CASTRES, FRANCE – Last season, away wins in the Top 14 were rarer than rocking horse droppings. Hardly any side, it seemed, could buy a win on the road. At any price.
There has been little so far to suggest this season will be any different. After three away wins on the opening weekend, the following three rounds supplied just two.
Out of 28 games, there had been just five victories for visiting sides. That’s a win-rate of less than 18%.
But this week, two teams broke the habit of what has seemed like a Top 14 lifetime. Not only did Clermont and Stade Francais both win on the road, they brought down two pretty mighty fortresses in doing so.
Clermont had never won at Stade Ernest Wallon. But on Saturday, in the fifth round of the 2014/15 season, they duked out a duller-than-ditchwater 13-9 win to consign Guy Noves’ Toulouse to their third straight defeat. Flanker Julien Bardy’s sole try 10 minutes into the second half was a rare highlight as the visitors did little more than keep Toulouse at bay, and look to catch them on the counter-attack.
The game was not helped by the fact that Camille Lopez appeared to have lost his kicking boots – he missed three early penalties and then spiralled a penalty kick to touch into the dead ball zone. His wayward radar meant that scrum-half Ludovic Radosavljevic temporarily took over kicking duties.
Even Toby Flood’s normally reliable kicking went awry at the wrong moment. At 13-6 down, with about 15 minutes to play, he lined up a relatively straightforward kick in front of the posts.
An ugly miss prompted an equally ugly profanity – but at least it was in French, which proves he’s been taking lessons.
The hosts, who were as lumpen and leaden as they had been in defeat at Brive a week previously finally realised that they needed to play catch-up rugby in the final 10 minutes. They threw caution to the wind and everything at Clermont, but the Jaunards defence was as solid as the granite their home town is built on.
They finally cracked just before the hooter sounded, giving away a crucial final penalty. To the raucous dismay of the Toulousain faithful, captain Thierry Dusautoir pointed at the posts: a defensive bonus point deemed more important than one last shot at salvaging some pride at the death.
Toby Flood made no mistake. It ended 13-9, amid jeers and whistles from furiously disappointed home fans.
For the second week in a row, Toulon fans made their unimpressed feelings clear at Stade Felix Mayol, as three players missed four kickable penalties in 12 second-half minutes to gift a 28-24 win to Stade Francais.
The jeers were a little unfair. Toulon played their part in a thrilling encounter – and, but for the wayward boots of James O’Connor, Delon Armitage and Eric Escande, who all tried their luck after Freddie Michalak left the field with a shoulder injury early in the second period, would have been worth a win.
But Stade more than gave as good as they got. From the first whistle, they snarled at Toulon as if victory was theirs for the taking – and two tries in the first half: the first from lock Alexandre Flanquart; the second a stunning, scything, swift counter-counter-attacking move finished off by Julien Arias after Jules Plisson’s kick ahead was charged down – indicated their intent.
Toulon were still in the game. Michalak punished the visitors’ indiscretions, and slotted four first-half penalties to make sure the home side were only one point down going into the break.
Six minutes into the second period, however, he was was hurt in a tackle – and with Matt Giteau sitting in the crowd alongside the still-injured Leigh Halfpenny, Toulon’s kicking options were pared to the bone.
Still, they roared back. Xavier Chiocci flopped over the line shortly after the break. Michalak’s final point-scoring act was to slot the conversion and give the hosts a six-point lead.
It was then that their kicking shortcomings were cruelly highlighted. Even as Plisson was sending everything right through the middle of the uprights, three Toulon players tried their luck. They all failed.
And even as fans on Twitter begged Jonny Wilkinson to come back, Plisson hammered the final nail in their team’s coffin.
It was four minutes after Drew Mitchell finished off a sweeping through-the-phases move by diving into the corner to take the score to 24-25. It was three minutes after Escande missed the conversion that would have given Toulon the lead and Krisnan Inu was yellow carded for a dangerous tackle that should have seen Scott Lavalla sent to the bin.
It was two minutes before the hooter would sound that Plisson stood, cool as you like, in the pocket behind a ruck some 25m from the posts. Jerome Fillol, on as a replacement for Julien Dupuy, flicked out a perfect pass, he swung his boot and the drop-goal attempt sailed high and handsome between the posts.
Two minutes later, it was all over. Toulon had lost at Stade Mayol for the first time since January’s smash-and-grab raid by Grenoble that cost Bernard Laporte a lengthy touchline ban.
The following morning, Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal confirmed that Argentinian fly-half and former Racing Metro favourite Juan Martin Hernandez would join the club until the end of the season when O’Connor heads to Queensland in January.
If all is not well in the stades of Toulon and Toulouse, it’s worse at Castres. Last year’s Top 14 finalists and the 2013 champions are bottom of the table, following a 41-16 hammering at La Rochelle.
Sireli Bobo defied his advancing years to lope over the Castres tryline twice, while Jean-Pascal Barraque and Kini Murimurivalu also touched down.
The hosts, who had sent out a warning to the other teams in the Top 14 when they beat Toulouse at Marcel Deflandre two weeks ago dominated all areas of the game. Their pack overpowered the visitors; their backs were quicker off the mark; their discipline was better; they were faster, fiercer and more hungry.
Castres briefly threatened to comeback into the game early in the second half when Thomas Combezou touched down. They then had a chance to score a second a few minutes later after Peter Grant knocked on deep in his own 22.
By the 55th minute, it was all over, when Murimurivalu went over for the hosts’ third try. Two minutes from time, Bobo sent the home crowd wild when he intercepted a desperate pass deep in his own 22 and ran clear to touch down for the bonus-winning fourth try.
The win moves La Rochelle out of the bottom two. And Bayonne’s home win over Brive less than 24 hours later condemned the Tarn side to bottom of the pile.
Brive have only themselves to blame as they had four players sent to the bin – including three in the opening period.
Playing against 14 men for half the game gave Bayonne the space they needed to control proceedings. Just as Bobo rolled back the years for La Rochelle, so did the forever young Joe Rokocoko for Bayonne. He scored the first of the hosts two tries, after being given too much space to cross in the corner.
The hosts sealed the win in the closing moments, when Simon Labouyrie emerged with the ball from under a pile of bodies after a powerful rolling maul.
Blair Stewart, meanwhile, made sure Brive paid a heavy price for their indiscretions, converting both tries and landing three penalties to make the final score an emphatic 23-6.
Oyonnax, too, had the beating of their opponents, Grenoble, in a seven-try thriller at Stade Charles Mathon. Benjamin Urdapilleta was in irrepressible form, kicking four penalties and converting all four of the home side’s tries.
Maurie Faasavalu and Maxime Le Bourhis both crossed for the hosts before Grenoble found their scoring touch.
Then, two minutes before the break, scrum-half James Hart, who had already slotted two penalties, touched down for the visitors. There was still time for Oyonnax to add another try before the break, as winger Dug Codjo found himself on his own inside the visitors’ 22 with just a front-row forward to beat.
It was 30-13 at halftime, but the Isere side were far from out of it. Daniel Kilioni made it 30-18 two minutes after the break, and Hart dutifully knocked over the conversion to take the scores to 30-20 with the bulk of the second half to play.
But hopes of a try-filled second period fizzled out as the two sides played each other to a near-standstill. That is, until the 74th minute, when Oyonnax’s outside centre Pierre Aguillon collected Urdapilletta’s clever chip ahead to score.
Even then, there was one final scoring moment to savour, as replacement Kevin Goze piled over for the visitors, but the final 40-27 scoreline meant that the visitors headedhome with nothing to show for their part in an entertaining game, but their three tries denied the hosts a try-scoring bonus.
Racing Metro secured what was for them a rare bonus-point win with a victory over Lyon that came straight out of Castres. Fit-again former CO winger Marc Andreu scored a brace and his fullback team-mate at both clubs Brice Dulin added a stunning individual effort, as the hosts ran in four tries to the passive visitors’ solo score. Maxime Machenaud scored Racing’s fourth and Franck Romanet crossed for the visitors as the game finished 28-11.
A Sunday game in the Top 14 is almost as rare as a Racing Metro bonus-point win, but fans had to wait until the weekend was nearly over before Bordeaux and Montpellier entertained with an exciting 27-21 end-to-end encounter at Stade Jacques Chaban-Delmas.
Pierre Bernard – another CO old boy – kicked 17 points for Bordeaux, and closed the game out with two late penalties after Rene Ranger was sent to the sin-bin late on for a dangerous tackle when the hosts were inches from Montpellier’s line.
Earlier, Metuisela Talebula had the simplest of jobs finishing off a move that started when Blair Connor ripped an almighty hole in Montpellier’s defence. Last season’s leading Top 14 try-scorer may have his name on the scoresheet, but there’s no doubting it was Connor’s try.
Jandre Marais also crossed for the hosts in the first period, while Benjamin Fall – who’s enjoying a renaissance since leaving Racing for the south of France – crossed for the first of his two tries to keep Montpellier very much in the game at the halfway point.
It was 18-11 when the two sides left the pitch for the first time. The visitors came roaring back in the early stages of the second 40, with Fall grabbing his second try in the 61st minute, after Bernard and Benoit Paillaugue had exchanged penalties.
But Bernard’s late kicks made sure the points went Bordeaux’s way; left Montpellier to face the long journey home with nothing to show for their afternoon’s efforts; and meant Clermont are on their own at the head of the Top 14 table. Twelve points ahead of bottom-of-the-table Castres.
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.