The Top14 Round 23 action followed a weekend of some fantastic European quarter-finals. Both Racing and Pau progressed after two all-French last eight ties.
The rest of the league enjoyed a much needed rest, which meant refreshed bodies going in to the final few games that will determine final placings. But, more importantly, it could help determine Top14 winners and relegation places.
Going into the weekend, the tie of the round was undoubtedly Oyonnax’s trip to Agen. Both looking to survive relegation, a crucial victory for either side could be the difference between Top14 or, ProD2 rugby next season.
Here’s all you need to know from the weekend’s ties:
Castres 28-23 Toulouse
Castres’ sensational second half performance saw them score 20 unanswered points to snatch victory away from Toulouse. Tries from Julien Dumora and Alex Tulou contributed to Toulouse’s capitulation, although poor execution playing its part. Fortunately for Castres, they were given ball to attack, resulting in Toulouse working overtime in defence. 156 tackles overall, but Rynhardt Elstadt put in a shift that resulted in 18 tackles for his side – Castres’ David Smith and Tulou causing havoc for the visitors.
— Eric Berger (@Berger81Eric) April 8, 2018
The vital win for Castres keeps their hopes alive for a play off spot or barrages as it’s known in France. Toulouse, who went into the weekend in second place, drop to third and out of an automatic semi final spot. With the strength of Montpellier and Racing around them, Toulouse could find themselves out of contention if they struggle further.
Bordeaux 19-18 Pau
Bordeaux’s scrum half Baptiste Serin and Pau’s Colin Slade were the two standouts in a closely fought contest. Serin scored all of his side’s points, including a try and 14 points from the boot. Likewise for Pau, Slade kicked 100% with a try proving elusive for a side working their way up the table.
Two men in the bin proved costly for Pau and had subsequently had to play a quarter of the game at a disadvantage. Had Pau been at a full contingent, a win would have looked the more likely.
But for Bordeaux, the narrowest of victories was their first home win in four attempts. The four points elevates them above Clermont into ninth place. Fortunately for Pau, the losing bonus point keeps them in fifth. However, only six points separates third and eighth; meaning no one is guaranteed a play off spot just yet.
Brive 25-27 Lyon
Brive seem accustomed to playing out closely contested ties and the visit of Lyon turned out no different. Brive led throughout the whole game and looked deserved winners until Lyon snatched the victory through Baptiste Couilloud in the final stages. In the relatively scrappy affair, Couilloud had the composure to go over moments from the end.
By then the tie was even. Lionel Beauxis kicking the winning conversion, keeping his tally at 100% for the game, to steal all four points.
Lyon’s away form hasn’t helped them this season, but the victory sees them level on points with La Rochelle and just outside a play off place. Ahead, a Top14 Round 24 home win against Stade could see them progress.
Worryingly, Brive still find themselves fighting relegation despite the numerous losing bonus points they’ve picked up this season. Only two points separating them with Oyonnax at the bottom.
Stade Francais 50-13 Clermont
Just when Clermont’s humiliating domestic season couldn’t get any worse, Stade condemn them to a 50 point demolition. A huge victory for Stade as they themselves look to avoid relegation, man of the match Waisea Nayacalevu was instrumental in the Parisians’ win. Scoring two of Stade’s five tries, Nayacalevu racked up 123 metres in attack, beating seven defenders with three clean breaks in the process. Clermont looked desolate, constantly handing possession back to Stade to attack.
"Relief of Paris" the front page of Monday's Red 'Un @midi_olympique makes no bones about what the weekend's 50-13 win – and first try-scoring BP of the season – means to @SFParisRugby pic.twitter.com/U0Ah7xWLsm
— James Harrington (@Jamesonrugby) April 9, 2018
Clermont’s dismal away form – and even their form in general – sees them fall to tenth (fortunately with a seven point cushion over Agen and Stade). The surprising bonus point for Stade moves them six points above Brive in 13th, but Clermont and Stade are still not safe as the final three games of the regular season approach.
Agen 36-21 Oyonnax
Both sides desperate to avoid the drop, it was the home side who proved the stronger of the two sides. Agen took the initiative from the start – Nicolas Metge scoring from the opening exchanges. Agen took the lead and didn’t look back.
A five try bonus point including Johann Sadie’s eighth of the season, was a consummate performance. Despite the exciting spectacle from the stands, Oyonnax couldn’t keep up the pace Agen exerted on the game. Even saying that, 16 points for Ben Botica, was one of the few positives, but is likely to condemn them to the ProD2 next season.
Agen’s big win leapfrogs them up to 11th place for now. Level with Stade, and only seven points from Clermont. They almost certainly look likely to avoid relegation, however Oyonnax will need to replicate their previous ‘four game winning run’ to have any glimmer of hope, of staying in the Top14.
Montpellier 40-24 La Rochelle
Montpellier remain in top spot after a comfortable victory over La Rochelle, who were tipped to be Top14 champions earlier in the season. In a great show of attacking rugby, Nemani Nadolo secured his 22nd try of the season [in all competitions]. Montpellier’s ever reliable Louis Picamoles and Bismarck du Plessis also touching down, to show the full value of their line-up.
Jesse Mogg and Nadolo both wreaked havoc for La Rochelle’s defence. The attacking stats for this Australian giant showed he’s still got what it takes to play at the top. 109 metres amassed with nine carries, eight defenders beaten and four clean breaks put him top of the round in attack.
Even with three tries of their own, La Rochelle were a mismatch against Montpellier’s power and strength. They continue to cling on to sixth place though, but with the gap so tight mid-table, they’re still not guaranteed to make the play offs. Montpellier on the other hand look good for an automatic semi final place.
Voici le TOP 5 des essais du week-end !
► @FickouG (@StadeToulousain)
► @wnayacalevu (@SFParisRugby)
► @SBUROTU (@CABCLRUGBY)
► @nico_metge (@agen_rugby)
► @PaulJordaan12 (@staderochelais) pic.twitter.com/sr5XsmQRpY
— TOP 14 Rugby (@top14rugby) April 10, 2018
Racing 17-13 Toulon
The two number 13’s proved the difference in the heavyweight clash at the U Arena. Virimi Vakatawa scoring for Racing after collecting a sublime offload from Leone Nakarawa on his way to the line. Toulon’s outside centre Malakai Fekitoa responded with one of his own – a brilliant running line caught the Racing defence unawares, to touch down under the posts [the resulting try resulted in him being stretchered off following a hamstring injury].
Vakatawa scored a second for Racing after the restart. And following Maxime Machenaud’s points from the boot, they were enough to hold off Toulon to grab the close win. The points keep Racing in second, but ultimately they lose ground on leaders Montpellier.
Toulon, in fourth, keep pressure on Toulouse with their losing bonus point and only six points separating those two sides. Tricky ties against Montpellier and Castres could see them fighting it out for limited places, come the end of the season.
Only three rounds remain but it still gives teams time to finish strongly, especially with places being so closely contested. Top14 Round 23 did not quite settle the standings, as the bottom two sides will battle it out to gain more ground in Round 24. Yet, with Oyonnax being at home, they may just have the advantage.
— TOP 14 Rugby (@top14rugby) April 8, 2018
Second against third will be interesting fixture, as Racing head down to Toulouse. Racing’s recent form will see them as favourites, but as we’ve learnt so often this season, that’s not always how it works out.
“Main photo credit”