc had scored all but three of the visitors points with the boot as he and James traded penalties. Only Fritz Lee’s 37th-minute try – a lineout catch and drive straight off the training ground – added any real interest.
But the dull game will be forgotten in the stories of how Montpellier turned around a five-point deficit in the final eight minutes and won at Marcel Michelin for the first time in 15 attempts.
Toulon’s winning start to the season came unstuck at title rivals Racing Metro.
The hosts, who only managed 32 tries in the whole of last season, scored twice – through Francois van der Merwe and Maxime Machenaud – while Queensland Reds-bound James O’Connor replied for the visitors.
His try was a rare high point in a game that demonstrated perfectly what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object as both sides cancelled each another out.
But O’Connor’s try – a perfect finish to a flowing, terrifyingly quick move involving Freddie Michalak , Josua Tuisova and an iron-bar hand-off deserves to be the try of the week.
Other than that wonder score, the last game of the weekend, which had been touted as as rugby’s equivalent of Barcelona v Real Madrid, was otherwise only notable for Mourad Boudjellal’s barbed pre-match response to a jibe made by Racing’s moneybags president Jacky Lorenzetti about Toulon’s management of the salary cap
“I respect the salary cap rules,” Toulon’s president told Rugbyrama. “But bonuses for winning titles and finals aren’t included in the salary cap. Jacky can’t know that because Racing have never been in a final.
“He would be better building up his club instead of getting jealous about anyone else.”
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.