The weekend’s Top 14 play-off quarter-finals will be remembered for what happened to Toulouse centre Florian Fritz, as much as it will for the two unexpected victories for Racing Metro and Castres Olympique.
Nineteen minutes into Friday night’s clash, he clattered into Francois van der Merwe’s knee. It was an accident.
Fritz first tried to stay on the pitch. He couldn’t. Then he tried to walk off for treatment. He couldn’t. He had to sit down. A stretcher was brought out. Eventually, to an ovation from the crowd, he managed to walk, with aid, to the medical room. Gael Fickou came on as a replacement.
Then, quarter of an hour later, and right in front of TV cameras, the centre returned. Despite raised awareness surrounding the dangers of concussion and stricter protocols in place to protect players, Fritz, with 12 stitches in his head and still apparently glassy eyed, took to the pitch at Ernest Wallon for the final five minutes of the first half.
He didn’t come back after the break.
It soured what should have been a famous win on the road for Racing at the end of a Top 14 season in which away teams could barely buy a win – at any price.
Toulouse and Racing met at the same stage of the Top 14 at the same ground last year. Then, Toulouse won 33-19. Their winning streak against the Paris side at home stretched back six matches; and Toulouse had reached the semi-finals of the Top 14 every year since 1994.
But Racing coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, who masterminded Castres Top 14-winning season in 2012/13, have taken an expensively assembled set of stars and turned them into a team.
It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t all gone according to plan. But they have won eight and drawn one of 12 Top 14 games since the turn of the year to race into the play-offs. And, on Friday, they won their first ever Top 14 post-season game.
It was a victory built on the power of the Racing pack and the accuracy of Jonny Sexton’s boot. He kicked all 21 points, while his opposite number Jean-Marc Doussain missed two relatively straightforward shots at goal.
Those misses would prove crucial, as Toulouse notched up 16 points. Hosea Gear marked what turned out to be his final appearance in the noir-et-rouge with a try. His score, just after halftime dragged the home side to within two points of Racing, after they had gone in at the break 3-12 down.
But whenever Toulouse edged nearer, Sexton would swing that right leg and reopen Racing’s lead. In boxing parlance, he was the killer jab that picked off Toulouse behind a ferocious defence that kept them at bay all night.
And, with the clock ticking down in the final round, he delivered the decisive blow. At 16-18 down and desperate to get the ball, Toulouse were penalised. Sexton stepped up to nail his seventh penalty of the night. With less than two minutes left on the clock, there was no way back for the hosts.
The following afternoon, Castres repeated Racing’s history-defying win when despite the odds being against them, according to the experts on MyTopSportsbooks.com – almost a year to the day since they beat Clermont in the semi-finals of the play-offs last season, they repeated the trick.
But last year’s match was on neutral ground in Nantes. Saturday’s match was at Stade Marcel Michelin, the fortress where Vern Cotter’s side had won 77 matches in a row; where Les Jaunards had not lost since November 2009. And Clermont have reached the semi finals of the Top 14 play-offs every year since 2007.
It wasn’t just history that was against Castres. Their away form – one win, over Montpellier, and one draw, against Biarritz, in 13 matches on the road – has been nothing less than abysmal. They reached the play-offs courtesy of a near-perfect home record, and a helping hand from Toulon on the final day of the regular season.
The first half was a nip-tuck affair. It was 6-6 when things took a turn for the worse for Castres. First stalwart lock Rodrigo Capo Ortega, then winger Max Evans, were carded. Capo Ortega was barely 10 inches from Gerhard Vosloo when he could not resist tackling the Clermont flanker, who had just taken a quick tap penalty.
A few minutes later, Evans saw yellow for a deliberate knock on as he stepped between what could have been a try-scoring pass from Sitiveni Sivivatu. They somehow held on to go in at halftime 9-6 and 15-13 down.
And they held on in early the second half, as first Capo Ortega then Evans returned. Scrum-half Rory Kockott levelled the scores seven minutes in. Three minutes later, he edged the visitors ahead with the fourth of his five penalties.
But there was more to come. Remi Lamerat celebrated being named in Philippe Saint-Andre’s France squad to tour Australia next month by crashing over after 62 minutes. Kockott converted the try and notched up another penalty five minutes later to take the scores from 9-12 to 9-22.
Clermont hammered and pounded and beat at Castres’ defence – but it held firm until, three minutes from time, Damien Chouly crashed over. Brock James slotted the conversion to bring the score to 16-22.
That touchdown meant Clermont needed a converted try to snatch victory. They got to within 15m of Castres line when – more than a minute after the hooter sounded – a simple knock-on brought the Vern Cotter era to a shuddering halt.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images