Top 14 Review: Round 24

montpellier

Montpellier can relax and enjoy their last two games in the regular Top 14 season: they have qualified for the play-offs.

Seven sides are still in the running for the remaining five places. Toulon and Clermont are as good as certain of a place, but Racing Metro, Toulouse and Castres still have some work to do if they are to stave off the twin threat of Bordeaux and Stade Francais.

Ninth-paced Brive, too, still have an outside chance of finishing in the top six – but they will need an unlikely combination of other results to go their way. That said, they are not mathematically safe from the drop either.

At the bottom, with Biarritz already condemned to the ProD2, the one remaining relegation slot has pretty much become a four-way dogfight. Oyonnax, are currently sitting in unlucky 13th, level on points with Bayonne, who are above them only thanks to the arcane math of the Top 14 points system; and just two points behind Saturday’s opponents Perpignan, who gave themselves a little breathing space with a tough win at Aime Giral. A point ahead of Perpignan are Grenoble – who, not so very long ago, were play-off contenders.

That’s how tight the Top 14 has been this season.

On Friday night, Castres became the 76th team in a row to try and fail to win at Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin in the weekend’s opening game.

Lock-in-a-hard-place Rodrigo Capo Ortega dived over midway through the opening half put the visitors ahead at halftime, but second-half tries from Wesley Fofana and Naipolioni Nalaga ensured the home side maintained their record with a 23-11 win.

Neither Bordeaux or Stade Francais could capitalise. Bordeaux threw away a perfect start at home to Toulon. Hooker Wayne Avei barrelled over with just two minutes on the clock. Felix Le Bourhis looked to have sealed the win five minutes before halftime. When the referee blew his whistle, they were 17-6 to the good – they could, and should have been further ahead.

Freddie Michalak dragged Toulon back into the game before Bryan Habana crossed to score his first try in Toulon colours after 66 minutes. Replacement Matt Giteau then scored the crucial penalty to make the score 20-22 with just nine minutes left on the clock.

Stade Francais, too, could not take advantage of Castres’ slip. They lost 24-19 at Bayonne, as the Basque Country’s other side moved out of the relegation zone. Martin Bustos Moyano was the hero for the hosts. He kicked all their points to render Waisea Vuidravuwalu’s first-half try moot.

Like Castres, Grenoble are looking nervously over their shoulders – but for very different reasons. They’re 10th, but only three points ahead of Oyonnax in 13th. The defensive bonus point they picked up in a 30-36 thriller at Stade des Alpes could prove all-important in the final reckoning.

But it could have been even worse for the hosts. Alex Tulou scored a brace in the opening half-hour, and Timoci Nagusa added a third in the first half as Montpellier raced into a 27-6 first-half lead.

Andrew Farley started the Grenoble fightback two minutes into the second half. A score from Benjamin Thiery and an on-the-hooter try from Henry Vanderglas dragged the Isere side back into it.

Perpignan earned themselves a little bit of breathing space, while pushing Oyonnax back into the relegation mire with a 22-12 win at Stade Aime Giral. Once again, it was pretty much the James Hook show. He kicked 17 of the hosts’ points, to add to Guilhem Guirado’s 19th-minute try.

Racing Metro moved into fourth place in the Top 14 with a 37-7 win over Biarritz in Colombes. Hooker Virgile Lacombe, a late replacement after French international Dimitri Szarzewski picked up a season-ending injury, justified his call-up with a double. Antoine Battut, Jacques Cronje and Juan Imhoff also crossed the whitewash. Yann Lesgourgues scored what – because we’re kind – we’ll call a consolation try for the visitors.

Toulouse lumbered to a 16-9 win over Brive at Stade Ernest Wallon. Hosea Gear scored the only try of the game on the stroke of halftime, while Lionel Beauxis and Jean-Marc Doussain did the business with the boot.

By James Harrington (@blackmountained)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images