Top 14 Drilldown: Coughlan singing in the rain, Rog not pulling punches

All the weekend talking points in French rugby
Top 14 Drilldown: Coughlan singing in the rain, Rog not pulling punches

Toulon's French centre Theo Dachary (C) falls in the water as Biarritz Olympique's Australian wing Henry Speight (R) attenpts to tackle him during the French Top 14 Rugby union match between Rugby Club Toulonnais (Toulon) and Biarritz Olympique at Stade Mayol in Toulon, south-eastern France, on October 30, 2021. (Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP) (Photo by CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP via Getty Images)

A week to go to France’s first November Test, against Argentina at Stade de France, and most of the talk is about the possibility of a Jalibert-Ntamack 10-12 partnership - and, if it happens, whether it will become a regular sight on Fabien Galthie’s teamsheets leading up to the World Cup.

 

But first, there’s the small matter of the ninth round of the Top 14 - which saw movement at both the top and bottom of the table - before a well-earned international break for those players not involved in the upcoming Tests.

Tries were hard to come by this weekend - thanks in part to the weather - with just 21 scored in all seven games, and two of those were penalty tries. Here are the results.

 

And here’s the table, with Bordeaux overtaking Toulouse, who suffered their second defeat of the season at Racing, at the top of the table, and Perpignan moving off the bottom thanks to their against-the-match stats win against La Rochelle.

 

Winning in the Rain 

A stormy week at Toulon came to a stormy end, as an ‘episode cevenol’, a common weather event in southern France in spring and autumn, dumped a lot of water on Stade Mayol in the hours before and during Saturday’s match against Biarritz.

 

To say it was a poor match would be unfair. It wasn’t great, obviously, but both sides played as well as possible, as adventurously as they could, in … difficult-bordering-on-impossible conditions.

Not that Toulon will care. After two wins and a draw in their opening eight games, win number three - watched from the stands by rain-soaked new manager Franck Azema - was always going to be welcome. And the relief poured off players, coaches and out of the stands like steam.

“Four points is good, we've made some progress. After that, there are still a lot of things to sort out - but it's always easier after a win,” Toulon’s defence coach James Coughlan said, after the 13-9 win, the sole match of a brief interregnum at the club.

Fullback Aymeric Luc, released from his first France squad call-up earlier in the week, added: “It wasn't the most fun match of the season, but it's a good win. Four points at home was important, so we can get a new dynamic going.” 

Biarritz president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé, however, thought his side were hard-done by referee Laurent Cordona, who pinged them 17 times. In a tweet referencing a 2012 comment from Toulon’s then-president Mourad Boudjellal, he asked a question that needs no translation.

 

Moving on… 

The good loss paradox 

Castres recovered from last week’s mauling at an inspired Toulouse and maintained their unbeaten home run under head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan, but it was a close-run thing against the last visiting side to win at Stade Pierre Fabre back in December last year.

 

Brive have now lost four in a row, and slipped from third to 10th since their last win, at home against Stade Francais on October 2. But the 23-22 scoreline, a third defensive bonus point, a scrum that found a way back from a desperate opening period, and the all-round performance of several second-string Brivistes is reason enough for encouragement.

Injuries meant Brive headed to always-difficult Castres with a heavily rejigged squad. But, even during long periods of Castres’ dominance, or when it appeared the hosts had an iron grip on the game, the visitors didn’t give ground easily, fighting back from 20-12 down on the hour to get within a point.

 

Brive captain Matthieu Voisin said: “We knew that by putting pressure on them, they were going to make errors and that they would start to get annoyed. We knew how to do it … [but] it's easy to say pre-game. It's better to show it on the pitch.” 

The English match 

Former Leicester fly-half Zack Henry won the Pau beret for player of the match, after kicking all the hosts’ points in their tryless 18-9 win over Stade Francais at a rain-sodden Stade du Hameau.

 

It wasn’t quite as bad in the Bearn as it was further east in Toulon, but it was clear which of the two sides had paid attention to the weather forecast - as well as a small tactical flaw in the visitors’ defensive set-up.

Afterwards, Henry told reporters: “It was an English match ... a lousy match, but we are happy to win a lousy match. We had to play that way - with the weather conditions, I felt a bit at home!

 

“We had planned a little more kicking because of the rain - and we had analysed that Stade often leave space behind.” 

Stade Francais’ coach Gonzalo Quesada was philosophical after a three-match winning streak slid to a halt in the rain, and his side slipped to 12th in the table. “We know that the situation remains fragile with our league position.

 

“Bravo to Pau … We put them under pressure but they knew how to manage and take advantage of the opportunities to score points.”

 

Near-total control … except where it mattered 

Ronan O’Gara wasn’t in the mood to pull any punches after watching his La Rochelle side capitulate 22-13 at Perpignan despite dominating every area of the game, other than the important one.

“This defeat is a huge disappointment, it's a real nightmare,” he said. “We lacked aggressiveness. We didn’t deserve to win: this is the Top 14, every weekend it's a war.”

O’Gara’s visitors were so far ahead on the occupation and possession figures, the metres-made, linebreak and defenders beaten numbers, they may as well have been playing another game.

But occupation and possession count for little if they’re not backed up with points, and what Perpignan lost in those counts, they more than made up for in the less-easily counted metrics of rugby realism and street smarts. And points.

 

In short, Perpignan made the most of those times they had hold of the ball. La Rochelle - deprived of their French internationals but still with a side that, on paper, should have done better - didn’t.

 

The hosts’ veteran centre Afusipa Taumoepeau bagged a hat-trick - including one 80m effort guaranteed to make the Top 14’s weekly top five tries of the week - as the Catalans moved off the foot of the table, overtaking fellow promotees Biarritz.

There’s no wonder they were pleased. “We take all matches as a final,” prop Sacha Lotrian told reporters. “We gave everything defensively, we didn't give up.

“We must now get back down to prepare for next Saturday’s trip to Toulouse and a match against the champions of France and Europe.” 

Lyon down 

As it was in Toulon and Pau, so it was in Montpellier. The rain lashed down at the GGL, and the side that handled the conditions the best was always going to win.

 

That was Montpellier, aided and abetted by an uncharacteristically clumsy performance from indisciplined visitors Lyon, who copped four of the 13 yellow cards brandished across the seven games this weekend - and were down to 13 players midway through the first half.

 

The less written about the first 20 minutes of the match, the better. And, from Lyon’s point-of-view, most of the following 60 minutes were nothing to write home about, either. Montpellier, however, will be happy enough, though their satisfaction will be tempered by their inability to pick up a fifth point.

 

Lyon’s star summer signing Lima Sopoaga had an afternoon to forget on his first start at fly-half - his in-goal error that Montpellier’s opportunist scrum-half Cobus Reinach capitalised on will haunt his nightmares for some time, as the visitors failed to pick up a single league point for the first time this season, losing 30-8.

No one could deny Lyon’s commitment - but they were scuttled by their own indiscipline and inability to adapt their gameplan to the conditions. “I think this was one of our worst games in a very long time,” head coach Pierre Mignoni said afterwards. “There is the strategy and there is the realisation, which has to be much better than that.”

 

Enter Trinh-Duc 

Nine matches in, and new Top 14 leaders Bordeaux have now won six in a row for the first time in their history - they have not lost since the opening-day trip to Biarritz, when they seemed undercooked and overconfident.

 

The bonus point-winning 25-9 final score against Clermont on Saturday night suggests Bordeaux were in complete control. But it needed a veteran’s calming influence after a helter-skelter opening period.

 

Samoan international UJ Sueteni is a quality player - he made one astonishing try for a resurgent Yann Lesgourges in the first half, and scored another fine one just before the hour, but it was clear he was uncomfortable with his dual starting role as goalkicking fly-half in the absence of Matthieu Jalibert and Maxime Lucu.

 

He missed two relatively straightforward kicks, and Clermont were finding it too easy to put him under pressure.

In the 44th-minute, with Bordeaux 5-6 down on the scoreboard, Christophe Urios did what the 26,972 crowd had long expected. He brought on veteran Francois Trinh-Duc - in his final season as a player - to cool hot heads. Sueteni switched to inside centre … and breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

 

A drop goal, a penalty, two conversions, the assist for Sueteni’s second-half try and a kick through that nearly led to a score for Romain Buros are the dry parts of Trinh-Duc’s 36-minute influencer performance.

His job - ‘to find more space’. Bordeaux had ‘played a little too close for my taste’ in the first half, he told journalists afterwards. “We had to try and find a bit more space by playing further out.” 

Urios, in his understated post-win manner for the media, could not hide his pleasure at Trinh-Duc’s performance. “He did his job - he knows the music. We don’t need to explain things to him three times. His communication, the fact he did not panic … clarified everything,” he said.

Elevenses 

Racing 92, with 11 players in the infirmary, beat Toulouse, with 11 players away at French rugby’s ‘Marcatraz’ headquarters 30km up the road from La Defense Arena, in front of a stadium record 29,264 fans.

 

The post-match Hallowe’en party looked fun, too...

 

The hosts needed a reaction after last week’s surprise loss at home against Montpellier - that much was clear from the fact that manager Laurent Travers was pitchside from the first whistle rather than watching the opening half from the stands, as is his usual practice.

For a while, it looked as if even that wouldn’t be enough to shock the hosts into match-winning action. Toulouse’s acting captain Alban Placines was in commanding mood. His early yard-munching flanker-charge down the right wing ended with Arthur Bonneval cruising over on the other.

Placines caused further trouble for Racing with and without the ball in the first half, as the visitors went into the break 13-10 ahead. It could have been more.

Touchline Travers, however, would have been happy enough with his players’ effort and will - particularly that of 19-year-old scrum-half Nolan Le Garrec, who must be increasingly hard for Fabien Galthie to ignore.

 

But mostly, he would have been delighted that the spoiling game on the ground that Racing were playing was starting to work. They were ferocious at the breakdown and - although it sometimes cost a penalty, they were disrupting enough to chop-up depleted Toulouse’s gameplan.

And they profited in the second period, as the visitors fell foul of their own over-eager indiscipline. Toulouse’s Baptiste Germain - another name for the future - had a try ruled out for kicking the ball out of the hands of Yoan Tanga-Mangene - remember that name, too - at the base of a scrum in the 65th minute. That was Toulouse’s second-half in microcosm. As it was, Selevasio Tolofua’s 73rd-minute touchdown was the last score of a game that ended 27-18.

 

After last week, the result, and the performance that led to it was more than enough to have Travers’ purring. “This match is positive on content, state of mind - and you only need to see the number of players with cramp on each side to realise the kilometres travelled and the intensity,” he said.

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