"No one wants to relive this season,” Agen’s head coach Regis Sonnes said before Saturday’s 52-7 hammering at Lyon ensured his long-relegated Top 14 side became the first since the game went professional to lose every domestic match in a season.
“No one wants to go through this again — I hope this experience will serve us well. I have no doubt about the commitment of this group for next season.”
Former Bandon head coach Sonnes, who replaced Christophe Laussucq as head coach in November, wants to stay beyond the terms of his contract which runs out next June. “There’s a lot of work to do,” he said.
He’s not kidding. It is almost impossible to find any positives in Agen’s campaign.
The 52 points Lyon ran in on Saturday means Sonnes’ side have conceded 1,101 this season, including 146 tries — eight of them on Saturday.
They managed just 315 points and 30 touchdowns in reply, which at least is better than Dax’s lowest French championship points record of 314 in 2007/08 — thanks to the converted touchdown at Lyon from 21-year-old winger Alexandre Odinga on his professional debut.
But faint glitters of gold like that — an honourable mention here, too, for the club’s social media team for holding on to a glimmer of enthusiasm throughout the carnage — are few and far between.
Agen picked up just two league points this season — the last of them in October, the worst of any top-flight French side since rugby turned professional.
When the end finally, mercifully, came under a night sky far from home, they had finished 44 points adrift of 13th-placed Bayonne — who ended the season closer, in points terms, to top-of-the-table Toulouse than the side immediately below them in the standings.
The Lot-et-Garonne side will be replaced in the Top 14 next season by promoted Perpignan, who capped an impressive season with a powerful 33-14 ProD2 final win over Biarritz at Montpellier’s GGL Stadium.
The losing finalists, meanwhile, will play Basque Country rivals Bayonne in a dream-ticket promotion-relegation play-off that, if history is any judge, has all the hallmarks of a death match.
Coach Yannick Bru has been in play-off-ready since Bayonne lost against Montpellier in early May — but he is confident in his side’s abilities. “If we remain faithful to the standards that we have displayed technically, mentally, and physically, I have great confidence in our team,” he said after Saturday’s near-miss.
Meanwhile, La Rochelle fly-half Jules Le Bail said he simply “respected my training routine” after landing the 79th-minute 50m penalty at Clermont that kept Ronan O’Gara’s side in the top two — and on a direct route to the semi-finals in a fortnight.
Le Bail, who only started because of injuries to Ihaia West and Jules Plisson, nervelessly slotted the kick on his 25th birthday to bring the visitors to within the required five points of their hosts.
Le Bail needed to be accurate, as Racing 92 won 55-12 at home against Brive, and would have leapfrogged the Rochelais in the final reckoning if they had failed to pick up that losing bonus point.
Dilyn Leyds had opened the scoring for the visitors at Marcel Michelin on what turned into a nerve-shredding evening, and Gregory Alldritt added a second — but the boot of the hosts’ Morgan Parra proved the difference. He converted George Moala’s try and added six penalties, as the Jaunards won 25-20 to extend head coach Franck Azema’s stay at the club at least one more week.
Clermont will head to Bordeaux next weekend for the barrage round, while Racing are at home to Stade Francais in a Grand Parisian play-off derby.
Bordeaux’s head coach Christophe Urios did not mince his words after his side lost 21-10 at home to Toulouse. Warning that Clermont would also take advantage if his players did not improve, he said: “We were unworthy of the top six in the first half,” he said after the match.
The second half was tactically catastrophic. I hate my team when they play like that.
French international Romain Ntamack limped off midway through the second half and sat out the rest of the tie, his knee wrapped in ice.
Toulouse coach Clement Poitrenaud said the decision was “a precaution”, and Toulouse will hope Ntamack will recover in time to take to the pitch in Lille for the semi-finals against either Bordeaux or Clermont in a fortnight.
Pau escaped the relegation play-off spot at the death, with a 41-25 bonus-point win over Montpellier. They had started the day four points behind Bayonne — but overtook them after the Basque side lost 12-9 to Stade Francais.
Joris Segonds’ 74th-minute penalty had repercussions not only for Bayonne, but for Castres. The losing bonus was not enough for the Basque side to stay ahead of Pau in the table, meaning they dropped into the relegation play-off place.
Stade’s win also meant that Castres’ come-from-behind bonus-point 46-24 victory over play-off rivals Toulon was not quite enough to conclude an extraordinary season turnaround with an unlikely leap into the play-off zone.
As recently as New Year’s Day, the 2018 Top 14 champions were languishing in 13th. But on Saturday they had an outside shot at the post-season competition. They needed a win and for one of two results — Clermont-La Rochelle, or Bayonne-Stade Francais to go their way.
Neither of them did, so they finished seventh — one point out of the play-off zone.
Toulon, too, missed out, finishing eighth after spending 20 of the 26 weeks of the championship in the top six.