Here’s my review of the latest matches in France’s Top 14 for Rugby Wrap Up. If you want to see it with pictures and formatting (by my own fair hand) please click here.
Take all your great pre-match expectations about the seventh round of games in the Top 14 and throw them out the window.
A close encounter of the classic kind between Montpellier and Clermont? It looked likely. Vern Cotter’s Clermont came into the game on the back of five victories, and Montpellier have played some incredible rugby on home soil. But forget it. Morgan Parra kicked the visitors into a second-minute lead in Friday evening’s game, and… well, that was as good as it got for them, as a joyous, rampant, unstoppoble Montpellier ran in four tries, courtesy of on-fire scrum half Jonathan Pelissie and fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, in a 43-3 mauling that had coach Fabien Galthie dancing for joy in the stands.
Pelissie must be in Philippe Saint-Andre’s thinking for France’s scrum-half berth in November’s autumn internationals.
A tight, no-holds-barred slugfest between close neighbours Toulouse, the 2011 and 2012 Top 14 champions, and Castres, who lifted the Brennus in 2013? It seemed a fair bet. Only points difference separated the two sides in the league. But… Nope. After a nip-tuck first half, the second period was all Toulouse, as they wrapped up a bonus-point 26-9 victory, which featured tries for Jean-Marc Doussain, Luke McAlister and a late one for replacement Yacouba Camara.
It’s cold comfort for Castres, who haven’t won at Ernest Wallon since the 1978-79 rugby season, but their nine-point haul is the highest of any visiting side at the Toulousain fortress so far this season. Biarritz, meanwhile, are the only side to have crossed the Toulouse line…
Speaking of Biarritz, surely they could pick up a much-needed morale-boosting victory at home to Grenoble? The bottom-of-the-table Basque had been showing faint signs of life coming into the game, while Grenoble’s form on the road is nothing to write home about.
It actually looked possible. Really, it did. In an ill-tempered affair, Dimitri Yachvili (who else?) kicked seven penalties to give the hosts a 21-20 lead going into the final minutes. But they’ve got that losing habit. In the 72nd minute the pack shoved replacement Roland Bernard over the line. James Hart converted to give Grenoble a 21-27 victory, and leave an increasingly desperate Biarritz five points adrift at the foot of the Top 14.
But Oyonnax were odds-on to maintain their perfect home, red-kit record – even against a rejuvenated Stade Francais, right? Seems fair. After all, the hosts had already bettered Clermont, Castres and Biarritz at Charles Mathon, while Stade’s dismal away record has cost them dear over the past few seasons.
Wrong. Stade showed real on-the-road guts to match the glorious running rugby they’re playing at their new home this season. It wasn’t pretty, as Oyonnax unleashed hell while Benjamin Urdipellata remained calm at the eye of the hosts’ storm to coolly slot five penalties, but Stade’s Hugo Bonneval scored the crucial try with eight minutes left on the clock, and the visitors – the ones with the dismal away record, remember? – held on to pick up their second win on the road in this Top 14 campaign, 16-15.
For the record, that win ended a two-year unbeaten home run for Oyonnax.
But Toulon… Star-studded Toulon were certain to run up a big score against hapless Bayonne, who came into the game on the back of three defeats – including that 55-0 mauling at Clermont.
No. They weren’t. They won. Of course they won – and that win meant they climbed back to the top of the table, but 18-12 is a long way from what was expected. With new signing Drew Mitchell watching from the stands, fellow new arrival Ali Williams and Michael Claassens were handed a yellow cards, as the visitors briefly threatened to spring a real shock at Stade Mayol.
As ever, iceman Jonny Wilkinson kept a cool head to end Bayonne’s hopes. But Toulon were laboured, and their current Top 14 form is enough to worry director of rugby Bernard Laporte.
And any thoughts that Perpignan would be able to build on that stunning demolition of Montpellier last week were blown away by Brive, who ripped up the form book and scattered the pieces – along with one or two Perpignan players – all over Stade Amédée-Domenech in a stunning 31-6 victory. Riaan Swanepoel scored a brace of tries, one in each half, with Sisa Koyamaibole adding a third. Indiscipline didn’t help the visitors. They had three players – Watisone Votu, Dewald Duvenage and Paulica Ion – sin-binned.
At least Racing Metro were able to knock up the widely predicted relatively easy victory at home to Bordeaux? It wasn’t that easy. The 26-19 scoreline may make it look relatively straightforward, but don’t be fooled. They were always ahead, thanks to man-of-the-match Mark Andreu’s double, but fellow Castres old boy Pierre Barnard kept Bordeaux very much in touch until Jonny Sexton, who came on as a replacement, ran in a crucial try with 20 minutes remaining to give the scoreline that flattering look.