Rugby Union: Top 14 Review - Biarritz reign in Spain
A week after securing the Grand Slam in Paris, French rugby eyes turned back to the Top 14 with just four rounds of matches remaining this season.
The pick of the ties was a repeat of the 2006 final as Toulouse travelled to the Basque Country to face Biarritz. For the second time this season, the Biarrots chose to move their game to the Anoeta stadium in San SebastiÃƒÂ¡n, Spain, and 22,000 spectators came to show their support.
With the return of their grand slam heroes Imanol Harinordoquy and Dmitri Yachvili, as well as the long awaited return from injury of Fabien Barcella, this was always going to be a formidable task for Toulouse. Yet in the first twenty minutes they looked every bit potential champions. Some fantastic offloading from forwards and backs alike allowed them to put Maxime Medard over in the corner for the first try and a 10-6 lead after just twenty minutes looked promising, especially as they were playing against the wind.
However, Biarritz with Yachvili in charge, managed to creep back into the lead before half time with two penalties at the end of the first forty. The indiscipline of the home side continued at the start of the second period with Louis Picamoles receiving a yellow card for the umpteenth infringement. With some favourable refereeing decisions they were able to keep Toulouse under constant pressure, and without really creating many try scoring chances Biarritz stretched out to a lead of 21-10.
Then, in the last action of the game, Toulouse gambled to try to at least gain a losing bonus point, but David Skrela’s neat chip was collected by Yann Fior and the ball eventually found its way out to Damien Traille who scored in the corner to make the final score a very convincing 26-10.
Biarritz’ win meant that they were still hanging on in the race for the sixth and final playoff place. Racing-Metro were the team to catch, and with three defeats in a row, the arrival of Brive in the French capital was a massive test for the Parisians. With a great deal of help from their captain Lionel Nallet, who carried on his great French form, Racing were able to put an end to their losing streak, although not without a scare.
They conceded a try shortly before half time after Francois Steyn was harshly yellow carded for a dangerous tackle. However, thirteen unanswered points at the start of the second half, including a charge down try for Sebastien Chabal and then another move started by the bearded icon led to a Sireli Bobo try, allowed Racing to take control.
Brive looked to be down and out, but they mounted a spirited comeback in the last twenty minutes, first through a Jamie Noon try from an Alexis Palisson pass, and then a Palisson penalty to earn a losing bonus point which could prove vital in the final shakeup. Racing now have a seven point lead from both their opponents of the day, and Biarritz, but with a tough run in, the sixth place is not quite assured yet.
The third team looking to chase down Racing before this round were their city rivals Stade Francais, but a trip to Perpignan was always going to be a huge ask for the out of sorts Parisians. Even so, the seven try thrashing which they received at the hands of the current French champions marked a new low for the club. Jerome Porical, in particular, was in fine form for the Catalans with two tries, and despite a late fightback, Stade went down 44-23 to leave themselves looking down the table rather than up with three games to go.
The worry for Stade Francais is that they are now just seven points clear of Montpellier in the relegation zone, and a run of three straight losses, with Clermont to come next weekend, does not bode well. That said, the battle to avoid the drop should concern the four teams below Paris, and this weekend it was Montauban who were the big winners. An away win at bottom club Albi moved them from 13th up to 11th and with two home games remaining out of three, they look favourites to avoid the drop. Bourgoin lie just ahead of them in the table, but have a tough run-in, so could ill afford a 13-9 home defeat to Toulon on Friday night. Bayonne also came up short against championship contender as they were beaten 26-10 at Castres.
The Bayonnais will be encouraged by their performance though, and on current form, they should have enough to avoid the drop. This leaves Montpellier as the team in the relegation zone after a 41-3 defeat at Clermont, which was not quite as one sided affair as the scoreline suggests. With a weakened side, Montpellier trailed by just twelve points with less than a quarter of an hour remaining, before the jaunards turned on the style to score four late tries.