Top 14 Drilldown: Sun comes out for Ronan O'Gara, Toulon no longer box office

The weekend's big talking points in French rugby
Top 14 Drilldown: Sun comes out for Ronan O'Gara, Toulon no longer box office

Toulon's French fly-half Anthony Belleau dives to score a try during the French Top 14 rugby union match between Toulon and Brive on October 9, 2021 at the Mayol stadium in Toulon.  Photo by CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

There wasn’t a red card in sight in the Top 14 this week, as - it seems - players get referees’ zero tolerance message on high tackles. Just the 10 yellows across the seven matches and 30 tries, with the results looking like this.

And here’s the latest table. Biarritz dropped to bottom after Stade’s Sunday night win over Clermont, while Toulouse extended their lead to seven points - or nearly two wins - after six matches.

The early-season out-of-shape look to the standings looks to be ironing out a little Bordeaux and Lyon and Racing are about where they’d hope to be. But Brive and Pau, and perhaps Castres, are exceeding early expectations, while Clermont and La Rochelle are definitely underachieving.

Toulon’s ambitions, however, currently rest more on hope than expectation. The hope lies with their long absentee list, but harder-to-satisfy expectations may bring changes sooner rather than later.

Toulon lose primetime gloss 

Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking of Toulon as a primetime TV draw. It’s nostalgic 2012 to 2015-era thinking that no longer lives up to the hype.

Toulon have featured in one of the Top 14’s two weekend evening slots every week this season so far - and will continue to do so until the final weekend of October.

So far, they haven’t been worth the entrance fee. Their 13-9 win over Brive - after being 10-0 up at halftime - was greeted with derision by disappointed fans on the final whistle. The visitors headed home feeling they’d lost three points rather than gained one.

The best Toulon had to celebrate after the match was Leone Nakarawa’s defensive shift.

It was, by head coach Patrice Collazo’s own admission, a take-the-points result. 

“Before the match, we had four points fewer [than we have now]. I know that we will be able to raise our level against Racing. I want us to be positive because I want the players to come out of this slump and be happy to take four points. I want confidence to be restored.” 

The win - Toulon’s second this season - is good news for the under-pressure Collazo. It puts some credit in the bank with owner Bernard Lemaitre, who has pledged to review the staffing situation after next weekend’s home match against Racing 92.

The odds are in Collazo’s favour. He is contracted to 2025, which would make him expensive to shift - as well as complicated under France’s labyrinthine employment laws. And, until this season, he was running both the senior men’s team and the academy set-up, as the club streamlined operations and aimed - wishfully, so far - for a predominantly ‘Made in Toulon’ team.

ROG finally gets some satisfaction 

After last weekend’s dismal performance in defeat at Montpellier, La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara fired a clear threat to his players. 

“For some, two finals (European Cup and Top 14), it's beautiful,” he grumbled. “But now it's over - it's in the past, it's a different team, a different season.” 

After Saturday’s 29-10 never-in-doubt home win over Castres, O’Gara’s mood was, unsurprisingly, sunnier. But he still coded a warning into his post-match comments. "The Montpellier game was unacceptable. Today was good, quite clean,” he said.

“I know the strengths of this group ... We showed some of that - a little - today. I have a good group, I've always said that. It's up to us to continue to show that. With the ball, we have to find more consistency, more rhythm.

“We controlled the game, it was a good performance, especially up front … even if technically and tactically there are improvements to be made. But the first thing was to step up to the challenge, unlike the Montpellier game."

In-house gauntlet thrown down for Saturday’s trip to Brive.

Toulousain concentrate 

“It's not a game to be engraved in the annals … but it's five points,” head coach Ugo Mola said after Toulouse ran in five tries to beat Pau 38-10 at Stade Ernest Wallon.

You can usually tell when the Toulouse coach reckons a game like this one is won - he subs Dupont, for bigger challenges ahead. He did just that, with next week’s trip to Lyon in mind, after 65 minutes.

Worryingly, though, Mola’s take-the-points line, was accurate. Toulouse weren’t great. Far from it. In the first half, they were wasteful and undisciplined - ‘nul’ as fullback Maxime Medard, who would shortly go on to score his 87th Top 14 try, admitted.

Unfortunately, for hard-working, honest, Pau, they came out for the second half a different team. The same personnel - Mola resisted making halftime changes - were clinical where they had been wasteful, iron-willed where they had been indisciplined.

Toulouse concentrated a match’s worth of performance into 40 second-half minutes. In just over a quarter of an hour, they scored 31 points and conceded three - and the game had gone from tense to done. The next target will be to play for an hour. Then the full 80. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

New player blow for Galthie 

Last week, Montpellier centre Arthur Vincent suffered an ACL rupture that means he will miss the November internationals and the 2022 Six Nations.

On Saturday, Racing’s combative lock Baptiste Pesenti left the field with a shoulder injury - he could miss the November series. The fear is he may have to miss the Six Nations, too.

Pesenti was signed from Pau to add some much-needed stopping power. But they didn’t need fight against a dogged Perpignan at La Defense Arena, where French Prime Minister Jean Castex - a Catalan through and through - watched from the posh seats. They needed precision.

It wasn’t that the first-half finished 0-0. It was that Racing got into their opponents’ 22 seven times in that first 40 - and still the first half finished 0-0. They were better in the second half - relatively. Two unanswered converted tries and a penalty eased nerves for a while.

But Perpignan scored two converted tries of their own in the final 12 minutes to head home with a thoroughly deserved bonus point.

The hosts’ captain Gael Fickou was blunt and clearly angry: “We weren’t up to the task. We came out of this game very frustrated despite the four points. We have to be aware that if we continue like this … we won't go far in this competition.” 

In the end, Racing won 17-14. But, despite the points, the post-match party seemed a little subdued.

The bench effect 

Bordeaux recorded their fourth win of the season the traditional way - building an early lead and holding on to it - but visitors Montpellier, energised by their ‘finishers’, nearly made them pay with a heart-stopping final-quarter comeback at Stade Chaban Delmas.

“We planned to make a good start,” Bordeaux attack coach Frederic Charrier said afterwards. “We managed to do it. We also started the second period well. Perhaps unconsciously we relaxed.”

That last line was arguably the understatement of the weekend. Bordeaux were 27-6 ahead, with a try-scoring bonus point in the bag as the clock ticked towards the hour. It was all looking so easy.

Then everything changed. Less than 20 minutes later, Bordeaux bonus gone and the hosts temporarily down to 13, Montpellier were denied a try that would have been their third of the afternoon and would have brought them - with a conversion - level.

It was 27-20, and the hosts were, by their own admission, rattled. The collective sigh of relief that whistled around Chaban Delmas when the visitors took the points for a losing bonus when they were awarded an after-the-hooter penalty could have changed local weather patterns.

As the hosts’ starting hooker Maxime Lamothe said: “You shouldn't get into this bad habit of slacking off in the second half. Before that, we managed to impose our game for 60 minutes. We are still waiting for a full game, we ended badly today, but it will happen.” 

Brotherly bragging rights 

The match between Biarritz and Lyon had an oven-ready hot marketing deal - the sibling rivalry battle between the hosts’ scrum-half Barnabe Couilloud and his opposite number for the visitors, older brother and France international Baptiste.

It was the latter who bagged the bragging rights, scoring a hat-trick as the visitors won 40-5, with a try-scoring bonus, at Parc des Sports Aguilera.

Lyon head coach Pierre Mignoni was clear on the importance of the result, a week after his side had lost at home to Bordeaux. “It was important to put things back in order. As expected, I made some changes. If you want to achieve something in this Championship, you have to step up.”

Emotions were inverted in the Biarritz camp, who have lost on their own turf twice in seven days, against Toulouse last week and then against Lyon on Saturday.

Captain Steffon Armitage told reporters: “I'm disgusted. I don't want to make excuses, talk about fatigue or whatever. We will meet again on Monday and we will work to come back stronger. We can't waste four days on this failure, we have to switch to the next one."

We’ll have to wait and see whether those words are inadvertently prophetic. Biarritz are at Castres next Saturday, then entertain Brive the following week. It’s time to rediscover that fighting character that got them back into French rugby’s top tier.

Waisea give Stade breathing space 

“We deserved to win,” Gonzalo Quesada, Stade Francais’ clearly relieved coach, said after the Parisians had beaten Clermont 22-14 at Stade Jean Bouin to move off the foot of the Top 14 table.

Backrow Romain Briatte added: “We have not started the season as we wanted, but it really felt good [on Sunday]. There’s a long way to go, [but] we are relaunching and we have moved out of 14th place which has weighed on us from the beginning."

A try in each half from winger Waisea Nayacalevu was the talk of the pundits after the match - his second, particularly, as he single-handedly erased three defenders en route to the line for his 60th try in a Stade shirt.

Stade’s win was deserved - but the game could easily have gone the other way.

Quesada’s opposite number Jono Gibbes was left to rue what might have been, after watching his side let a potential win slip through their fingers in the final 20 - but he still sought to focus on the positives in front of the media.

“We came here with the ambition to win ... but the skills were not there. I can't criticise the players for their attitude. They tried to do things well, but there was a lack of skill.” 

His captain Arthur Iturria, however, let slip what will actually happen when the squad gathers for a debrief before next weekend’s trip to Montpellier. “We're going to get slapped on the fingers,” he said, “but maybe we need that to move forward."

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