Top 14 Review: Time running out for the big guns
Biarritz and Stade Francais, two of the giants of French rugby, saw their hopes of playoff qualification extinguished almost definitively with defeats this weekend.
The 2006 Top 14 champions from the Basque Country faced the daunting task of a trip to Perpignan, at the Stade Aime Giral, where the hosts have not lost in the league in nearly 18 months. Without the services of Imanol Harinordoquy, and more controversially the far from fully fit Dmitri Yachvili - both away on international duty - the odds were always going to be stacked against the Biarrots, but as a week ago against Toulon, they put up a valiant effort.
Perpignan had gotten off to a dream start with an early try from Jean-Philippe Grandclaude after good work from winger, Adrien Plante. However Biarritz hit back almost straight away with a try from one of England’s forgotten men, Iain Balshaw. However, as the match wore on, it became clear that Biarritz were missing their internationals, and more importantly, their injured loosehead prop, Fabien Barcella. A dominant Perpignan scrum was able to earn the Catalans three second half penalties which proved enough to see off Biarritz 19-14.
Meanwhile, a little earlier in the evening Stade Francais travelled to fellow playoff contenders Brive, knowing that their humiliation at the hands of Toulouse a week ago meant that their playoff hopes were hanging by a thread. However, it took just a quarter of an hour for Brive to assert their dominance, and to add insult to injury, it was Nicolas Jeanjean, a player who Stade released over the summer, who scored the first try.
Fabrice Estebanez kept the pressure up with a great kicking display for the hosts, and when Parisian captain Rodrigo Roncero was sin binned for persistent offending, there was no way back. Brive capitalized on their complete dominance with a penalty try from an all conquering scrum. Stade showed some spirit late on to score a consolation try through Laurent Sempere, but like Biarritz it will take a spectacular revival for them to have a chance of making the playoffs now. Brive, on the other hand face a tough trip to Racing-Metro in two weeks time, but will know that a win would give them a great chance of sneaking into to the top six.
Elsewhere, Toulon were able to comfortably see of Castres in their top of the table encounter. The league leaders, without former Toulon winger Marc Andreu, had no answer to the side from the South East who are beginning to look more and more like potential title contenders. Against Castres they were able to score two tries through Mafi Kefu and Olivier Missoup, and with a relatively easy run in, they will be desperate to secure a place in the top four, which would allow them to host a playoff game at Mayol where they are still unbeaten this season.
At the bottom of the table it was Montpellier who really suffered in this round as they were crushed away at Toulouse. The French giants scored five first half tries, to take a 34-0 lead into the break, and although Guy Noves was furious at their failure to add to the score in the second half, one Montpellier penalty was not enough to save face. To make matters worse for Montpellier, they lost their captain Fulgence Ouedraogo to injury, and he will miss the next month, which could prove vital in their fight for survival.
Montpellier’s troubles were compounded by the fact that fellow strugglers Montauban and Bayonne notched up impressive victories at home to Racing-Metro and Clermont respectively. Montauban in particular knew that a victory was imperative, and in a great encounter, they saw off the Parisian side 45-31 to move to within one place of 12th spot.
The final game of the weekend confirmed what has been known for a long time as Albi were mathematically relegated after defeat at home to Bourgoin. The one side who really do not have the quality for the top flight, the Albigeois have fought hard this season, but a 17-7 defeat to a relegation candidate was indicative of their struggles this season. The real challenge now, will be to hang on to their players and to try to mount a challenge in the Pro D2 next season, but with Pierre-Gilles Lakafia, their try scorer against Bourgoin, already confirmed as leaving for Toulouse, that will not be easy.