The big match of the final weekend of the Top 14 season before the European break was won and lost in an epic battle of the number 10s.
In the process, Toulon and Clermont made a total mess of the Allianz Riviera’s new pitch. A near-capacity crowd at the 35,000-seat stadium in Nice saw the 2013 European Cup finalists – figuratively and literally – rip up the turf.
But the big difference between the two sides was in the kicking. Brock James, usually so reliable, missed four out of nine shots at goal, while Matt Giteau was perfection personified as he stood in at fly-half for Jonny Wilkinson and guided the hosts to a 25-19 win. James, at least, was able to secure a losing bonus point for Clermont with the final kick of the game.
The opening game of the ninth round of matches in the Top 14 saw bottom-of-the-table Biarritz entertain Perpignan. The hosts played like a side that has forgotten what winning is like as they lost 12-16. They could – and arguably should – have won what a pre-match cloudburst turned into a battle of attrition, but they are so lacking in confidence that they don’t know what to do when they find themselves in a strong attacking position.
Perpignan did not play particularly well. They will be the first to admit it. But, an ugly win is still four points in the bag. Biarritz at least picked up a bonus point to close the gap on 13th-placed Bayonne to eight points.
Toulouse, meanwhile, maintained their perfect bonus-point winning record at Ernest Wallon with what turned out to be an easy 28-10 victory over Stade Francais.
The visitors gave Sergio Parisse a week off and left Julien Dupuy on the bench, while Luke McAlister was back in the starting line-up for Toulouse. And the hosts ripped open the Stade defence time after time, with winger Yuann Huget scoring three tries and Hosea Gear also crossing the line.
The only consolation for Stade was that their 10 points was the most scored by any visiting side at Ernest Wallon so far this season.
Montpellier moved to the top of the table in the process of condemning Oyonnax to a 45-20 defeat.
Fabien Galthie gave Benoit Paillaugue a chance to stake a claim for the number nine shirt. He made the most of it, scoring a try, a penalty and six conversions, and directing operations from the back of the pack.
Bordeaux made light work of Bayonne as they picked up a bonus-point win at Stade Andre Moga. Pierre Barnard also landed five penalties and converted two of the tries as they racked up 34 points. Bayonne’s Martin Bustos Moyano could only kick two penalties in reply.
The Top 14’s most ill-disciplined side Grenoble defied expectation to win at league goody-two-shoes Racing Metro’s Yves du Manoir. If Grenoble know anything, it’s how to battle for 80 minutes. Which is just what they did, with replacement Valentin Courrent kicking the penalty that took the scores to 20-22 in their favour in the 79th minute.
And what happened at Brive almost defies description as they racked up 34 unanswered points against reigning Top 14 champions Castres. It was all over as a contest in the first half-hour, as the hosts crossed the line three times. They rubbed salt into Castres’ gaping wound four minutes into the second period by doing the same thing one more time.
Pundits may point to the fact that Castres have not won on the road this season; or that Brive have not lost at home since January; or that the visitors left key players Rory Kockott, Remy Tales, Brice Dulin and Richie Gray out of their starting line-up. But the fact is that the visitors had no answer to the raw fury of Brive’s opening burst, and when they finally did get their hands on the ball long enough to do anything, it was far too late.
The Top 14 now takes a break while the Heineken and Amlin Cups take centre stage. The next matches in the French top flight take place on 25 and 26 October. The Rugby Blog’s next Top 14 preview – along with SuperBru predictions – will appear on 24 October.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images