MCXM III: Top 14 Final and Dane Coles Virtuoso Performance

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CORRECTION - Racing Metro 92 players celebrates after winning the French Top14 rugby union final match Toulon vs Racing 92 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on June 24, 2016. / AFP / DAMIEN MEYER (Photo credit should read DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images)

With the New Year fast approaching, Last Word On Rugby are reflecting back on a fine year. From the 2016 Top 14 Final, to International matches and Super Rugby, the LWOR highlights series are wide and varied.

As part of the MCXM Top 10 memories of 2016, the third in our series see’s contributions from European rugby expert Josh Bradham, and Wellington-based rugby referee Scott MacLean. Each contributor reveals their best memory of the last 12 months. So sit back, and enjoy the LWOR highlights of 2016.

#5: Racing 92 Defeat Toulon in Top 14 Final

The Top 14 final this year was a memorable feature match played out in Barcelona, Spain between Racing 92 and Toulon. The match was hosted in such an unconventional location, due to the Stade de France already being reserved for the European Cup. In the neutral venue, the side who adjusted fastest, would claim the higher ground.

Both teams got off to an early start with penalty kicks within the first 5 minutes. Sloppy play by Toulon in the early stages allowed Racing a great deal of control, but were unable to convert that field position into points. At the 18-minute mark, the match changed significantly. Maxime Machenaud was handed a controversial red card for a tip tackle on Matt Giteau. The loss of the world class scrum half was absolutely devastating.

The loss of Machenaud somewhat demoralized the Racing scrum, and Toulon were more than willing to capitalize. Juan Imhoff, Racing 92’s winger, took over scrum-half duties. Imhoff’s inexperience in the scrum half position allowed Toulon to become the dominant attacking team. These early issues allowed for Toulon’s first try of the day by Georgian national Mamuka Gorgodze.

Half Time Adjustments Solidify an Improving Racing Squad

Following the Gorgodze try, Racing flyhalf Johan Goosen connected with a long range penalty kick which proved to be the turning point in the match. As the gap shrank to just five points, the Racing 92 scrum began to improve drastically. In a superb return, the Racing defense was able to hold Toulon at bay–away from the try line. Racing began to dominate; especially when Xavier Chiocci evened up the player count for ten minutes.

Chiocci was sent to the sin bin for swimming up the side of a forward moving, driving maul. To add to Toulon’s woe’s, captain Guilhem Guirado was taken off the field shortly after with an apparent leg injury. Racing took full advantage of the Toulon yellow, by converting a beautiful try by former-All Black Joe Rokocoko.

During the course of the yellow card period, Racing 92 successfully scored 11 points. An incredible reward, as Toulon had been kept quiet for over 30 minutes of play. A champion team however, Toulon refused to go quietly into the night. Maxime Mermoz was able to find room through the Racing defense for a much needed try. Then Toulon made a very questionable call by benching Leigh Halfpenny. Toulon were only five points down, so to win the match a successful conversion kick would be required–which makes Toulon’s decision to remove their top points scorer hard to understand.

Final Minutes a Real Test for Racing

In the last few minutes, Toulon were able to get the ball back and work their way down the pitch to the Racing 92 try line, and won a scrum penalty. In a key moment for Josh Bradham, the Racing coaching staff sent big prop Ben Tameifuna back onto the pitch for the vital scrum beneath the posts. In one of the more memorable substitutions, Tameifuna was able to draw a penalty against Toulon to stop short their final drive.

It was truly amazing match, with drama a plenty. An example of two highly skilled squads, throwing everything at the other. In the biggest match of the year, and reduced to 14 men, Racing were the better side indeed. In front of over 100,000 rugby fans in Barcelona, it was a magical, and memorable Top 14 finale.

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#6 – When Dane Coles ‘Lit Up The Show’

Dane Coles has had a season to remember. Firstly, in leading the Hurricanes [finally] to their first Super Rugby title in his very first season as captain. Yet when he ran out on to Christchurch’s AMI Stadium on a cool, but clear Canterbury night to face South Africa in The Rugby Championship, no one could foresee that he’d produce one of the virtuoso performances of the season.

The All Blacks perform the Haka prior to the Rugby Championship match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the South Africa Springboks at AMI Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Coles (above picture, center) had long been recognized in forgetting what number he wears on his back: whether it be 60 metre runs against the Wallabies at Eden Park, or popping up on the wing in the finest traditions of predecessors Sean Fitzpatrick and his mentor, Keven Mealamu.

He’d added to his folklore status earlier in the championship; slated to miss the game against Australia due to a rib injury he’d suffered in the Super Rugby semifinal. Something that threatened his participation in the final, where he played but was forced off in the second half. In Sydney, Coles was elevated to the bench late when Nathan Harris was injured in training. Incredibly, he then found himself playing 75 minutes after Codie Taylor succumbed early on. Not shirking from his role, that he also scored a vital try didn’t hurt either.

To Christchurch, and an Outstanding Performance

Seven days prior to this test, Coles had turned in a sub-par performance against Argentina in Hamilton. But to say he would make amends against the Springboks would be a large understatement. The signs were good early with his lineout throwing–the only real question mark in his skillset, and what had let him down against the Pumas–hitting its targets. Settled, he ‘turned it on’.

The first of his three try assists came immediately after South Africa scored the game’s opening try through Bryan Habana. With Elton Jantjies dropping the restart, an attacking scrum set the scene. A trademark Aaron Smith flat bullet pass was smartly moved on with super-quick hands by Coles to an unmarked Israel Dagg. The winger coasting in to give the All Blacks the lead, but most applauded Coles and his superb ball skills.

Five minutes later, he was at it again. The All Blacks worked the ball right off a scrum and from the resulting breakdown, Smith fired the ball left to Coles, who found himself on the outside off his opposite, Adrian Strauss. The hooker smartly drew the outside defender, Bok halfback Faf de Klerk, executing a terrific around the body offload to put Julian Savea in in the corner.

The Man Was Not Finished Yet

Coles would also make a telling contribution in the lead up to the All Black’s third try, popping up on the right wing (where else?) and taking the ball into Springbok territory. Setting a platform from which Ben Smith would eventually score. On the hour he showed up on the opposite flank, where he tried chipping over Jesse Kriel. Although the ball went into to touch, you could only admire that he had the temerity to even try it. He is a hooker remember!

Still, he wasn’t done though, and the signature moment would come in the 64th minute. On attack, again the All Blacks worked the ball all the way across the field to the right hand side. With play congested towards that side, the ball found its way into Coles possession. With Sam Whitelock hugging the touchline, Coles then ripped an outrageous 20 meter perfect, flat pass that hit the big lock right in the lock forwards chest. Try time.

It was simply a ‘jaw-dropping piece of skill’ from someone who’s position makes no demand for it, and reason enough why Coles continues to redefine it. And with that, it was job done and he headed to the bench, as his team completed a 41-13 point bashing.

In a season full of superb performances from Dane Coles, it was the one that for mine, tops them all.

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Enjoy our seasonal wrap-up of some of the ten most memorable moments for Last Word On Rugby contributors. For more, see LWOR Highlights for 2016 – MCXM II

“Main photo credit”

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