The latest action of the 2017/18 French Top 14 is offering up a mix of results. While the leaders show their qualities, others are demonstrating incredible spirit. And in the Top14 Round 21 wrap the Oyonnax team have grabbed the attention away from the pacesetters.
Oyonnax have dominated the headlines of late, and rightly so – they’re in the midst of what could be an incredible story. Having been condemned to the bottom of the table for the majority of the season, they’re now starting to find the form to really make that ‘great escape‘.
Ben Botica (see below) is starring for the team, little fancied to retain their place; after promotion in 2016/17.
A Top14 Round 21 home tie with Toulon looked an unenviable task for the hosts; given Toulon’s status towards the top of the table. But, by days end, a fourth win in a row was the reward for the Adrien Buonanoto (see main photo) coached team.
Right now, it seems little Oyonnax could take on any of the bigger teams and come away unscathed, in their impossible pursuit of Top14 survival in 2018. Bonn chance!
Here’s how they did, and all of the other weekend’s Top14 action:
Racing 28-22 Stade Francais
Racing came through the Paris derby as victors, having scored 21 second half points to walk away with the riches. Despite being down 14-7 at the break, a Teddy Thomas double, plus scores from Boris Palu and Marc Andreu helped apply more pressure back on Montpellier at the top.
Andreu and Louis Dupichot proved crucial figures in Racing’s attack – hitting the gain line advantage and racking up the running metres to keep up Racing’s momentum, as the season’s end approaches.
Stade were impressive at times, having scored three tries of their own. Jimmy Yobo, Marvin O’Connor and Baptiste Lafond helped the visitors to a meritorious losing bonus point. A point that could prove vital, as the relegation battle starts to heat up. With news surrounding the club outside of the current group (see below), Stade have an eye over their shoulders as teams around them continue to pile on the pressure.
Ex-Springboks coach Meyer reportedly set to take charge at Stade Francais https://t.co/xakvUnPeGW
— IOL Sport (@IOLsport) March 19, 2018
La Rochelle 19-15 Lyon
Both sides were evenly matched, but in the end La Rochelle had the final say. Alexis Bales kept the hosts on top, kicking 100% from his four place kicks from the tee. An earlier Levani Botia try seeing La Rochelle get off to the best of starts, following a powerful scrum on the Lyon five metre line.
For the visitors, Lyon’s Dylan Cretin – who was drafted in to France’s initial U20 Six Nations squad – kept Lyon within touching distance. When Alexandre Merini touched down, there was still hope for Lyon in snatching a rare win at La Rochelle. However, the powerful South-Western team knows how to win at all cost.
Both sides now sit on 56 points, but La Rochelle have the advantage in sixth place. Seventh for Lyon puts them just outside the important top six window. Both sides will be looking to finish strong, having been [by all accounts] expected to be further up the table based on earlier form.
Several more rounds to play, yet can either side still gain any further advantage over the other in a tough battle.
Agen 10-15 Bordeaux
With the form that Oyonnax are in, Agen needed all the points they could get. They wished to escape falling into the relegation battle. Now a losing bonus point will certainly help but, Agen still have to face Oyonnax in what will be a crunch match.
For the winning team, Apisai Naqalevu continued his run of scoring form, with a second try in as many weeks to give Bordeaux the best possible start. Blair Connor also got in on the action, to dive over to end Bordeaux’s barren run. 10-15 and a first win in six games for Rory Teague’s men. A first on the road since September, which will be a sigh of relief with only half a handful of games remaining.
Agen’s Pierre Fouyssac scored a solitary try for the hosts, and the losing BP now puts them level on points with Stade. But there is less to celebrate, with both Oyonnax and Brive fast approaching from behind. Fortunately for the victors, Bordeaux have an 11 point cushion above Stade that is likely – unless they lose all remaining matches – see them over the line.
Oyonnax 29-26 Toulon
Billed as the ‘tie of the round’ following Oyonnax’s recent run, it certainly lived up to that expectation. Ben Botica was once again in sublime form. Yet another ‘Man of the match’ performance to go alongside his collection from recent games. This time 19 points that pushes him further ahead of Toulouse’s Thomas Ramos as the league’s leading points scorer with 260.
Rory Grice set the tone early on, giving Oyonnax confidence to compete with the former league and European champions. Toulon asserted themselves well to take the lead, but the fine work from Vincent Debaty snatched the victory from the visitors.
A sensational fourth win on the bounce moves Oyonnax off the bottom of the table for the first time since Round Nine. Oyonnax are yet to play both Brive and Agen. Wins against both will undoubtedly give them the opportunity to move further up. In this form, it’s difficult to bet against them. Surprisingly, Toulon have now lost to all three bottom sides away from home. A stat Mourad Boudjellal won’t look too fondly at.
16 points out of 25 for Oyonnax in the Six Nations Period, only Toulouse accumulated more
— Alex Klymyszyn (@AlexKlymyszyn) March 19, 2018
Clermont 38-14 Pau
A five-try bonus point win for Clermont is now their third consecutive victory. Another side with a run of form just at the right time. Clermont’s Peter Betham, Damian Penaud, Peceli Yato, David Strettle all touched down before a penalty try sealed them maximum points.
Strettle, along with Nick Abendanon are just two of a number of Englishmen enjoying excellent seasons in France – yet continue to be overlooked by England, and the RFU. After the Irish grand slam, will Eddie Jones open his view, on the likes of Chris Ashton?
For the visitors, Ben Mowen and a penalty try of their own failed to have any impact for Pau. A contrasted performance, given their eight game unbeaten run in all competitions. It won’t stop the Southern team but may make them think harder on their game plan.
Pau and Clermont occupy eighth and ninth respectively, but only 10 competition points separates Pau from Montpellier after Top14 Round 21 results. That is still an objective to savour.
Castres 37-28 Brive
Brive needed a win to stay above Oyonnax and, they certainly ‘gave it a good go’.
In a thrilling contest, both sides scored four tries apiece. But Castres had the upper hand in both the set piece and at the breakdown. Ben Urdapiletta was in fine form in particular, amassing 17 points on the teams way to a first win in nearly a month. And considering the outcome, Brive’s Gaetan Germain missed several important kicks, that could have proved crucial had they gone over.
Castres are seventh and in amongst four teams all on 56 points. A top six finish is well within their grasp, but those teams who ‘handle the pressure best’ will be duly rewarded. Brive sadly fall into automatic relegation, three points adrift of Oyonnax….and battling to stay away from the D2 league.
Toulouse 22-14 Montpellier
Yoann Maestri cancelled out Nemani Nadolo’s 15th league try of the season, as a stronger second half for Toulouse broke the 7-7 deadlock at the halftime break. To complete the effort from Toulouse, Francois Cros and a great effort by Zack Holmes pushed the score out of Montpellier’s reach.
— yan bon (@yabonement) March 18, 2018
A seventh away loss of the season for Montpellier isn’t quite ‘league winning material’. And it could tell, as the playoffs near. Only four points separate them from Racing 92, who continue to gain ground.
Toulouse on the reverse, are within touching distance of Racing, having registered their fifth victory from their last six games. For the Toulousain, they have the attitude to aim for a top place in 2017/18.
After a sensational Top14 Round 21, the table makes for fascinating viewing. The battle for survival is beginning to take shape as well as the individual sides competing for a top six finish.
— TOP 14 Rugby (@top14rugby) March 18, 2018
Even at the top, nothing is set in stone. With Montpellier, Racing and Toulouse each vying for advantageous playoff places, competition is the barometer. And naturally, the best teams always rise to the top.
Round 22 will have you on the edge of your seat, as the final few games pan out and the legend of the ‘great escape’ builds in it’s theatre.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images