Top 14 Recap: There May be Trouble at Toulon…

David Smith, of Castres, against his old club Toulon in the Top 14
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CASTRES, FRANCE – It may be a decade since Toulon last kicked off their season with two straight defeats; the perfect start to the Top 14 may be continuing for Clermont; and Ugo Mola may still be wondering what all the fuss is about at Toulouse – but a reported racist incident in Pau means that this Top 14 weekend will be remembered for the wrong reasons.


Pau victory tainted

Pau 26 – 16 Montpellier

A racist incident overshadowed what should have been a day of celebration for Pau, as they brought Top 14 rugby back to Stade du Hameau.

The home side marked the occasion with a victory, but Montpellier winger Timoci Nagusa was the victim of racist abuse from one member of the crowd. The player later told French sports newspaper Midi Olympique: “I saw this man in the crowd. He was making terrible gestures … like a monkey.

“At first, I tried not pay attention but he continued. I was about 10 metres away from him – and when I went towards him, I was wondering if I was going to jump on him and punch him – but I changed my mind. I’m better than that.”

The incident prompted immediate condemnation from the two clubs, who said a joint statement that they would do ‘everything they can to sanction this act that does not reflect the spirit and values of the two clubs or rugby’.

Nagusa meanwhile said he did not want to file charges, because he did not want to ‘do anything that could ruin this man’s life’.

The incident is unworthy of sport anywhere, and cast a pall over the Top 14 weekend in France – especially in Pau, where the fans should be celebrating a well-deserved derby win.

Nagusa and Charles Geli touched down for Montpellier as they outscored the home side two tries to one. But Samuel Marques punished Montpellier’s indiscipline from all points on the pitch, as he kicked 21 of Pau’s points, while Julien Fumat scored the hosts’ first try on home soil.


Clermont’s perfect 10

Clermont 25 – 6 Grenoble

Clermont may be missing 16 players to World Cup duty – but they continued their perfect start to the Top 14 season with a second bonus-point win in as many matches to lead the Top 14 with 10 points.

But they had to come from behind to do it, after Grenoble scrum-half James Hart had kicked two unanswered early penalties.

The home side went into the interval 7-6 up thanks to the only try of the opening period – which came courtesy of captain and loosehead prop Thomas Domingo, who crashed over from close range after picking up a pass from Hosea Gear.

But it was all about Clermont after the break. Twenty-two-year-old lock Paul Jedrasiak had already had one try ruled out for obstruction when he burst through a gaping hole in Grenoble’s defence in the dying minutes to seal the bonus point.

Earlier, number 8 Fritz Lee broke away from the base of a rolling maul to score Clermont’s second try.


Flynn at the double

Agen 9 – 20 Toulouse

A brace of tries from an unlikely source ensured Ugo Mola’s honeymoon period as Toulouse coach continued for at least another week.

Corey Flynn thundered his way through three defenders and over the whitewash to give the visitors an early lead following a mistake at a lineout by his opposite number. But Toulouse were still  9-7 down when he repeated the trick – this time without the tacklers and after successfully demonstrating the arcane skill of lineout throwing – early in the second half.

Two late penalties from Sebastien Bezy snuffed out any hope of an Agen fightback, and also left the Lot-et-Garonne side still looking for their first Top 14 points of the season, ahead of next weekend’s home match against Racing 92.


Allez Azam! Oyonnax rediscover winning magic

Oyonnax 37 – 19 Bordeaux

The side from France’s ‘plastics city’, Oyonnax, christened their new plastic pitch – and picked up their first points of the season in some style – with a 37-19 hammering of one of the pre-season favourites for the Brennus.

It was the first Top 14 match played on the artificial surface at Stade Charles Mathon, which had been laid in the close season to combat the harsh winter conditions in the shadow of the Jura mountains.

Within nine minutes of being awarded a 26th-minute penalty try, Oyonnax had the try-scoring bonus wrapped up, courtesy of South African hooker Jody Jenneker and Irish centre Eamon Sheridan.

Replacement second row Mickael De Marco made sure of the extra point on the hour – six minutes before Blair Connor scored a consolation try for Bordeaux.


Racing relief after Barraque drop drama

Racing 92 20 – 19 La Rochelle

Racing 92 may have picked up eight points from two Top 14 games – but there were plenty of problems with the dismal manner of their home win over La Rochelle.

The big-spending Franciliens were a pale imitation of the side that beat European champions Toulon at Stade Mayol on the opening day of the new Top 14 season – and it would have been worse still if Jean-Pascal Barraque’s after-the-hooter drop goal attempt had gone over.

It didn’t, which meant that Camille Chat and Chris Masoe’s tries either side of halftime were just about enough, as they wiped out Gabriel Lacriox’s earlier touchdown. But, from 20-10 up and apparently in total control, the hosts conceded three penalties in the last quarter to set up the nail-biting, breath-holding finish.


Controversial penalty try sinks Stade

Brive 22 – 13 Stade Francais

A controversial penalty try and the unerring boot of Gaetan Germain were about the only notable points of an otherwise utterly forgettable Top 14 encounter at Stade Amedee Domenech.

Stade fly-half Jules Plisson was sent to the sin bin for illegally stopping Fiji wing Benedito Masilevu from scoring a try with a high tackle.

It seemed harsh.

Replays appeared to show that Plisson, in full flight and at full stretch, had grabbed Masilevu’s shoulder and that his hand rode up as he dragged down the Brive winger. But, after reviewing the footage with the TMO, referee Cedric Marchat ruled the tackle was high – and also that it had denied Masilevu a certain score.

Germain duly converted the penalty try – the second Stade Francais have conceded in as many games – and nailed five penalties as the home side bounced back from their opening weekend lamping in Toulouse.

At Ernest Wallon last week, Brive’s set piece didn’t so much malfunction as suffer complete functional failure. Their scrum was in perma-retreat, while their lineout seemed to think that the idea was to give the ball away. It was painful.

At home on Saturday, those day-one problems had been solved. The forwards worked and hunted as a pack should. They were savage in the scrum, clinical in the lineout, ferocious in the loose. And Stade – shorn of World Cup-tied powerhouses like Sergio Parisse and Pascal Pape – had no answer.

Avenisi Vasiunubu scored a scarcely deserved interception try for the visitors to give the scoreline a molecule-thin veneer of respectability – but by then it was all far too late.


Toulon’s unwanted double

Castres 24 – 9 Toulon

Toulon last kicked off a campaign with successive defeats 10 season ago. That’s one year BM – Before Mourad.

But Sunday’s three-tries-to-nil defeat at Castres leaves the three-time European champions languishing in 12th in the Top 14, with just one point from their first two games – a defensive bonus picked up against Racing 92 last weekend.

After Benjamin Urdapilleta and Jonathan Pelissie exchanged early penalties, an infringement too far cost Toulon lock Thibault Lassalle 10 minutes in the sin-bin shortly before halftime – and Castres took full advantage of the rather large Lassalle-sized hole in the visitors’ defence.

Castres were 3-6 down at the time – and three points were a certainty – but they kicked for touch 5m out instead of going for goal. It proved the correct decision. Toulon old boy Rudi Wulf was at the back of the unstoppable, inexorable rolling maul that followed.

Suddenly, it was 10-6, but the first-half drama was not over. Young Toulon centre Theo Belan raced clear of a dumbfounded home defence, stopped, started again and dotted down under the posts. But the TMO eventually ruled that the ball had been fractionally knocked on just before he picked up.

The momentum looked to be shifting 14-man Toulon’s way when they cut the deficit to 10-9 shortly after the break, but another Varois old boy would play a key part in condemning his former side to their historic loss.

After rouge-et-noir reject and last season’s Top 14’s leading try-scorer David Smith had raced deep into Toulon’s 22, scrum-half Julien Seron – who is fast turning into a cult hero at Stade Pierre Antoine – flicked out a perfect pass for stand-in skipper Alex Tulou. Nothing short of a seismic event was going to stop the muscular number 8.

Seron went from provider to scorer two minutes later. Juan Smith is not noted for giving the ball away, but he knocked on in midfield as he tried to gather a panicky pass out of a tackle. The hosts fed hulking winger Remy Grosso, who beat two men and found Urdapilleta. He skipped inside Pelissie before judging his pass to Seron perfectly. All the scrum-half had to do was jog to the line.

Both sides let further chances go begging as late-summer heat took its toll on shattered muscles. Castres had the best chance, but Grosso was unable to find Wulf with the tryline begging. And despite losing Tulou to the sinbin with five minutes on the clock, Castres were home and dry.

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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!"