What ended up being a strange Top 14 rugby weekend began with a bang as Montpellier spoiled many a pundit’s great expectations – not to mention the odd SuperBru GSP or two – with an unstoppable performance against Clermont on Friday night.
All the indicators – Montpellier on home soil, Clermont at the top of the table with five wins in a row – suggested this would be a close encounter of the classic kind. Free-flowing end-to-end rugby that would have fans in rapture and experts purring.
They were half right. It was free-flowing rugby, but it was pretty much all one way. Montpellier were unstoppable, irrepressible, even rampant. Scrum-half Jonathan Pelissie must have forced his way into France coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s thinking with his performances so far this season. He was front and centre again, scoring a brace of tries, while Francois Trinh-Duc also touched down twice.
Less than 24 hours later, Toulouse made it four bonus-point wins in a row on home soil this season with a 26-9 demolition of local rivals Castres Olympique.
Pundits had predicted a tight, no-holds-barred slugfest. And, at the end of the first half, it looked like they were going to be right. But the second period was all Toulouse, with replacement Yacouba Camara making sure of the bonus point by blundering over in the dying minutes of the game.
Castres haven’t won at Ernest Wallon since the 1978-79 rugby season, but their nine-point haul is the highest of any visiting side at Ernest Wallon so far this season.
Bottom-of-the-table Biarritz had been showing faint signs of life coming into the game, while the on-the-road form of opponents Grenoble had been nothing to write home about.
In an ill-tempered affair, Dimitri Yachvili (who else?) kicked seven penalties to give the hosts a 21-20 lead going into the final 10. But then it went wrong. In the 72nd minute the visitors’ pack shoved replacement Roland Bernard over for a try, which fellow substitute James Hart converted to give Grenoble a 21-27 victory, and leave an increasingly desperate Biarritz five points adrift at the foot of the Top 14.
Oyonnax, who have already beaten Clermont, Castres and Biarritz at Charles Mathon this season, put their two-year unbeaten home record on the line against a Stade side who have not travelled well for several seasons. All the pointers suggested a home win. Close, but a home win.
But Stade showed real on-the-road guts to match the glorious running rugby they’re playing at home this season. Hugo Bonneval scored the crucial try with eight minutes left on the clock. Dupuy converted, and the visitors held on to secure their second win on the road this season, 16-15.
Star-studded Toulon were odds on to run up a big score against hapless Bayonne, who came into the game on the back of three defeats – including that 55-0 mauling at Clermont, but the visitors had other ideas.
With new signing Drew Mitchell watching from the stands, fellow new arrival Ali Williams and Michael Claassens were handed yellow cards, as the visitors briefly threatened to spring a shock at Stade Mayol. As ever though, iceman Jonny Wilkinson kept a cool head to end Bayonne’s hopes, and send the expensively assembled hosts back to the top of the table with an 18-12 win.
And any thoughts that Perpignan would be able to build on their demolition of Montpellier last week were blown away by Brive, who picked up a much-needed bonus point in a stunning 31-6 victory. Riaan Swanepoel scored a brace of tries, one in each half, with Sisa Koyamaibole adding a third. All Perpignan had to show for their efforts were two James Hook penalties.
And Racing Metro’s predicted easy home win over Bordeaux turned out to be not that easy. The hosts were always ahead, thanks to man-of-the-match Mark Andreu’s double, but fellow Castres old boy Pierre Barnard kept Bordeaux very much in touch until Jonny Sexton, who came on as a replacement, ran in a try with 20 minutes left to give the scoreline its final, flattering 26-19 look.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images