Top 14 Review: Semi-finals

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Toulon will face Castres in a repeat of last season’s Top 14 final after the semi-final weekend in Lille began with a whimper and ended with a full-throated tension-releasing roar.

The whimper came on Friday night when, at the same time as Northampton were edging a thriller against Leicester in the Aviva Premiership semi-final at Franklin’s Gardens, Racing Metro limped, weakly, painfully and dim-wittedly through their encounter with Toulon.

It was too easy for the Var side, who made sure of a place in their third Top 14 final in a row – and their sixth final in all competitions in three seasons – with a walk-in-the-park 16-6 win at Stade Pierre Mauroy.

Jonny Wilkinson’s garryowen led to the only try of the game, in the 12th minute. Racing failed to deal with the near inch-perfect kick, Bryan Habana hacked on and Matt Giteau reached out an apparently extendable arm to touch down in the corner.

Wilkinson nailed the difficult conversion to give Toulon a 7-0 lead inside 15 minutes – and, although his opposite number Jonny Sexton’s two penalties closed the gap to just a point by the end of the first half, that was pretty much it. Seventeen minutes after the restart, it was 13-6 courtesy of two more Wilkinson penalties.

By this time, Toulon were containing Racing with an ease verging on the insouciant. Sweat was barely broken. The Paris side had been quietly, efficiently, clinically, ruthlessly beaten into submission.

But there was time for one more act from Wilkinson. Nine minutes from time, he reprised his World Cup-winning right-footed drop goal to make assurance double-sure.

It really was that easy. It looked for all the world as if Toulon had one eye on next week’s Heineken Cup final. Worryingly for Saracens, who expended some precious energy beating Harlequins in their Premiership semi-final, the defending champions will have plenty left in the tank when they meet in Cardiff on Saturday.

The full-throated roar came as Castres edged Montpellier 22-19 in an extra-time thriller at the same venue the next day.

It was immediately clear this was going to be a much more intense semi-final than the one which preceded it. Montpellier’s Rene Ranger was sent to the sinbin for a dangerous aerial challenge in the opening seconds, and Castres’ Remi Grosso followed him after just eight minutes for a similar infringement.

It was 3-6 in favour of the defending Top 14 champions when, in the 32nd minute, Antonie Claassen barged over Montpellier’s line. Kockott converted to make the score 13-3, with a matter of minutes to halftime.

But Montpellier do not boast the best attack in the Top 14 for no reason. Almost immediately, Ranger burst through a flimsy Castres defence to touch down under the posts. Francois Trinh-Duc added the two points. And it stayed at 13-10 at halftime.

Kockott extended Castres’ lead four minutes into the second period, and he and Trinh-Duc spent the second period exchanging kicks. With the scores level at 19-19 and the hooter sounding, Castres’ fly-half Remi Tales was perfectly placed for a drop goal, but he hooked his kick.

Which meant extra time. The Top 14’s second semi-final became a game of two 10 minute halves.

As it had been for the previous 80 minutes, extra time was a perfect demonstration of what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. Montpellier attacked and attacked and attacked. Castres repelled everything. When Castres did counter, they were dangerous. Remi Lamerat was inches short of the line when Timoci Nagusa brought him down.

And just as the first half of extra time drew to a close, replacement centre Seremaia Bai nailed what would turn out to be the crucial drop goal to set up a repeat of last year’s grand final.

By James Harrington (@blackmountained)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images