It was a matter of when and not if for Chris Ashton in overtaking Fijian Napolioni Nalaga as the record try scorer, touching down a 22nd time. Fortunately for Ashton it came in the Top14 Round 24, giving him two more games of the regular season to further stamp his mark in France in astonishing fashion. It also means that Ashton now leads the try scoring stats in France’s Top14 as well as the European Champions Cup.
The manner in which Ashton has taken to French rugby will have surprised a few, but as he showed at Saracens, his clinical finishing speaks for itself. Whether Eddie Jones has taken notice is a whole different story, particularly with the English attack failing to fire during the Six Nations.
Back to the Top14 Round 24 and here’s all you need to know about the weekend’s action:
Toulon 32-17 Montpellier
It’s surprising just how dominant Toulon were against the league leaders, given the way Montpellier have risen to the top in recent rounds. Of course, the plaudits all went to Ashton after scoring his 22nd league try of the season. Ma’a Nonu’s early break and good work by Facundo Isa set up Ashton’s try on the opening minutes. Ashton was so close to breaking the record against Racing, which was chalked off, but there was no stopping Ashton here. The winger, Semi Radradra and Mathieu Bastareaud all touched down to give the hosts a 17-0 lead.
Ma'a Nonu, Facundo Isa, Semi Radradra y de nuevo Ma'a Nonu en la jugada del ensayo número 22 (récord) de Chris Ashton en el Top 14 2017-2018. pic.twitter.com/U3v5C0d3Hc
— Javier Señarís Senra (@RutgerBlume) April 15, 2018
The gap was too much for Montpellier to reduce as Toulon continued to keep the scoreboard ticking. The visitors’ response did include three tries of their own, but wasn’t enough to even resurrect a losing bonus point.
Surprisingly, it was the leaders’ third away loss of the season, but having already established a lead, still sit in relative comfort at the top. Toulon’s unbeaten run at home since November continues and could still finish in second with a straight path to the semi finals.
Clermont 33-3 Bordeaux
Clermont’s performance against Bordeaux was both clinical and dominant – something we’ve not been accustomed to seeing this season. Morgan Parra looked to be back at his best and contributed 18 points with the boot and completely outplayed his opposite man Baptiste Serin, who himself has been in stellar form for his side this campaign. Clermont’s three tries secured the bonus point and their attack condemned Bordeaux to large periods in defence.
Even with possession, the visitors failed to capitalise and create any genuine scoring opportunities. A solitary penalty kick was all they could muster, in what has been a real mixed season for Bordeaux. However, for Clermont, a third league win a row has pushed them over the 50 point mark and overtake Bordeaux in the process. Bordeaux fall down to tenth and their quest for a first win at Clermont in over six years, continues.
And here's #Midol's team of the week. Couilloud had a tremendous game for @LeLOURugby, but @ASM_officiel's Morgan Parra can feel hard done by. He schooled @UBBRugby's Baptiste Serin in game management. It's official: Parra's back pic.twitter.com/qkUlVTSBs2
— James Harrington (@Jamesonrugby) April 16, 2018
Oyonnax 40-17 Brive
In another bottom of the table clash, Oyonnax this week showed their dominance, scoring five tries to Brive’s three. The huge victory means the home side swap places with Brive at the foot of the table. As has been said so many times this season, the impact of Ben Botica has given Oyonnax genuine hope of staying in the league next season. Another incredible performance from the fly half, who this time contributed 20 points for his side. A seventh try of the season, including his second in as many games, kept Oyonnax on the front foot for the majority of the game.
Brive did look good with ball in hand at times, but found themselves too far behind to do any real damage. The likelihood of the two relegated sides coming from either Brive, Oyonnax and Stade Francais, should give Botica and his side confidence they can beat whoever they should face in the play off, providing they don’t finish bottom. A third consecutive win at home should put them in good stead when Lyon come to town in Round 25.
Pau 22-33 Agen
In what was an incredible away win for Agen, they continue to distance themselves from relegation. Even with Pau’s excellent home this season, the likes of Filipo Nakosi for Agen caused too many problems, scoring twice in the process. Momentum did swing in Pau’s favour who responded to Agen’s early lead with three tries of their own. A controlled second half display from Agen, who were assured on the ball gave Nakosi his second as well as a George Tilsley score, denied Pau even a losing bonus point.
Magnifique essai de Filipo Nakosi !!! pic.twitter.com/3W8D7DgsPj
— RugbyCleek (@RugbyCleek) April 16, 2018
The home defeat damages Pau’s fight for a top six place, having moved into seventh. With difficult ties ahead through Toulon and Montpellier, Pau may find themselves out of contention altogether. However, Agen’s win moves them four points clear of Stade into eleventh, but also face difficult fixtures against Clermont and title hopefuls Racing.
Lyon 44-3 Stade Francais
Stade suffered a thrashing at the hands of Lyon, which keeps them in the relegation battle. Poor discipline hampered their first half – Alexandre Flanquart and Morne Steyn both shown yellow cards. The advantage gave Lyon the platform to score three tries and open up a resounding lead at the break. Three more in the second half including Toby Arnold’s tenth of the season secured the bonus point, moving Lyon up the table in the process. As so often been the case this season, Stade looked all at sea, their defence failed to withstand any pressure as well as their attack failing to get any go forward.
Further losses for Stade keeps them in tenth, with fellow strugglers Brive and top six chasers La Rochelle still to play. Lyon travel to Oyonnax in round 25, which will be no easy task, before finishing their regular season at Montpellier. A loss for Lyon in either could deny them any chance of finishing in the play offs.
La Rochelle 18-26 Castres
A strong second half performance from Castres effectively won the game. La Rochelle have been excellent at home this season, but coming up against Ben Urdapiletta prevented them from continuing their strong home form. The Castres fly half kept the scoreboard ticking and scoring at every opportunity to deny the hosts the victory. Even a losing bonus point was denied after a late Armand Battle try and Urdapiletta’s boot rubbed salt in the La Rochelle wounds.
Both sides are vying for barrages places and both needed the win. Castres go sixth, while La Rochelle drop to eighth, denting their prospects of a play off game. La Rochelle’s away form has halted progression during the season and could be the difference of finishing well and finishing out of contention. But with the gap still incredibly close mid table, final positions are likely to come down to the final game.
Toulouse 42-27 Racing 92
In arguably the tie of the round, Toulouse looked the far more stronger and the likelier winner early on in the battle for second. The home side raced to a strong lead through Yoann Maestri as well as with the boot of Thomas Ramos. Toulouse fly half Zack Holmes was in scintillating form, running in a fantastic try from his own half. Having scored five tries and with a 42-6 lead, a bonus point looked to be in the bag for Toulouse. However, a Racing resurgence in the second half denied the hosts an extra point with three tries of their own, scoring 21 unanswered points.
Four points for Toulouse puts them equal with Racing on 70 points. However, Toulouse’s better head-to-head nudges them ahead to occupy second place. Both first and second placed teams qualify automatically for a semi final, so nothing is likely to be confirmed until the final day. Either way, it sets up a fascinating finish in all areas of the table.
Top14 Round 24
To get to the Top14 Round 24 with places still up for grabs almost everywhere is astonishing given the way the season has gone. As the table shows, there hasn’t been one side dominating for large periods of the season. La Rochelle, Lyon and Montpellier have all spent time at the top and likewise with Oyonnax, Agen and Brive at the bottom.
— Actu Sport France (@ActuSport_EDF) April 15, 2018
Inconsistencies from nearly all the sides have made the season what it’s been. It also makes for an incredibly competitive finish. But with a break this weekend for European semi finals, Round 25 will return with nearly all the French sides refreshed what should be a climactic finish.
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