The curse of the road struck again in the Top 14 this weekend, with six of seven away sides heading home battered, bruised… and beaten.
None of the losing six picked up a defensive bonus point. With five scheduled weekends in the Top 14’s regular season remaining, 10 teams are in the mix for the six play-off places.
Toulon benefited most from the Top 14’s collective travel sickness. They leapt to the top of the table with a nine-try 64-10 demolition of 14-man Oyonnax at Stade Mayol. Maxime Mermoz started the try-frenzy in the seventh minute, while Jonny Wilkinson slotted eight of nine conversions, as well as opening proceedings with a cheeky drop three minutes before Mermoz crossed the whitewash and a length-of-the-pitch first-half touchdown of his own.
Drew Mitchell added a brace either side of halftime, and Matt Giteau, almost inevitably, also scored.
The visitors’ hooker Jody Jenneker was sent off with four minutes left in the first half. But they were already 31-3 down at the time, so the writing was already on the wall.
Oyonnax are now firmly rooted in the relegation zone. They are seven points behind 12th-placed side Perpignan and, although they have two games in hand, against Bayonne and Bordeaux at home, it’s hard to see them escaping the drop back to the Pro D2 after just one season in the Top 14.
Toulon owe their rise to Montpellier and Bordeaux.
Montpellier beat Stade Francais at Yves du Manoir in what was the cliched definition of a game of two halves. The first period was a dour affair that ended 0-0. Fifteen minutes into the second half, the score was 12-10, with Rene Ranger and Benjamin Paillaugue crossing the whitewash for the home side, while Jonathan Danty scored for Stade. That’s how the scores stayed, until the final minute, when Timoci Nagusa delivered a knockout blow. It ended 19-10, and Stade headed back to Paris with nothing to show for their Friday night’s work.
Less than 24 hours later, Bordeaux dragged themselves into the play-off reckoning with a 26-16 win over Clermont at Stade Jacques Chaban-Delmas.
Metuisela Talebula added two second-half tries to the 10 he’s already scored this season, while Pierre Bernard kicked four penalties and two conversions, as Bordeaux came back from 13-3 down at halftime to beat Clermont for the first time since returning to the French top flight in 2011.
Grenoble dropped out of the top six on the back of a 31-6 defeat at Brive. Riaan Swanepoel, Arnaud Mela and Francois Da Ros all touched down, while Gaetan Germain did his thing with the boot.
Racing shored up their shaky season with a 25-15 victory over defending Top 14 champions Castres at Colombes. Rival scrum-halves Maxime Marchenaud and Rory Kockott traded penalties all evening. But winger Juan Imhoff was the ciel-et-bleus’ hero, scoring after just three minutes and again with 10 minutes to go as a near-full-strength Racing ran out comfortable winners in the end.
There was, however, concern for both club and country, as Dimitri Szarzewski hobbled off with an ankle injury.
Toulouse came into their game on Saturday against Perpignan having not won in the Top 14 since Sunday, January 5. They consigned that unwanted record to history in emphatic five-try fashion as Luke McAlister returned from injury to marshal the forces, while Louis Picamoles’ destructive performance will have Philippe Saint-Andre wondering if he’s done the right thing in dropping him for the Six Nations’ game against Scotland next weekend.
The writing was on the wall for the Catalan side after six minutes, and before a point had been scored, when Romain Taofifenua was sin-binned. It didn’t get much better for Perpignan after that…
And so, to the only away win of the Top 14 weekend. Bayonne beat neighbours Biarritz 11-8 in a tension-fuelled derby that was only decided seconds before the hooter sounded when replacement Matthieu Ugalde, who had only been on 10 minutes, held his nerve to slot the crucial drop goal.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images