Top 14 Rugby: Are Castres finally starting to crack?
The surprise leaders of the French Top 14 before last weekend finally lost their first game of the season at their home ground of Pierre Antoine.
In a clash of the top two, the reigning champions Perpignan made a statement of intent with a hard fought win over Castres in the Tarn region to take a three point lead at the top of the table with just two games left.
The Catalans got off to the perfect start with a try after just eight minutes from winger Farid Sid after Maxime Mermoz and David Marty had made inroads into the Castres defence. However the league leaders were able to respond straight away, first through a penalty from Romain Teulet, and then a magnificent try from winger Mathieu Nicolas after a chip over the top by Cameron McIntyre.
Sadly for the home side though, their usually metronomical kicker, Teulet, was having an off day with the boot and he missed both the conversion and then a penalty after Ovidiu Tonita was yellow carded for a high tackle. Castres were not able to take advantage of the extra man however, and it was Perpignan who reclaimed the lead with a try from Henry Tuilagi after a delightful one two with Mermoz. That allowed the visitors to take a 14-8 lead into the break, after a breathless first forty minutes.
The second half was a little less intense with just a penalty apiece, but in the final fifteen minutes the Perpignan defence was under siege from a home side who were desperate to keep their unbeaten record.
However the Catalan defence held strong and the home side had to settle for a losing bonus point which leaves them perilously placed in third with two trips to Clermont and Toulouse to finish the season. Laurent Labit and Laurent TraversÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ side probably deserved more from the encounter, but a top two finish now looks beyond them, and with such a tough run in, they may even miss out on a home quarter final, which would be very harsh on the side who have been in the top three since September.
There were two other big clashes over the Easter weekend as the Parisian clubs took on Clermont and Toulouse. On Friday night Racing-MÃƒÂ©tro travelled to Stade Ernest-Wallon in Toulouse knowing that a win would all but qualify them for the playoffs. However winning away at Toulouse is easier said than done and the home side got off to a flyer with in form full back ClÃƒÂ©ment Poitrenaud scoring after just four minutes. Yet the home side, whilst clearly the dominant force of the first half, found themselves pegged back by the boot of former All Black Andrew Mehrtens.
A fortuitous try at the start of the second half from Yoann Maestri looked like it would be decisive for the hosts, but after Yannick Jauzion had been sent to the sin bin for ten minutes, Racing took the lead through Jaques Cronje. This lead would not last for long though, and Toulouse took the lead back through a David Skrela penalty, and then sealed their win thanks to a try from veteran flanker Jean Bouilhou. The Parisians did manage to sneak a bonus point at the end of the game, though, and that could prove hugely important in the battle for sixth place.
On the Saturday it was RacingÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s city neighbours, Stade FranÃƒÂ§ais who were looking to end a run of three straight defeats as Clermont came to town. A Thomas Domingo try almost from kick off would not have been the start that the home side were hoping for, but they hit back with two tries of their own, first from Dmitri Szarzewski and then Mark Gasnier after Mathieu Bastareaud had blasted through the Clermont defence. Stade added a controversial third try on the stroke of half time, again through their hooker Szarzewski, as the forwards mauled their way to the line, knocking on in the buildup.
There were no points in the second half as Stade were able to secure a vital 19-10 victory to give them some confidence before a trip down to Toulouse for the Heineken Cup quarter final next weekend.
Montauban had a disastrous week as the DNACG (French financial administration body) announced their relegation from the Top 14 for financial reasons unless they could find the 1.7 million euros which they currently owe. On the field they travelled down to in form Biarritz, and were not helped by a harsh red card for young flanker Romain Sazy before half time. Unsurprisingly they were not able to cope and Biarritz made the most of their extra man to take a 42-13 win and secure an attacking bonus point.
In the remaining matches this weekend, Toulon and Montpellier comfortably saw off Bayonne and Albi with 31-13 and 62-17 wins respectively whilst Brive laboured to a 25-15 win over strugglers Bourgoin to keep themselves alive in the race for the playoffs.
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