Top 14 Review: Round 8

Like Clermont, Biarritz and Castres before them, Top 14 giants Toulon learned the hard way that winning at Oyonnax is a long way from a foregone conclusion.

The richest club in world rugby took a side including Jonny Wilkinson, Michael Claassens, Bakkies Botha, Drew Mitchell, Ali Williams, Mathieu Basteraud, Matt Giteau, David Smith, Carl Hayman and Andrew Sheridan to Stade Charles Mathon, in the shadow of the Jura Mountains.

A teamsheet like that would scare many a side into instant submission – but not, as it turns out, Oyonnax. And nor should anyone be surprised. Going into their game against Toulon, Oyonnax had won three of their four Top 14 games at Stade Charles Mathon. Their victims included 2013 European Cup finalists Clermont, 2013 Top 14 champions Castres, and down-on-their-luck 2012 European Challenge Cup winners Biarritz.

Full-back Florian Denos had to go off after hurting his shoulder going over in the corner to give the hosts an early lead. Despite that injury setback, they never looked back. Argentinian fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta was their hero. He kicked everything going, including the decisive difficult drop goal with just a couple of minutes remaining, but the rest of the team tackled and harried and fought their hearts out for 80 minutes.

Oyonnax fans weren’t the only ones celebrating the win. It also ensured that Stade Francais held on to top spot in the Top 14, after moving to the summit with an 18-11 victory over Montpellier at Stade Jean Bouin on Friday night.

The final score was not a true reflection of the home side’s dominance, as the hosts’ scrum-half Julien Dupuy ran the show from the first whistle to the last. His opposite number, Jonathan Pelissie, who has had French rugby pundits purring this season, was largely anonymous.

Castres showed flashes of brilliance as they welcomed Racing Metro – including former coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers and winger Marc Andreu – to Stade Pierre Antoine.

Marcel Garvey finished a sweeping move, while scrum-half Rory Kockott kicked eight points to give the hosts a first-half lead. But rather than run away with the game Castres struggled in the second period as Racing, via Jonny Sexton, fought back. The Irish fly-half got his side to within one point, before Kockott slotted the final points of the game.

Biarritz are now nine points adrift at the bottom of the Top 14 after losing 27-19 at Bayonne. The visitors cause wasn’t helped when Pelu Taele-Pavihi saw red before the end of the first half – and although they rallied in the second period, their efforts were not enough for even a losing bonus point.

Brive also had to play much of their game against Grenoble with 14 men, after Thomas Sanchou was sent off in a first half that also saw the two sides share four yellow cards. Despite being a man down, the visitors were able to head home with a more-than creditable 12-12 draw.

Guy Noves left Luke McAlister on the bench for Toulouse’s trip to Perpignan, starting with Lionel Beauxis at 10. The experiment didn’t last long, however, as shortly after missing a penalty, Beauxis went off injured. But the mercurial McAlister was unable to prevent his side going down 20-16, thanks mainly to the boot of James Hook, whose late, late long-range drop goal sealed matters after the All Black had dragged the visitors back into the game from 14-6 down at half time.

Meanwhile, Clermont were flattered by their Sunday lunchtime 40-11 win over Bordeaux, their 64th victory in a row at Stade Marcel Michelin. They were helped by a combination of Begles’ indiscipline and some strict refereeing that saw the man in charge issue seven yellow cards – including three in the last quarter that reduced the visitors to 12 men, after they had briefly threatened to bring the jaune-et-bleu’s winning streak to a shuddering halt.

By James Harrington (@blackmountained)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images