CASTRES, FRANCE – Toulouse new boy Toby Flood enjoyed a memorable Top 14 debut. He scored all his side’s points as they scraped past a dogged Oyonnax at Stade Ernest Wallon.
But it’s Brive, rather than any of the league’s more celebrated teams, who are at the top of the table after the opening weekend.
Shaven-headed Flood edged a battle of the boot with the visitors’ metronomic kicker Benjamin Urdapilletta as Toulouse won a nailbiter 20-19, courtesy of his 76th-minute penalty that sapped the last of the fight out of the side from the plastics city.
He had earlier sealed an early place in the hearts and minds of the Toulouse faithful when he touched down out wide in the 11th minute. He missed the conversion, but five penalties – including the nerveless dying-minutes kick at goal – made sure that the Ernest Wallon fortress remains just about impregnable.
But Oyonnax will probably be pleased enough with the defensive bonus, which are only being awarded to sides that finish within five points of their opponents in the Top 14 this season. It took them until the closing weeks of last season to pick up their first points on the road, so this early success suggests it may in fact be too early to write them off as relegation favourites.
Only three sides failed to pick up any points on the opening weekend – the Top 14’s two new boys Lyon and La Rochelle, and the sole surviving Basque Country side in the French top flight, Bayonne.
A youthful Bayonne side came unstuck at home to a Toulon side that showed no nerves on opening night.
The defending Top 14 champions were criticised for not fielding “many stars” – which is unfair on Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau, the Armitage boys, Virgile Bruni, Carl Hayman, David Smith and Maxime Mermoz, who were all in the starting XV.
Giteau, who had the honour of being the first to wear Wilko’s number 10 shirt in a competitive match since the old man retired, traded kicks with opposite number Martin Bustos Moyano in a cagey opening half that ended all-square at 12-12.
But the holders of the Brennus stepped up a gear in the second period. Blunt instrument Bastareaud scored crashed over to claim the first try of the season. Then he turned provider, as his kick-through gave Smith something to chase from short range. The winger just managed to get a hand on the ball before it went dead.
Throughout, Toulon’s forwards dominated the Bayonne pack. Replacement prop Gert Muller was sent to the bin just two minutes after coming on as referee Jerome Garces lost patience with the host’s scrum.
The Basque side’s new coach Patricio Noriega has his work cut out with the pack, that’s for sure, but Bayonne demonstrated plenty of positives, as they went down 15-29. The final score should probably have been closer as Mr Garces either ignored, let go, or missed a series of infringements from the visiting side in the second half.
Lyon learned an early lesson in just how tough life in the Top 14 is going to be. Last season, they scored 112 tries in 30 games. On Saturday, they went down fighting in a tryless encounter at Bordeaux, whose 58 tries in 26 games last season was the most in the Top 14.
Ex-Perpignan flyer Sofiane Guitoune should have scored on his debut for the hosts, but fumbled a bouncing ball when free and clear just yards from the line. Four penalties from Pierre Barnard and two from Lionel Beauxis – who’ll be challenging him for the number 10 shirt this season – ensured that the hosts completed a workmanlike 18-9 win.
Brive managed just 32 tries in the whole of last season. Against La Rochelle at Stade Amedee Domenech on Saturday, they crossed the whitewash four times, through Gaetan Germain, Alfifeleti Mafi, Thomas Laranjeira, and Sevanaia Galala.
Germain converted all four and added another three penalties as the hosts won 37-15, picked up an attacking bonus point and sit pretty at the top of the table.
These early signs aren’t good for La Rochelle. They had just about held their own in the opening 40, but once Germain touched down just before the hooter, the floodgates opened. Brive scored twice more in the first five minutes after the interval – and all the visitors could manage in response were two penalties. It looks like they face a long season.
Clermont’s 77-match winning streak came to a shuddering halt in last season’s play-off quarter-finals against Castres. The talk in the close-season, unpleasant machete incidents apart, was of rebuilding the fortress under Franck Azema and Jono Gibbs’ new management.
It looked to be working well, too, as they raced into an early 14-0 lead against Grenoble, as first Clement Ric and then Damien Chouly touched down.
But Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble appear to be reaping the benefits of that widely dismissed summer tour of Argentina. They roared back. Fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski first found his range with the boot, then Ratu Ratini finished off a scything move to drag the visitors back into the game.
The first half was still only 31 minutes old when the score read 17-13. And there was more to come. First, Julien Bardy crossed for Clermont, then Fabien Gengenbacher replied for Grenoble.
The opening 40 minutes yielded five tries, with the sides going in at 24-20.
The second half was a much tighter affair – but Brock James did enough to ensure that Clermont began their rebuilding process at the once and future fortress. The game ended suddenly at 30-26, when Wisniewski decided, apparently unilaterally, that enough was enough. The hooter had gone, admittedly, but Grenoble had the ball on halfway, and options may have been available, but – to loud, unimpressed jeers – he booted the ball into row Z to end the match.
Losing 2014 finalists and 2013 champions Castres kicked off their new season with a home match against Stade Francais – a fixture they haven’t lost since 2009. But redevelopment work at the intimate, intimidating Stade Pierre Antoine forced the hosts to move the game over the mountains and far away to Stade de Mediterranee in Beziers.
With eight minutes to go, it looked like they would keep their record against Stade, after Romain Martial marked his return from a long-term injury with a try, following replacement scrum-half Rory Kockott’s break. Fullback Geoffrey Palis, who was on kicking duty and had already scored five penalties, notched the conversion to make the score 22-18.
But Stade, who already had two tries to their name through Julien Arias and Matthieu Ugena, would have the last word. Their scrum had been on top all day, and punished Castres deep inside their 22. Prop Paea Fa’anunu was yellow carded after yet another scrum infringement.
Amid some confusion that followed, with other props injured meaning that another scrum would be uncontested unless Fa’anunu was allowed back, Stade kicked the penalty into touch on Castres’ 5m line. From there, the ball was spun to XXL fullback Djibril Camara, who simply brushed Martial out of the way to score. Jules Plisson added the conversion to make the final score 22-25.
The final game of the weekend, Montpellier v Racing Metro, promised – on paper at least – to be the match of the weekend. Not that you’d know it at the end of a first half that kind-hearted fans have described as “brutal” and “attritional”.
The hosts seemed unprepared for the rigours of a Top 14 match, as they trailed 3-7 at the end of the first half – with hooker Charles Geli just red-carded for his part in a petty punch-up.
But, from somewhere, they found the flair that saw them score more points than any other side in the Top 14 last season, despite being one man down. With 15 minutes left, Timoci Nagusa brilliantly cancelled out Alexandre Dumoulin’s first-half try, and sent the hosts into the lead. But two late penalties from Jonny Sexton meant the big-spending Paris bluebloods headed home with the four points for a win.