Is there any wonder this Top 14 season has been so difficult to call? Clermont and Toulon have lost more games already than they did in the whole of the last campaign – and, this week, the tension mounted with four of the seven matches still in the balance long after the hooter.
At first it ran pretty much to script. Top 14 leaders Clermont opened the weekend’s action on Saturday afternoon with a 42-16 win over Montpellier at Stade Marcel Michelin.
But the hosts had to play the last 55 minutes of the game with 14 men after Morgan Parra was sent off for head-butting Rene Ranger. He took exception to the former All Black dumping him unceremoniously to the ground with a mighty tackle.
Sitiveni Sivivatu filled in at scrum-half for the rest of the game, scoring a try and marshalling the 13 other Jaunards in some style. Lee Byrne touched down twice, and replacement Noa Nakaitaci put the icing on Clermont’s cake four minutes from time.
Lucas Dupont touched down for the visitors, and Ranger scored a consolation try with just two minutes left on the clock. Parra’s red card has probably put paid to any hopes he may have had of putting on the number 9 shirt for Les Bleus this Six Nations.
There was no sign of the Top 14 tension to come at Bordeaux, where the hosts made light work of a Racing Metro side weakened by international call-ups. Pierre Bernard did most of the damage, kicking six penalties and converting Darly Domvo’s first-half try, as the Bordelaise ran out 25-9 winners.
Nor was there much excitement in store at Stade Aime Giral, where Perpignan beat Brive 12-6 in a dour battle of the boot. Sebastien Descons proved a worthy stand-in for absent Welshman James Hook, slotting four penalties for the hosts.
Top 14’s basement club Biarritz then did what Stade Francais, Toulon, Bordeaux, Brive, Oyonnax, Toulouse, Castres, Perpignan and Clermont have failed to do… namely win at Grenoble’s Stade Lesdiguières. Daniel Waenga was the Basque side’s hero. He held his nerve to land a penalty two minutes after the hooter sounded to take the score to 20-22.
It had been nip-tuck all game, but an early score from Henry Vanderglas and a 79th-minute try from replacement Fabien Alexandre looked to have sealed the four points for the hosts – until Waenga’s stoppage-time intervention.
Oyonnax picked up their first bonus point on the road at Castres last weekend, and – for a while – looked set to do even better against Stade Francais. Silvere Tian scored two tries in the opening 10 minutes, while Christophe Andre and Viliami Maafu also scored.
But Stade matched them try for try. Richard Kingi scored a brace, Julien Dupuy crossed the whitewash on the stroke of halftime, and the referee awarded the hosts a penalty try. With the scores level at 26-26 and the bell at Jean Bouin long-since tolled, Morne Steyn stepped up to take what would be the match-winning penalty.
The Midi Pyrenees derby was also decided by an after-the-hooter kick, as Castres beat Toulouse 29-27. The hosts have not lost at home in the Top 14 since December 2012, when they were well beaten by their near rivals.
In the first half, it looked for all the world as if Toulouse would repeat the trick. They raced into a 22-3 lead, with Castres old boy Joe Tekori, debutant Thomas Ramos and veteran Vincent Clerc all crossing the line in the opening half hour.
The hosts started the fightback just before the break, taking advantage of a yellow card for prop Schalk Ferreira to win a penalty try. There was more of the same early in the second period – this time after replacement Census Johnston was harshly carded three minutes after he came on for what the referee said was a deliberate knock on.
Rory Kockott, who has just signed a new three-season deal with the Tarn side, and Marcel Garvey also scored in a scintillating second half as the hosts fought back to make it 29-22 with five minutes to go.
But the game was far from over. Toulouse took advantage of late Castres indiscipline to roar down the pitch with the clock ticking down. Vincent Clerc touched down in the corner after the hooter sounded, to give replacement Sebastien Bezy a difficult chance to level the scores from wide out on the right. He hit the post.
It’s hard to imagine a match with a 9-15 final scoreline still being very much alive two minutes after the hooter, but that was the case as Top 14 strugglers Bayonne fought their hearts out in vain against Toulon. Jonny Wilkinson, in his 100th game in a Toulon shirt, kicked all the galacticos’ points – but they were desperately hanging on at the death as Bayonne pounded at their line with the clock in the red.
There was to be no fairytale finish this time. Inches from the line, over-eager Bayonne forwards dived over the ball, allowing a grateful Wilkinson to hoof the resulting penalty into the stands.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images