Top 14 Recap: A Tale Of Two South Africans

The saviours of Top 14 side Montpellier? Jake White (right) and Shaun Sowerby
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Morne Steyn
Morne Steyn

CASTRES, FRANCE – Fly-half Morne Steyn further blotted his already heavily marked copybook at Stade Francais when he was sent off just 32 minutes his first Top 14 start of the season.

Steyn, top-scorer at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, has struggled since leaving The Bulls for Paris at the start of the 2013/14 season, but had kicked Stade into a 6-0 lead at Lyon’s Matmut Stadium, courtesy of a 40m penalty after six minutes and a smartly taken drop goal after 12.

Shortly after winger Mosese Ratuvou had cut the deficit with the first of his brace of tries, however, referee Cedric Marchat sent the 30-year-old off when he did this:

Playing with a man down for nearly 50 minutes proved too much for Stade, as Lyon rejuvenated after last week’s epic victory over Clermont – hammered their way back into the game.

And when Ratuvou cut in off the wing to take a pass from Ricky Januarie and force his way through Stade’s stretched defence, the game was as good as over. Jerome Porical converted to give the hosts a 12-6 lead with 30 minutes left on the clock.

Lyon roared back to beat 14-man Stade Francais in the Top 14's Friday night clash
Lyon roared back to beat 14-man Stade Francais in the Top 14’s Friday night clash

Jules Plisson came on to give Stade a glimmer of hope with a long-range penalty 10 minutes later, but pulled a dying-minutes chance to level the scores wide of the uprights.

“We were a player down for most of the match. Morne wanted this so much, he’s very sad in the dressing room,” said Stade coach Gonzalo Quesada.

“He wasted a great opportunity. There’s not much more to say.”

Though as neutral as beige at first glance, Quesada’s words are telling. Steyn’s place in Stade’s ranks has been in question for some time. He arrived in Paris to start a three-year deal in a haze of publicity in August 2013, but has rapidly disappeared in a blaze of obscurity and started only nine games in his debut season.

In an interview with Le Figaro shortly before last May’s ill-fated two-leg European Champions Cup qualifying play-off against Wasps, Stade president Thomas Savare described Steyn’s first year at the club as “one of the season’s disappointments”.

At the time, Savare said: “Hopefully Morne will continue to adapt. It was difficult for him to adapt to a new way of playing, a new championship.

He did not come to France on holiday but to play games, to start games, to win titles. He did not come here to warm the bench. He is ambitious.”

It would seem Savare’s public confidence in May was misplaced. It’s a measure of how far Steyn’s star has fallen among the staff at Stade that he has barely registered this season.

He surprised many in the French rugby press when he returned to Paris for Top 14 duty after The Rugby Championship, but has not been able to force his way into the side. A couple of European Challenge Cup games, a spot of bench-warming duty and just one Top 14 start is not the return either the player or his paymasters would want.

Despite the defeat, Stade held on to top spot until late on Sunday after another South African had enjoyed a much better Top 14 season debut.

The saviours of Top 14 side Montpellier? Jake White (right) and Shaun Sowerby
Saviours of Top 14 side Montpellier? Jake White (right) and Shaun Sowerby

World Cup-winning coach Jake White only took over coaching duties at troubled Montpellier on Tuesday, following Fabien Galthie’s suspension.

By the time the final whistle blew on Saturday, he had masterminded a 16-12 home win over defending Top 14 champions Toulon – on the back of a return to basics – and a much-improved pack performance for which new forwards coach Shaun Sowerby deserves recognition.

This was a different Montpellier to the one that just about gave up after 20 minutes against Castres a week ago while Galthie moped in the stands. This Montpellier played. And fought. And harried. And chased. And won.

One win does not make a season – but long-suffering fans would have taken anything following a slump in form that had seen them plummet down the Top 14 table. It would appear that coach White, here on an initial six-month contract, has had an instant galvanising impact. And consigning Toulon to a second consecutive defeat for the first time in almost exactly a year will feel about as good as it gets.

Montpellier beat Toulon in the Top 14
Montpellier beat Toulon in the Top 14

The Altrad Stadium pitch played its part as the first half descended into a kicking contest – but there was nothing to choose between Benoit Paillaugue and Leigh Halfpenny when the referee signalled the end of the opening 40.

The game turned on the sin-binning of Toulon’s second-row monster Romain Taofifenua after 53 minutes. Montpellier found touch with the penalty that followed and Alex Tulou powered over from the resulting line-out.

Ben Lucas and Halfpenny traded later penalties, but Montpellier – for once – held on to win.

Castres have also gone back to the basics of simple, direct, phase-play rugby. And they moved out of the Top 14 relegation zone courtesy of a second victory in a row and favourable results elsewhere. It was the first time they had won twice on the bounce all season and they were good value for their 30-15 win over fellow drop-fearing rivals La Rochelle.

Remy Grosso crossed the tryline in each half as the Tarn side ran in four tries. He was joined on the scoresheet in the first period by fullback Geoffrey Palis and pile-driver prop Paea Faanunu, before Romana Graham briefly silenced the Castres faithfuls’ celebrations by having the last try-scoring word of the first period.

Grosso’s second try midway through what was a pretty awful second period moved the hosts into potentially crucial bonus-point territory again, but the 2013 Top 14 champions were to be denied when Mali Hingano scored the visitors’ second touchdown eight minutes from time.

Clermont overtook Stade at the head of the Top 14 with a masterful 24-6 victory over an ill-disciplined Toulouse in front of a baying Jaunard crowd on Sunday evening.

French international fly-half Camille Lopez got in plenty of kicking practice as the visitors gave away penalty after penalty. He needed it, too, as he didn’t have the best of evenings with the boot, missing four of nine shots at goal.

But his pass released Aurelien Rougerie to score the opening try of the game four minutes before the end of the first half – and Wesley Fofana joined his fellow midfield man on the scoresheet three minutes from time.

A little more than 24 hours earlier, Maxime Machenaud booted Racing Metro to a pragmatic take-the-points 12-9 victory over Bordeaux, as the visitors’ travel sickness took hold again. Not even the dual presence of try-machines Metuisela Talebula and Sofiane Guitoune could inspire the visitors to really challenge Racing’s line.

Grenoble celebrate Charl McLeod's try in the Top 14  victory over Oyonnax
Grenoble celebrate Charl McLeod’s try in the Top 14 victory over Oyonnax

Grenoble put the brakes on a two-game losing streak in some style with a bonus-point four-tries-to-one win over Alpine rivals Oyonnax.

Rory Grice opened the scoring for Grenoble after just seven minutes, and Charl Mcleod added a second try midway through the first half. Two tries in the space of a minute in the second half – the first for Xavier Mignot and the second a penalty try – put the hosts well out of sight, especially as they were complemented by 13 points from the boot of Jonathan Wisniewski.

Five minutes from time, Silvere Tian finally helped Oyonnax kicker Benjamin Urdapilleta give the scoreline a sense of respectability for the visitors.

Relieved Brive put clear air between themselves and the relegation zone with an all-Gaetan Germain 25-9 win over Bayonne, who slipped into the Top 14’s second relegation spot, three points above bottom side La Rochelle.

Gaetan Germain kicked Brive to a vital Top 14 victory
Gaetan Germain kicked Brive to a vital Top 14 victory

Germain nailed six penalties and converted the second-half try he scored to make the final score look relatively comprehensive – but in truth the Correze side were mired in a real dogfight at 12-9 before the fullback’s 64th-minute score opened a crucial lead. Two late penalties had fans breathing more easily.

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About James Harrington 196 Articles
James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"