TOULOUSE, FRANCE – As the rest of the rugby world waits, breath bated, for the start of the Rugby World Cup, in France ongoing rugby dramas of the Top 14 kind keep distracting attention from the looming tournament just across La Manche.
This week has been particularly fascinating for rugby watchers, as – alongside another big win for Clermont, injury woe for Castres, and shock defeats for Bordeaux and Racing 92 – it has been an interesting week for Toulon, even by their unique standards.
Toulon channel dark side for first Top 14 win
Stade Francais 13 – 20 Toulon
Toulon have this week had to deny between the club’s players and a number of pharmacies currently under investigation in the Mediterranean port town.
Reports in France have suggested that some Toulon players may have been been illegally supplied with substances including antibiotics, painkillers and anabolic steroids, after France’s anti-doping authority Agence Francaise de Lutte contre le Dopage (AFDL) contacted state prosecutors in Marseille with concerns over certain irregularities.
But Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal insisted the club’s players were subject to strict controls, and said: “No player is concerned in this affair. It is totally unfounded information.”
Prosecutor Brice Robin had earlier told Le Monde newspaper that the investigation concerns “an infringement of the code on medication-sales” by pharmacists – one of whom reportedly once had close links with the club. He admitted the club had been named in legal papers, but warned against further speculation because no allegations had been proved.
Shortly after Boudjellal’s denial, Toulon announced they have signed All Black fly-half Tom Taylor will join the club on loan from Bayonne for the season after the World Cup. Taylor’s France move had been in doubt when the Basque Country side were relegated to the ProD2, but he remains on their books having signed a three-year deal.
Meanwhile, the coaching situation at Toulon remains unclear. The untried Diego Dominguez had been set to replace Bernard Laporte in January – he has been working with the training staff at the club – but it was claimed at the weekend that Boudjellal had approached Fabien Galthie, apparently confirmed by the former Montpellier coach, to take over instead. These claims, too, have been denied.
All of which drew attention away from the three-time European champions first Top 14 win of the season – but even on the pitch they were unable to escape the soap-style drama that seems to surround them.
A partial light failure at Stade Francais’ Stade Jean Bouin delayed kick off – but the referee decided that the game could go ahead, despite the fact that a strip down the middle of the pitch was in shadow.
To add to the strange air, Toulon started the match at the bottom of the Top 14 table. By the end, they had moved up to eighth – but it took a late try from Lachie Turner to secure the points.
Having led 10-0 thanks to an eighth-minute try from the ageless Sireli Bobo and a conversion and penalty from scrum half Jonathan Pelissie, Toulon were behind 13-10 at the break after Raphael Lakafia scored for the hosts, and France reject Jules Plisson slotted eight points with the boot.
The score was 13-13 five minutes from time when Turner got his hands on the ball in a dark and dangerous area of the hosts 22 and skirted over.
Winning is easy for Clermont
Oyonnax 24 – 41 Clermont
Clermont maintained their perfect start to their Top 14 campaign – but they needed a try four minutes after the final hooter to ensure a third try-scoring bonus point in a row.
It should have been much more straightforward. Pre-season signing Hosea Gear finished off a near-perfect sweeping move with just 15 minutes on the clock. It was the first of the visitors’ three first-half tries as they put on an awe-inspiring exhibition of unstoppable running rugby that tore hapless hosts Oyonnax to shreds.
World Cup joker Albert Vulivili added Clermont’s second 10 minutes later, taking a pass from Camille Lopez on the 22, and ripping through what was Oyonnax’s defence in name only.
And when David Strettle ghosted off his wing to pop up on Lopez’s shoulder a minute later in anticipation of another perfect pop pass, it seemed the game was all over.
Confirmation of Oyonnax’s demise apparently came shortly before the hour. Nick Abendanon, not normally noted as a defensive giant, crunched into Oyonnax talisman Silvere Tian, and turned the ball over. Seconds later Adrien Plante went over in the corner for Clermont’s fourth try.
It was 34-12. Oyonnax were down to 14 men with flanker Pierrick Gunther in the bin, and kicking fullback Nick Robinson injured.
But the hosts – who qualified for the European Champions Cup with last season’s sixth-place finish – weren’t completely dead and buried. And they threatened to rain on Clermont’s perfect parade in the final 10 minutes.
With the visitors’ number 8 Fritz Lee in the bin, Oyonnax’s replacement hooker Jeremie Maurouard scored out wide in the 71st minute. Five minutes later, he repeated the trick – this time right under the posts – to rip Clermont’s try-scoring bonus point out of their hands.
Suddenly it was 34-24. A home win was out of the question – but a defensive bonus point was a possibility.
Briefly. When young lock Paul Jedrasiak burst up the field long after the hooter sounded, all bets were off. He was hauled down, but found Alivereti Raka – who went over to restore Clermont’s three-try cushion, and snatch back that try-scoring bonus.
Grice adds gloss for Grenoble
Grenoble 41 – 15 Pau
Jonathan Wisniewski scored 19 points in the first 46 minutes to set an unbeatable platform for Grenoble, as the Rhone Alpes side overwhelmed their rivals from the shadows of the Pyrenees.
The French fly-half’s four penalties, along with a try from Peter Kimlin ensured Grenoble went in at the break 17-3 to the good.
And Wisniewski dived over four minutes into the second period to open the try-scoring floodgates. He could then sit back and watch as his side touched down another three times, through Gio Aplon and Rory Grice (2) to give the hosts a deserved try-scoring bonus point – and condemn Pau to the foot of the Top 14 at the end of the third weekend of the season.
The visitors, ProD2 champions last season, at least refused to give up without a fight. Vincent Campo Castello crossed the whitewash after 50 minutes. Then Eli Niko put a veneer of near-respectability to the score with five minutes left on the clock – two minutes before Grice scored his second of the match to make sure of the bonus point for the hosts.
Holmes solves La Rochelle’s winless mystery
La Rochelle 21 – 18 Brive
Australian fly-half Zack Holmes was La Rochelle’s hero, contributing 16 of the home side’s 21 points in their first win of the season.
Brive, once again, relied on the boot of Gaetan Germain – but his six penalties turned out to be not quite good enough, as Holmes proved just as adept from the kicking tee, and also contributed a crucial second-half try, as well as converting Pierre Aguillon’s touchdown just before the half hour.
It was, in truth, a fortunate try. Ricky Januarie’s box kick looked too deep to cause Brive much trouble, but Benito Masilevo made a hash of clearing-up, allowing the hosts a relatively soft score.
Despite scoring two tries to nil, La Rochelle were never able to quite get away. Germain kept Brive in the hunt. He set up a tense final seven minutes with his sixth penalty, but his side were unable to get him inside kicking range again.
Burton gives Agen the edge
Agen 30 – 18 Racing 92
South African fly-half Burton Francis scored 25 points, including a try, as Top 14 new boys Agen picked up their first win of the season over previously undefeated Racing 92.
It was an ill-disciplined encounter. The visitors played most of the second half with 14 men, with full back Sean Robinson and replacement lock Juandre Kruger both sent to the bin before replacement hooker Virgile Lacombe was shown a straight red with 10 minutes left.
Agen, too, played 20 minutes of the second period with 14 men, after first Lionel Mazars and then Alexi Bales were invited by the referee to spend 10 minutes on the naughty step.
By then, Agen were clear. The visitors’ scrum-half Maxime Machenaud was the first to cross the try line, after just three minutes, but their lead was short lived, and would never be regained. Francis first kicked Agen ahead, then sailed over the line himself as the hosts took control.
And, when Mathieu Lamoulie also found a way through Racing’s defence with the clock still showing less than half an hour, the game had got away from the big-spending Franciliens. Francis added two more second-half penalties to his points tally, before Marc Andreu scored a late consolation.
Castres suffer in Toulouse hell
Toulouse 37 – 20 Castres
Castres fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta will be out of action for three months after hobbling off in the 30th minute of the Midi Pyrenees derby at Toulouse.
Urdapilleta joins fellow Oyonnax old boy Antoine Tichit in Castres’ medical room, after the prop had surgery on a troublesome shoulder injury following the victory over Toulon a week earlier. He will be out for two-and-a-half months.
The visitors’ injury list lengthened further as Urdapilleta’s replacement Julien Dumora also left the pitch – but his injury is not thought to be too serious, and he may be named in the squad to face Oyonnax on Friday.
Ugo Mola appears to have done what future France coach Guy Noves could not at Toulouse. He has worked out how to get Luke McAlister and Toby Flood to work effectively together at 10-12. The duo caused Castres all sorts of trouble until McAlister, too, limped off four minutes before halftime in a brutal match.
Flood scored 22 of Toulouse’s points – including four penalties in the first half as Toulouse raced into a 17-7 lead. Corey Flynn added to his two tries against Agen last week with another in the 11th minute. Although Castres’ Romain Marital won a footrace to keep the visitors in the hunt, on the scoreboard at least, the truth is they were always chasing the game.
Toulouse were sharper in body and mind. Only admirable never-say-die defence made sure the game continued as a contest into the second half. When Flood made the most of a gaping hole in the visitors’ stretched defence midway through the second period, it was all over.
Brice Mach finished off a rare Castres attack in the corner to give the visiting fans a little something to cheer about, and the faint brief flicker of hope for an unlikely defensive bonus – but Sebastien Bezy’s late try was no less than the hosts deserved.
White: It’s Reffing Crazy
Bordeaux 22 – 24 Montpellier
Montpellier coach Jake White rounded on the referee, despite his side’s first away win of the season at Bordeaux.
White was unimpressed with the penalty count against his side – they were pinged 12 times to the hosts’ six, the penalty try they conceded, or the fact that two Montpellier players were sin-binned compared to Bordeaux’s one.
It was nip/tuck all the way. Rival kickers Pierre Bernard and Benoit Paillaugue played ‘anything you can do’ from the tee. They each slotted four penalties and a conversion. Bernard won the personal bragging rights by adding an early drop goal to his points tally.
But his personal victory was a pyrrhic one as he hammered the post with a kick that would have given his side the lead late on. They would get no further chances. As it was, Montpellier headed home with four points, thanks to first-half tries from Marvin O’Connor – courtesy of a sweeping counter-attack, a suspicion of a forward pass and an outrageous sidestep – and Timoci Nagusa which more than cancelled out the penalty try the Herault side conceded shortly before the half hour.
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