Toulon fall to the curse of Castres again

Here’s my latest Top 14 rugby review for Rugby Wrap Up. If you want to see it with images and stuff, please click here…

One hundred and six days after they met in the Top 14 final at Stade de France, the champions of Europe and the champions of France locked horns once again.

The venue may have been different – the claustrophobic confines of the 11,500-capacity Stade Pierre Antoine is a long way from the wide, open spaces of Frane’s national stadium – but the result was close to the same. On Saturday, June 1, Castres beat Toulon 19-14. On Saturday, September 14, they won 22-15.

So, Toulon headed back to the south coast still waiting to break a 29-year hoodoo at Castres. As it was in June, the home side’s win was built on solid defence, fearsome forward play and flashes of brilliance by scrum-half Rory Kockott and fast-as-lightning full-back Brice Dulin. While Dulin cut through the visitors defence like a hot ballbearing through runny butter, Kockott punished almost every Toulon indiscretion.

In fact, Kockott supplied the Top 14’s moment of the day. At 3-6 down with 10 minutes of the first half remaining, he hit an upright with a penalty from 60m out, but calmly collected Delon Armitage’s clearing kick seconds later and coolly drilled a drop goal from 55m.

It was audacious stuff – especially as he’d been specifically told by his coaches not to attempt such folly after he tried – and failed – twice at Oyonnax last Sunday. It was probably the moment that Toulon director of rugby Bernard Laporte probably realised this was not going to be his side’s day.

It wouldn’t have taken that long for Fabien Galthie to realise Montpellier’s three-match winning streak was grinding noisily and painfully to a shuddering halt. After all, Perpignan had scored three unanswered tries in the opening 20 minutes. Their opening-quarter blitz included a stunning length-of-the-pitch score directly from the restart after scrum-half Dewalt Duvenage had touched down for the first time. Timoci Nagusa finally crossed the line for the Herault side after 74 minutes, but it was all too little too late.

Unsurprisingly, Clermont extended their home winning streak to 63 games, with a straightforward 27-13 win over Grenoble. Morgan Parra set the hosts on course with three first-half penalties, and two second-half tries from Damien Chouly ended any hopes the visitors may have still had of springing a major shock. But most of the pre- and post-match talk involved Grenoble coach Fabrice Landreau distancing himself from the Marcel Michelin hotseat. Most of his comments were variations on a theme of ‘I’m happy at Grenoble and contracted to them until 2015’.

That win and Toulon’s defeat means Clermont return to the head of the Top 14 table.

Toulouse recovered from their shut-out at Montpellier last Sunday with a walk-in-the-park 31-7 win over Biarritz. Four first-half tries and a triple-whammy of yellow cards meant it was as good as all over for the Basque side inside the first 40 minutes. It took them another 20 to register a score of their own – courtesy of Aled Brew – but their pain was not over as Gael Fickou touched down for Toulouse’s fifth try to leave the visitors four points adrift at the bottom of the table

The curse of Oyonnax’s away kit struck again, as they went down 35-10 at Bordeaux. The Top 14’s new boys have strutted on to the pitch in their ostentatious little gold number three times this season – and they have lost each time. The hosts may not have a try-scoring reputation, but they ran in five on Saturday. Maybe the Oyonnax defence can claim shirt blindness… Whatever the reason, it’s likely to be their home form that keeps them in the top flight.

Stade Francais made it three wins out of three at their shiny new Jean-Bouin stadium with a 25-18 victory over Brive. The hosts owed their victory to kicker Jerome Porical, who kept their surprisingly spirited visitors at bay with six penalties and a conversion. His contribution ensured that Brive’s two-try effort would be in vain.

Rain, rain and more rain turned Bayonne’s match against Racing Metro into an error-strewn midfield slugfest. It was a shame as, despite the conditions, Jonny Sexton showed flashes of the brilliance that prompted Racing to seek his signature in the first place. He was the key man in their first away win of the campaign – but the 16-19 final score is evidence that neither the weather nor the rugby gods were smiling on this game.