CASTRES, FRANCE – There was added international flavour to the Top 14 weekend. There’s always an international flavour, of course, with so many overseas players plying their trade in France’s top flight – but this weekend’s matches also featured referees from a number of corners of the globe.
They were here to acclimatise to French conditions ahead of the European competitions that kick off later this week – and it wasn’t without its controversies.
Racing Metro coach Laurent Labit, for one, wasn’t impressed. He told the media after their derby defeat at Stade Francais that he thought South African whistleman Jaco Van Heerden had not refereed the sides fairly.
He said: “We knew the refereeing would be different today, but the match was strange at times and we believe the refereeing was one-sided.”
He was speaking after Racing had scored three tries to Stade Francais’ solitary touchdown – but still lost a thrilling Paris derby at Stade Jean Bouin.
Julien Dupuy and Jules Plisson nailed three penalties each to complement Julian Arias’s thrilling yet controversial 35th-minute try. It was awarded, following a lengthy consultation with the video referee, despite the footage seeming to show that the winger had been tackled into touch.
The video referee refused the try, but Mr Van Heerden gave it – to the surprise of anyone in the ground, not least Arias.
Later, Labit said: “That has ended on a parody, a stick-up. We’ve been robbed. Everybody saw the guy in the middle, nicely dressed, with shoes that matched his shirt, refereeing all afternoon with a smile.
“He spent the week in Paris. He must have visited a lot of places and had a nice walk around … and he did so this afternoon too.”
Heading into the second half, Racing had just Alexandre Dumoulin’s converted try to show for their efforts; and Dupuy had taken Racing’s lead to 20-7 before underrated fly-half Johan Goosen converted his own try to give Racing a scintilla of a hint of a chance.
It stayed 20-14 until four minutes from time, when Goosen’s replacement Benjamin Dambielle finished off a sublime move by diving over in the corner. It was suddenly 20-19, with the conversion attempt to come and time ticking down.
But Dambielle sliced his difficult kick wide of the upright, and Plisson finally soothed Stade’s ruffled feathers with a last-minute penalty.
Montpellier fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc faces a three-month lay-off after he suffered a fractured right tibia midway through the first half of the club’s final Top 14 match before the European break.
Trinh-Duc was stretchered off the pitch and has already had surgery – but the injury could not have come at a worse time for him, Montpellier, or France – with the first European Rugby Champions Cup encounter at Toulouse next week and the November internationals on the horizon.
It was 3-3 at the time, as Oyonnax gave as good as they got in the opening exchanges. The visitors continued to give as good as they got throughout the first period. They went back into the dressing room 9-6 down.
It wouldn’t last. Scrum-half Teddy Iribaren, who had taken over kicking duties following Trinh-Duc’s injury kicked Montpellier just about out of sight, before the home side’s pack shoved their way to a penalty try in the final minute of the game. It ended 25-9.
Cramp, meanwhile, cost Brive what would have been a remarkable win at Grenoble on Friday.
Gaetan Germain had a late chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after replacement Jean-Baptiste Pejoine had touched down in the corner with just three minutes remaining to take the visitors within a single point.
But exhausted legs meant the normally reliable fullback was way off the mark with his conversion attempt. It wasn’t easy, way out on the touchline, but it was the sort of kick Germain slots more often than not – but his desperate efforts to eke out one more step from his bone-weary legs left him with too little time to line up the attempt.
Earlier, after Brive’s Benito Masilevu had silenced the Stade des Alpes crowd by scoring the first try of the match, Grenoble had taken what looked for all the world like total control. They were 20-10 up by the end of the first half, courtesy of two tries in five minutes.
The first, from Ali Ratini, sent the home fans wild. The second, from Henry Vanderglas three minutes before halftime, had them dreaming of a Bordeaux-style final score.
It was not to be. In a second half that would have had head coach Bernard Jackman fuming, Grenoble let the visitors back into the game – and Brive came within a cramp-induced miss of sneaking it at the death.
Lock Dominiko Waqaniburotu crashed over on the hour to give the visitors a glimmer of hope, before Pejoine’s late-late try had both sets of fans praying to the rugby gods.
As it turned out, the rugby gods were Grenoble fans on Friday.
Leigh Halfpenny’s long-awaited Toulon debut ended in defeat, as Toulouse claimed a second big scalp in a row to climb away from the relegation zone and give them a real boost ahead of next week’s European Rugby Champions Cup opener against Montpellier.
Gael Fickou touched down after just six minutes, when he collected an inch-perfect garryowen from Luke McAlister that had caused panic among the Toulon defence. All he had to do then was fall over the line.
As well as converting the try he had created, McAlister, who was enjoying an influential game, kicked three first-half penalties to give the hosts a 16-0 lead at the break.
Toulon, meanwhile, despite the return of a number of star players, looked out of sorts. Juan Martin Hernandez Lobbe, usually a dominant force at the lineout, struggled. Bakkies Botha landed himself in yellow card-coloured hot water. And nothing they tried seemed to work.
And when Yoann Huget touched down four minutes after the restart to make the most of a quickly taken penalty, the game was pretty much over bar the shouting.
As the hosts pushed for a third, bonus-point try, there was still plenty of time for Bryan Habana to afterburn his way to a consolation try for the visitors, as he took advantage of a loose pass from Jean-Marc Doussain to hack and chase his way to score under the posts.
Not even Maxime Medard, who’s no slouch, could get to the South African.
Halfpenny slotted the simple conversion – but, strangely, James O’Connor took a later penalty. The Australian had also stepped up early in the game to kick for touch when Toulon had won a penalty that was just about in Halfpenny’s howitzer range.
Any deluded soul who may have believed, against all available evidence, that Bordeaux’s six-try demolition of Clermont last week was some sort of random perfect-game fluke should probably look away now. Because they repeated the trick this week against Castres… and added three extra tries just for kicks.
They were generous enough to allow the visitors to score a try of their own – after they had already racked up six. By the time Thomas Combezou crossed Bordeaux’s line, Metuisela Talebula had scored twice. As had Yann Lesgourgues, in six second-half minutes. Blair Connor – the man most likely to inherit former Ireland winger Simon Geoghegan’s “mad tsetsi fly” epithet – had scored the first of his two, and Louis-Benoit Madaule had also touched down.
Even then, there was still time for Baptiste Serin and Adam Jaulhac to take the final score to 59-7.
Clermont had just about wrapped up a predictable home win over La Rochelle by halftime – though it had taken them until two minutes before the hooter to pull away from the Top 14 new boys. Three minutes into the second half, they had scored all the points they needed.
Camille Lopez had kicked the hosts into a 9-3 lead when Benjamin Kayser barged over the line after 38 minutes. Then, on the stroke of halftime, the flyhalf scored and converted his own try to take Clermont into a 23-3 lead.
Two minutes after the restart, scrumhalf Thierry Lacrampe, who had replaced the injured Morgan Parra after half an hour, scored. Lopez converted to make it 30-3.
And that would have been it – except that Alofa Alofa breached Clermont’s defences with five minutes remaining to deny the hosts a try-scoring bonus.
Lyon edged a tense affair against Bayonne at the Matmut Stadium. Jerome Porical and Toby Arnold had crossed the visitors’ whitewash to take the hosts into halftime 12-6 to the good.
Porical and Bayonne’s Martin Bustos Moyano then traded penalties – until the Bayonne pack won a penalty try five minutes from time to leave the home fans watching the closing moments through their fingers.
Thirty-one-year-old fullback Mosese Ratuvou eased their nerves at the last, though, kicking what he would later say was the first drop goal of his career to take the final score to 24-19. Lyon fans won’t care that it wasn’t the most beautiful strike of a ball they will have ever seen. It sailed through the uprights. And – at that time in in that place – it was all that mattered.
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.