CASTRES, FRANCE – It was a sombre yet strangely charged Top 14 weekend, as France grieved in the aftermath of three days of attacks on one of the pillars of its most fiercely guarded ideals – freedom of expression.
Crowds at every game fell silent for one minute, many holding Je Suis Charlie banners, and players stood in the middle of the pitches, proudly wearing Charlie Hebdo T-shirts, as the Top 14 showed its solidarity with the 12 victims of Wednesday’s massacre at the offices of the satirical weekly; as well as the 25-year-old Paris police officer gunned down as she attended a traffic accident early on Thursday; and the four hostages murdered in a siege at a kosher food store in the east of the French capital on Friday.
The silences at every game would be followed by spontaneous applause and defiant renditions of La Marseillaise.
And at Toulon’s Stade Mayol, the traditional pre-match Pilou Pilou chant was altered to remember and honour the victims.
Comic book magnate and Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal knew the cartoonists killed in the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and was particularly close to editor Stéphane Charbonnier, aka Charb, and Bernard Verlhac – who signed his biting cartoons Tignous.
It was only right that his club should remember some of the world’s most talented satirists in this unique way.
Boudjellal’s charges then proceeded to do their boss proud, scoring two tries in the opening quarter on their way to a dramatic 32-23 victory over Racing Metro.
Matt Giteau, in his comeback game after recovering from a groin injury that has kept him out of the side since October, issued a powerful warning to next weekend’s European Champions Cup rivals Ulster with an influential performance.
The Australian released Leigh Halfpenny to score the first try after just six minutes. The match announcer reported the touchdown was scored by ‘Charlie’ Halfpenny.
Then – just before the hour – Giteau muscled his way through the last line of Racing’s defence to get close enough to the line to reach out an arm and score.
Meanwhile, His Supreme Imperial Galactic Majesty Lord Sir Jonny of Wilkinson watched with increasing appreciation from the dugout as medical joker Juan Martin Hernandez demonstrated just about every trick in the fly-half’s book.
Ageing flank monster Juan Smith stretched over score Toulon’s second try after 16 minutes. It seemed that the match was as good as over 10 minutes later when Bryan Habana added a third try after Racing had been reduced to 13 men – with both Jamie Roberts and Adrien Plante were carded following separate incidents.
But the current version of Racing are not easily beaten. Teeny, tiny former Toulon man Marc Andreu turned Halfpenny inside out and then outside in after latching on to a perfect pop pass near the 10m line to score under the posts just before half time.
And when Jamie Roberts – making amends for his earlier sin-binning – confounded Habana four minutes into the second period, Racing were suddenly back in it. The scores had gone from 22-3 to 22-17 in five crowd-silencing minutes.
Two minutes later it was 22-20, when another ex-Toulon man, fullback Bernard Lapeyre, nailed a long-range penalty.
Re-enter Giteau. His 57th-minute try reopened a gap that the hosts would not give up.
The weekend, with painful irony, had kicked off in Paris on Friday night, mere hours after the authorities brought two sieges linked to the Charlie Hebdo massacre to a dramatic and decisive end. Stade Francais’ understandably sparsely populated Stade Jean Bouin was the first of the Top 14 grounds to fall silent with grief then soar in emotional applause and defiant song, before the game against Castres.
Stade’s Captain Astonishing Sergio Parisse scored a second-half hat-trick, as the hosts ran in six tries to the visitors’ one, while Jules Plisson reminded the French selectors of his prodigious talent by kicking 19 points in a straightforward 49-13 win.
It’s inconceivable that – injury permitting – Plisson and Clermont’s Camille Lopez won’t be France coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s favoured fly-halves at next year’s World Cup. At least it should be. But logic and common sense don’t always, or even often, figure in French national rugby selections.
Julien Dumora and Plisson had exchanged early penalties before the Parisse-inspired Stade moved up through the gears. His perfect pass to scrum-half Julien Dupuy led to the opening try of the night. Dupuy ran straight and hard deep into the heart of Castres’ palpitating defence, before he gave Waisale Nayacalevu the easiest of run-ins.
Then, with Castres temporarily reduced to 14 men, Stade centre Geoffrey Doumayrou finished off a well-worked move, only for the score to be ruled out for a forward pass. But the hosts were not to be denied for long. A couple of minutes later, fellow midfield man Jonathan Danty blitzed through to score under the posts.
Indiscipline cost the visitors dearly. They had three players sent to the bin – flanker Piula Faasalele, then replacement prop Ramiro Herrera, and captain Rodrigo Capo Ortega.
They gave themselves faint hope early in the second period when winger Remy Grosso – who has finally realised he’s big enough and strong enough and ugly enough to run through defenders as well as quick enough to run round them – touched down.
It was a false dawn – even though the referee denied Stade what looked to be a cast-iron try. Danty scored it, after fine work from Nayacalevu and fullback Djibril Camara – but the super-sharp-eyed video ref spotted a knock-on that mere mortals could not hope to see.
So, the stage was set for Parisse. He laid waste to Castres’ defence all by himself to score his first try of the night after 54 minutes; dotted down as Stade’s scrum shoved Castres’ sin-binned weakened pack rapidly backwards six minutes later; was denied his third when the referee awarded a penalty try as the visitors’ scrum crumbled again; then popped up on the wing to notch-up his hat-trick shortly before the final whistle.
The bonus-point win moved Stade five points clear at the head of the Top 14, but Clermont overtook the Paris side with a big win of their own in the last match of the weekend.
They hammered Brive 44-20 at Stade Marcel Michelin. Toulon-bound powerhouse winger Naipolioni Nalaga scored a brace in a five-minute period in the second half as Clermont turned on the gas following a strangely lacklustre first 40.
Brive had stifled and frustrated Clermont for much of the first half before fullback Jean Buttin finally broke their defence seven minutes before the whistle. It opened the try-scoring floodgates. Clermont added five more in the second 40, while Brive played the part of plucky losers perfectly by running in three of their own.
Hooker Benjamin Kayser was unstoppable from close range three minutes into the second half – and, although Benito Masilevu replied for Brive five minutes later after a move that involved two slices of luck – Clermont were now unstoppable.
Nalaga’s double came in a 300-second spell that started on 50 minutes. And a penalty try five minutes later all but ended the game as a contest.
Brive refused to roll over. But Riaan Swanepoel and Kieran Murphy’s scores were nothing more than consolations, as replacement Ludovic Radosavljevic made sure Clermont picked up a deserved bonus point to move back to the head of the Top 14 table.
Toulouse nearly threw away 16-point lead in the final 30 minutes of their game against Top 14 basement side La Rochelle – but held on to win 29-26 at Stade Ernest Wallon.
It was 14-10 at halftime, as Julien Audy kept the visitors in the hunt with a score to offset tries from Toulouse’s Thierry Dusautoir and Yann David. Then David went over again and Yoann Huget also scored in the opening eight minutes of the second period and it looked for all the world that Toulouse were about to run away with it.
But, a try from Jason Eaton and the boot of Peter Grant threatened an upset. The Rochelais just could not quite get close enough, but Grant fired over a penalty with the last kick of the game to ensure they headed home with a defensive bonus point.
Silvere Tian scored twice in the opening 10 minutes as Oyonnax ended Jake White’s brief honeymoon period as Montpellier coach with a 20-13 win at Stade Charles Mathon. Benjamin Urdapilleta converted one and added a penalty as the hosts went into the break 15-6 up.
Scrum-half Fabien Cibray added a third try for the hosts 11 minutes into the second half – but Timoci Nagusa denied them an attacking bonus with a 61st-minute score.
Lionel Beauxis kicked 19 points as Bordeaux recovered from conceding an early try to beat Grenoble 34-16 at Stade Andre Moga.
Grenoble fullback Benjamin Thiery went over with just two minutes on the clock to stun the Bordeaux faithful as the side made an increasingly rare move from Chaban-Delmas to their second home.
Normal Bordeaux try-scoring service appeared to have resumed nine minutes later as hooker Wayne Avei went over for the first of his two first-half tries. And his second, finishing off a lovely move down the right, apparently confirmed it.
But it took them until a minute from time to score their third – courtesy of Felix Le Bourhis. The rest of the scoring came courtesy of the boot of Beauxis.
Bayonne gave their Top 14 survival hopes a shot in the arm with a hard-fought 23-22 home win over Lyon. All the try-scoring was completed in the opening period as Marvin O’Connor and ‘Uncle’ Joe Rokocoko crossed for the hosts, while Stephen Brett replied for Lyon.
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