CASTRES, FRANCE – You’d have got long odds at the beginning of the Top 14 season if you’d bet that Toulouse and Castres would be in the relegation places after seven matches.
But that’s what the Top 14 has woken up to at the end of the latest round of fixtures.
Toulouse’s under-pressure manager Guy Noves was not impressed with some of the referee’s decisions as they lost 35-19 at Bayonne after Corey Flynn was sent off for stamping. But his words were excuses after the fact of their fifth defeat in a row.
Cruelly, his side had dared raise fans’ hopes by racing into a 10-0 lead in the opening eight minutes at Bayonne on Friday. Their worst run in 36 years seemed over as they – briefly – ruled the roost at Stade Jean Dauger after fullback Alexis Palisson touched down after just three minutes.
That was as good as it got for the visitors, who hadn’t won a Top 14 match away from home in eight months. In fact, it got bad pretty quickly… took a turn for the worse… and then went rapidly downhill. The match was barely 10 minutes old when Yoann Maestri was sin-binned for dishing out some rough justice right in front of the referee.
He had just returned to the pitch, shortly after Joe Rococoko had acrobatically touched down in the corner for the hosts, when hooker Flynn saw red.
Flynn’s opposite number for Bayonne Anthony Etrillard hinted at the shape of the game to come when he dived over from short range three minutes later – and although Luke McAlister’s penalty pulled the scores back to 15-13 after half an hour, defeat was already etched into Toulouse faces.
The hosts’ in-form number eight Charles Ollivon – who will surely be sporting international colours sooner rather than later – ran in for a third try after 33 minutes, as Bayonne threatened to run riot. It was 25-13 when the hooter brought the first half to a welcome end for the visitors.
It is to Toulouse’s credit that they stemmed what had promised to be a flood of second-half tries. They were, in fact, winning the second half 6-3 until their seven-man pack finally caved in four minutes from time and conceded a penalty try – the only try of the second 40. It ended 35-19.
Castres, too, flattered to deceive, going in at halftime at Lyon’s Matmut Stadium 11-9 up, courtesy of an early solo try from winger Romain Martial, and two penalties from Julien Dumora.
And when Chris Tuatara-Morrison touched down under the posts shortly after the restart, it looked for all the world as if the 2013 Top 14 champions had finally lost that losing feeling.
But the score was ruled out for a forward pass following a lengthy consultation with the video referee.
Minutes later, Lyon’s pack bundled prop-shaped scrum-half Ricky Januarie over Castres’ line. Then Castres’ old boy Paul Bonnefond finished off a perfectly executed training ground move, and fullback Romain Loursac added a third to take the score from 9-11 to 28-11 in the space of 20 second-half minutes.
Tuatara-Morrison gave the visitors a glimmer of hope when he scored a legitimate try with less than 10 minutes remaining, but – at the death – Martial was unable to repeat his earlier heroics. He caught his own chip and chase and recovered from a tap tackle, but knocked on under pressure as he reached for the line to make the score that would have given the visitors what would have been a rare and unusual deserved on-the-road defensive bonus point.
Clermont won a war of attrition at Oyonnax to pick up their third away victory of the season and open a three-point gap over Toulon at the head of the Top 14.
Benjamin Urdapilleta and Brock James exchanged early penalties as the sides niggled and needled at each other, before Jamie Cudmore demonstrated precisely none of the the subtle skills a powerhouse forward needs these days to force his way over the hosts line and put the visitors firmly in control.
With seven minutes to go, the score was 3-19 in favour of the visitors when Viliame Ma’afu did something no one has managed since the opening weekend of the season. He dived over Clermont’s line to score a try. It went unconverted, which meant the match ended with the scores 8-19.
Grenoble leapfrogged opponents Racing Metro to claim fourth spot in the Top 14. The 27-25 score suggests it was a close-run thing at Stade des Alpes, but the hosts had the game sewn up before Racing’s number 8 Antonie Claassen’s late-late touchdown gave them a defensive bonus point.
Earlier, Charl McLeod had touched down to open the scoring and Irish centre Chris Farrell also went over as Bernard Jackman’s side raced into a 17-6 halftime lead.
Fly-half Benjamin Dambielle and fullback Johan Goosen combined to do their best to keep Racing in touch, but when Ratu Ratini touched down after 65 minutes, the game was as good as over, until Claassen’s intervention at the death denied the hosts a try-scoring bonus and meant the visitors headed home with a point.
Brive moved off the foot of the Top 14 with a much-needed 34-24 home win over Bordeaux.
The hosts took the game by the scruff of the neck with two tries in eight late first-half minutes, courtesy of wingers Guillaume Namy and Benito Masilevu.
Earlier, rvial centres Arnaud Mignardi and Felix Le Bourhis had exchanged touchdowns as the match got off to an astonishing start, with Bordeaux lock Adam Jaulhac sin-binned after just one minute.
The visitors’ Berend Botha was also shown the yellow card two minutes into the second period. Brive took full advantage of the extra man when Sisa Koyamaibole went over to take the score to 34-10 with less than 30 minutes to play.
But Bordeaux are not easily beaten. Baptiste Serin scored with 12 minutes left, and the pack got in on the act, forcing Brive to concede a penalty try after 76 minutes. It wasn’t enough to win a defensive bonus, but the visitors headed home with some battered pride restored.
James O’Connor scored a brace of tries and notched up 25 personal points as Toulon poured cold water – and a few other things besides – over Montpellier’s lofty and ultimately over-optimistic ambitions of winning at Stade Mayol for the first time in four attempts.
The writing looked to be on the wall for the visitors when David Smith went over after 13 minutes – but Jonathan Pelissie touched down seven minutes later to keep the visitors in the hunt.
Then O’Connor scored the first of his two tries. But Montpellier were not done. Winger Lucas Dupont and some defence so dismal it barely qualifies for the noun combined to score on the hooter to ensure that the visitors were just 17-14 down at halftime.
Matt Giteau, O’Connor and Delon Armitage then all down as Toulon stepped up a gear early in the second half, taking the score to 40-17 after 64 minutes. And that’s how it ended.
Not that it should have done. Benjamin Fall could – and really should – have added some flattering gloss on the final score with a late touchdown for the visitors, but dropped the ball as he attempted to ground it one handed.
Stade Francais put last week’s humbling at Montpellier behind them with a seven-try demolition of La Rochelle at Stade Jean Bouin. The hosts had secured the try-scoring bonus after 32 minutes, courtesy of scores from Waisale Nayacalevu, Jonathan Danty, Julien Arias and Pascal Paper.
Danty and Arias each added another in a soul-destroying four-minute spell after the restart, before Krisnan Inu scored his first try for the club with nine minutes left on the clock.
Beaten but unbowed, La Rochelle had the final word, with Kevin Gourdon scoring a try after the hooter. Julien Audy converted with the last kick of the game to make the final score 43-10.
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.