Top 14 Drilldown: Ronan O'Gara frustrated, Toulon still looking

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Top 14 Drilldown: Ronan O'Gara frustrated, Toulon still looking

La Rochelle's Irish coach Ronan O'Gara reacts prior to the French Top14 rugby union match between Montpellier Herault Rugby and SR La Rochelle at The GGL Stadium in Montpellier, southern France on October 2, 2021.  (Photo by PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Referees in the Top 14 have reached for the red card in six of the 35 matches so far this season. They did it twice this week, and brandished 12 yellows into the bargain. That’s not especially interesting — Top 14 referees routinely go hard early on in every campaign.

This, however, is interesting, and puts the lie to claims that red cards by their permanent nature ruin matches. Sides permanently reduced to 14 players in the French top flight this season have won four of those matches and drawn one. Both sides that received a red this week won. One of them was Pau, who have now done it twice, for nearly an hour each time. Stade Francais did it last weekend playing with 14 for 77 minutes.

How it stands

After five rounds, the table looks like this

And, with a season low of 18 tries scored in the seven games, the results were:

Shame about the inevitably Bond-related pre-match hype, really…

ROG: Frustrated and disappointed - not worried 

Ronan O’Gara admitted his La Rochelle side lacked precision ‘in all areas’ after they succumbed to the boot of Montpellier’s Paolo Garbisi, who kicked all the home side’s points in a 21-11 victory.

“It's much easier to understand our defeat than after the games against Racing 92 and Clermont,” he told reporters after the match.

“We lacked precision in all areas. We were not aggressive enough. From the stands it's easy to accept where we are. We're not doing well.” 

His logic is, as ever, impeccable and undeniable. Montpellier were the better side. They marshalled their opponents effectively, keeping them pretty much at arm’s length from first whistle to last.

But a knee injury to Arthur Vincent will concern Fabien Galthie and his staff at French rugby’s Marcoussis headquarters. The centre limped off after 20 minutes and was due to have an MRI scan on Monday, amid fears the initials ACL will feature in looming conversations.

It wasn’t the greatest advert for the Top 14 — none of Saturday’s games were. But by the end of the season, the how of it will have been all-but forgotten. What matters is the points. Montpellier have 12 and are eighth. La Rochelle have seven and are 13th.

La Rochelle also lost against Montpellier, Clermont and Racing 92 on the road last season — and against Toulouse at home.

Maybe it is the fact that these games were concentrated at the beginning of the season that gives a false impression. The bend on the season has yet to unwind. But O’Gara wants something more from his team. The fans do, too. Next week, at home to Castres, is time to deliver… 

Clermont go direct 

Clermont’s nothing-to-lose performance at Toulouse last weekend should have filled them with confidence - but they looked nervy early on, and were 10-6 down at home to Racing 92 after the first 40 minutes.

Then, someone in the dressing room clearly reminded them what they had done a week earlier and how they had done it - and a very different Clermont animal emerged for the second half.

They were direct. They were clinical. And they were relentlessly aggressive. They were, for 40 glorious minutes, Clermont. That 6-10 scoreline became 26-17 by the final whistle, and the fans at Marcel Michelin loved every second.

Camille Lopez, said to be heading for Biarritz next season after an agreement was reportedly reached to release him from his contract a year early, kicked the hosts back into the lead before Alivereti Raka’s try sealed the deal.

Centenary celebrations 

Brive failed to pick up a try-scoring bonus at home for the first time this season in a match that officially marked the centenary of the opening of their home ground.

Proving that rugby administrators are sentimental old farts at heart, Saturday’s match was against Stade Francais — the side they faced in the first game here on September 25th, 1921.

And the hosts marked the anniversary with a 19-12 victory to leave the Parisians rooted to the foot of the table while they sit comfortably in the top three, with all their 14 points picked up in three home matches.

Stade Francais deserve their current ranking, scrum-half Arthur Coville admitted, after a fourth defeat in five matches. “We deserve our position. We are last and no one else deserves to be there," Coville said after the loss.

“What are we missing?” he went on. “If I had the answer, it would be much easier. We missed the start of the game. As always, we made too many basic mistakes.” Too right.

Less comically, but more worryingly, their attack let them down again. Apart from last week, when Stade won with 14 against Castres at Stade Jean Bouin, this has been the story of the season for coach Gonzalo Quesada’s side.

On Saturday, Brive had 13 on the board before the visitors troubled the scoreboard — and the game was all but done as a contest.

Toulon still haven’t found what they’re looking for 

February. That was the last time Toulon won a match on the road. And that was at Agen during their total loss of a season - so it only just counts.

Winning at Castres was never going to be easy — the 2018 champions have never lost at home under coach Pierre-Henry Broncan, an unbeaten run dating back 11 home matches, and featuring 10 wins, including Saturday’s workmanlike 26-17 three-tries-to-one victory.

Even with a side shorn of a number of big-game players because of injury or international commitments, Toulon should have done better.

It would be easy to point to their indiscipline — 17 penalties, four yellow cards, and twice down to 13 players speak for themselves — but they lacked more than self-control in a season where they have been notable for their discipline. They lacked leadership. This solo score from Aymeric Luc summed them up. Brilliant but lonely.

They’re missing key players, there’s no doubt — Ollivon, Serin, Parisse, Isa, Etzebeth, Kolbe are all absent. But it can’t excuse those who were there: Etrillard, Nakarawa, Luc, Roux, and Timani — even Belleau, Carbonel, and Villiere — have all been around long enough to know how to win games.

A clearly seething head coach Patrice Collazo told reporters afterwards: “We are behind the schedule that we set with the players. We have two home games coming up: we have to fill up with points and confidence in front of our fans … We have no choice.” 

Collazo’s role at Toulon shifted this year. He now focuses solely on senior men’s team affairs. Previously he was also in charge of the much-vaunted revamp of the academy set-up as well, as part of the club’s new aim to produce a predominantly ‘made in Toulon’ team.

The spending on Kolbe, Nakarawa, Roux, Timani, even former Wasps’ prop Brooke, suggests that plan has so far failed. Toulon have rarely looked so close to — and yet so far from — the imported Galacticos of old.

Dupont the Magnificent 

The scoreboard 52 minutes into Biarritz-Toulouse gave entirely the wrong impression of Saturday’s match — one watched by the great and the good of the French game.

It was the most entertaining, error-strewn, end-to-end exhilarating 3-3 game since … well ... last season’s promotion-relegation play-off at the same ground featuring the Basque Country side and near-rivals Bayonne.

And 52 minutes is when Antoine Dupont came on. Before the hour, he’d put Tim Nanai-Williams through for the game’s opening try and scored one himself. Thomas Ramos converted both, and suddenly Toulouse had another 14 points, against three for Biarritz via a Brett Herron drop goal.

It didn’t matter, then, that Joe Tekori, minutes after coming on as a replacement in his comeback from injury was sent off for a dangerous tackle soon after. It didn’t matter that, until then, newly promoted Biarritz — looking for a third home win of the season — had caused the champions more than their fair share of trouble.

There was clear water between the champions and their hosts. Despite Vincent Martin’s 75th-minute consolation to set the final scoreline at 11-17, Toulouse recorded their fifth win in five games and have opened up a six-point gap at the top of the table.

It’s still too soon to label them ‘champions elect’. Isn’t it?

Pau’s halfbacks break Perpignan 

Amid the understandable half-back hype surrounding establishment duo Dupont-Ntamack, the up-and-coming Lucu-Jalibert double-act — expect to see them in international action this November — and Racing’s LeGarrec-Gibert prodigies, it’s easy to forget the Pau pair of Clovis Le Bail and Antoine Hastoy.

And that’s criminal. On Saturday, at Stade Aime-Giral, they issued a timely reminder of exactly why Fabien Galthie called them up for the July tour of Australia.

The dominance of the unsung heroes in the Pau pack made it easy for them to control everything about the game, even after Aminiasi Tuimaba was sent off for a dangerous tackle before the clock ticked past half-an-hour.

“The plan was to put speed and rhythm on our play and tire them out,” scrum-half Le Bail said afterwards. It worked, too. Pau doubled their try haul for the season with three against Perpignan, including one each for the 9-10 duo in a handy 29-14 win on the road.

It was a stinging wake-up call for last season’s ProD2 champions, who had previously relied on forward power to record their two wins in the campaign so far.

Indiscipline haunts Lyon 

Five penalties and a yellow card inside the opening 10 minutes tells its own sob story as indisciplined Lyon lost 15-20 at home to Bordeaux.

Coach Pierre Mignoni, however, was surprisingly sanguine in front of the media afterwards. “It was an arm wrestle, we knew it, and in an arm wrestle you have to be efficient, precise.

“We haven't been. At half-time, I told them that there was desire but that we were doing everything wrong. We lost a lot of power and energy by being messy.

“I know this group can do a lot better. We lost a battle, not the war, but it hurts. Now I am waiting for a reaction in Biarritz."

There may even have been the hint of a smile on the face of perma-grumpy Bordeaux coach Christophe Urios — but he still found things to revel in misery about. “When you win in Lyon, it means you played a solid game - but we made it difficult for ourselves.

“We are happy to have won, but we are still looking for an 80-minute performance. Last year, it seems to me that we had some, this year not yet."

In truth, not much pleases the big fella.

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