CASTRES, FRANCE – The 2015/16 Top 14 season kicked off with a surprise home defeat
for 2014 champions Toulon, an early warning from Clermont that they’re out to right more than a few perceived wrongs, and evidence that Guy Noves isn’t being missed too much at Toulouse.
But there was also a strong hint or two that this season could be closer and harder to call than even last year, as Castres pushed Bordeaux all the way, and Top 14 new boys Agen and Pau proved that they’re not just here to make up the numbers.
Masoe back to haunt RWC-weakened Toulon
Toulon 22 – 27 Racing 92
Chris Masoe proved age nor rugby has yet wearied him, as he put in a match-winning performance for new club Racing 92 against the side he played for between 2012 and last season.
The 36-year-old flanker emerged with the ball from a mess of players after Racing’s forwards had crashed through Toulon’s broken defence following a training ground lineout move with 13 minutes remaining.
A barely recognisable Toulon took to the pitch at Stade Felix Mayol. As well as the retirements of legends Bakkies Botha, Carl Hayman, and Ali Williams – who, contrary to some reports from France over the weekend, has not been taken on as an advisor by Racing – the Var side were without the services of 19 players because of the Rugby World Cup.
Racing, too, were missing a dozen squad members.
Toulon started the brighter. After Jonathan Pelissie and Maxime Machenaud had traded penalties, the former – who joined from Montpellier in the summer – iced what looked to be a perfect debut for his new club with a smartly-taken try.
But Henry Chavancy delivered the perfect response just before the break, combining impressively with Casey Laulala to slice open the hosts’ defence.
Pelissie and Machenaud again traded kicks before Masoe’s match-defining touchdown.
Machenaud added three more points with seven minutes left to take Racing almost out of sight, before a late penalty ensured Toulon scraped a defensive bonus point that – if the screaming of coach Jacques Delmas from pitchside was anything to go by – was surely not in the pre-match gameplan.
Worse for Toulon, Delon Armitage was forced to leave the pitch with five minutes remaining after being accidently knocked out in a tackle.
Strettle settles in with a try as Abendanon stars for Clermont
La Rochelle 6 – 44 Clermont
It looks as if David Strettle’s controversial-at-the-time decision to give up his World Cup dreams for a new life in Clermont may have been the right one after all.
He began his Jaunards adventure in perfect style with a try early in the second half as Clermont romped to an easy win at La Rochelle.
The hosts, who had turned Stade Marcel Deflandre into a fortress last season, will be wondering what hit them as Clermont arrived in a perfect storm of scything attack and brutal defence.
Second row Paul Jedrasiak opened the scoring, bullocking over after Strettle and fullback extraordinaire Nick Abendanon combined deep in their own 22 to tear open the hosts.
Abendanon then hit the perfect line to leave La Rochelle defenders looking at one another in despair. Strettle then scored Clermont’s third try four minutes into the second period, two minutes before Julian Bardy made sure of the try-scoring bonus.
The visitors’ fullback thought he had a second try shortly after as Clermont threatened to run away with the game, but his touchdown was ruled out after the video referee spotted Aurelien Rougerie’s inches-forward pass.
Not that it mattered. Clermont were in full control. Arthur Iturria wrapped up the scoring five minutes from time. Camille Lopez converted to take his personal tally for the game to 17 as Clermont kicked off their campaign in perfect bonus-point style.
Bordeaux survive Castres comeback
Bordeaux 19 – 16 Castres
Bordeaux held on in the face of a late Castres fightback to pick up an opening-day home win at Stade Chaban Delmas.
In the same fixture early last season, the hosts romped to a nine-try 59-7 win over a hapless Castres outfit, who never recovered from this mauling early in their campaign. This time, however, they discovered Castres were stronger defensively and better organised when they did get their hands on the ball.
Not that this was a perfect game. Far from it. Both sides showed clear signs of early campaign rustiness. Blair Connor raced through a gaping hole in the visitors’ defence for Bordeaux’s only try after 22 minutes, before Benjamin Desroches crossed with seven minutes left on the clock to pull the visitors into defensive bonus-point territory and set up a tense finish.
Between the two scores, both sides missed clear scoring opportunities – thanks to a combination of attacking errors, never-say-die defence and generous refereeing.
Bordeaux will be monitoring the progress of Jean-Marcellin Buttin, who was stretchered off the pitch after being knocked out as he tackled Castres new boy David Smith.
Easy for Mola as Toulouse cruise
Toulouse 24 – 7 Brive
Coach Ugo Mola must be wondering what all the pre-season can-he-can’t-he hoohah was about his Toulouse charges brought in the post-Guy Noves era with an easy victory over likely Top 14 strugglers Brive.
Arthur Bonneval, Imanol Harinordoquy and Yann David all crossed the whitewash for the Toulousains in the first half, but the match ended in frustration as the visitors were awarded a late penalty try that denied the hosts a try-scoring bonus point.
Toby Flood, playing at inside centre, impressed enough to be selected for the Top 14 team of the week in respected French sports newspaper Midi Olympique. He converted all three tries and added cunning flourish to Luke McAlister’s inventive devil at fly-half.
In truth, Toulouse deserved the five-point win the referee denied them. They brimmed with invention and burst with cutting intent from all quarters. It was all Brive could do to try to hold the crashing waves of McAlister-inspired attacks at bay.
It was a Mission Impossible. The scoreline read 24-0 at the end of the first half. Bonneval scored after just six minutes, Harinordiquy at the midway point and David five minutes before the end of the opening period.
Brive, somehow, regrouped at halftime and actually turned up in the second 40. But they found Toulouse to be as savage in defence as they were in attack. Only the referee was able to find a way through, awarding the visitors a penalty try following a Toulouse infringement too far.
Five-star start for Montpellier
Montpellier 35 – 19 Oyonnax
Montpellier began their Top 14 campaign with a bonus-point victory over Oyonnax, but the final score does not do justice to the visitors, who were in 13-7 up after 23 minutes, and did not fall behind on the scoreboard until the second half.
The hosts’ goal is clear this season – top six in the Top 14 or bust. And this weekend’s five-point haul is the perfect start, but Jake White’s charges had to fight almost all the way.
Oyonnax’s pack, in particular, will be disappointed, after seeing their early dominance count for little more than promise in the final reckoning, while new signing Nick Robinson proved that he is likely to be able to fill the big and accurate boots of former hero Benjamin Urdapilleta with a conversion and four penalties.
Montpellier’s Cameron White opened the try scoring with a chargedown touchdown after 17 minutes, but his effort was cancelled out when Dug Cudjo fought and bullied his way through what should have been an impenetrable wall of Montpellier defenders to score six minutes later.
Benjamin Fall managed to hang on to the ball long enough to score shortly before the half-hour, but Robinson’s boot kept Oyonnax in front until four minutes into the second period, when Jesse Mogg made the most of the hole in defence caused by Fabien Cibray’s first-half sin-binning.
Oyonnax remained in touch until the final 10 minutes of the game before Montpellier scored twice more to run away with the result. Andrew Smith touched down after 72 minutes, before Sitaleki Timani was credited with the final touchdown following a mass maul.
Welcome to the Top 14, ProD2 boys…
Stade Francais 34 – 18 Pau
ProD2 champions Pau fought hard, but learned the hard way that life is tough in the French top flight, as Stade Francais kicked off the defence of their Top 14 title in winning style.
Lock Hugh Pyle scored the first of host Stade’s four tries in the sixth minute.
Fly-half Jules Plisson, who was injured and could only watch from the stands when the Morne Steyn kicked the Parisians to Brennus glory in June, converted and landed two penalties before half time.
The Pyrenean outfit, playing their first Top 14 game in nine seasons, would not be cowed by their more illustrious rivals. Samuel Marques kept them in touch with two penalties – and when ex-Clermont scrum-half Thierry Lacrampe flopped over prop-stylee from short range early in the second period, the visitors were just two points in arrears.
But they had no answer when Stade stepped up a gear as the game entered the final quarter.
Raphael Lakafia blitzed his way over in the corner, as the hosts stretched their lead – and although the visitors’ prop Daniel Ramsay cut the deficit, Djibril Camara ensured the scoreline was as it should be with the final scoring word on the hooter.
Six-try Grenoble win without Wisniewski
Grenoble 35 – 19 Agen
Despite what look on paper like big defeats, Top 14 news boys Agen and Pau proved this weekend they are not just here to make up numbers.
Agen refused to let two early conceded tries get them down as they took the game to Grenoble from the start – and were in the lead at the end of the first period. But they blew themselves out by the final quarter and were, in the end, overrun.
The hosts suffered a setback before the game when influential fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski was forced to sit out the opening day after picking up a minor injury. His place was taken by Fabien Gengenbacher.
And the visitors appeared to fare little better when star summer signing George Tilsley was sin-binned after just four minutes for stamping. Grenoble did not take long to take early advantage, with Fabrice Estebanez crossing seconds later.
After two seasons in the ProD2, Agen’s first try on their Top 14 return came less than 10 minutes later from Mathieu Lamoulie, as the Tarn-et-Garonne side fought back before Fabien Alexandre crossed again for the hosts.
Fabien Gengenbacher and Marc Giraud then traded touchdowns before the hour mark, as Burton Francis kept the scoreboard ticking for the visitors with three penalties and two conversions – but the final quarter was all Grenoble.
Xavier Mignot scored on the hour before Alexandre added his second and Nigel Hunt wrapped up the try scoring five minutes from time.
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