Top 14 drilldown: A hard fought season comes to the boil 

Every match of the final round - on Sunday, June 5 - matters.
Top 14 drilldown: A hard fought season comes to the boil 

La Rochelle's supporters already turning their attentions to a Champions Cup final during the weekend's Top 14 win over Stade Francais at the Marcel-Deflandre stadium.

Twenty-five weeks of the Top 14 season done. One to go. Three teams in the play-offs. Six hunting the three remaining open slots. Two still trying to avoid 13th place - with its promotion-relegation shootout against the losing ProD2 finalists.

Here are the results of the penultimate round of the campaign played in a sweltering early summer heatwave, where temperatures were uniformly well above 30C, even into the evening matches.

And here is the table. Two of the top three are likely to bag a bye to the semi-final weekend in Nice. 

Every match of the final round - on Sunday, June 5 - matters.

Eyes on two prizes 

Ronan O’Gara rotated his La Rochelle squad for Saturday’s Top 14 party-atmosphere bonus-point 32-13 win over Stade Francais at a sweltering Stade Marcel Deflandre as he juggled Champions Cup and Top 14 futures.

Victor Vito and Jonathan Danty survived from the squad that beat Racing 92 in the Champions Cup semi-final in Lens last weekend, as O’Gara fielded an understandable and scarcely remarked on ‘B’ team to keep key players fresh for next Saturday’s showpiece against Leinster in Marseille.

He was able to call - surprisingly - on Will Skelton, sidelined with a calf injury since the end of April. The man mountain was called-up late to the bench following an injury during the warm-up to Eneriko Buliruarua, and played the final 11 minutes.

Skelton could make Saturday’s final in Marseille, coach Donnacha Ryan hinted afterwards. “Will was really frustrated, he wanted to play the quarters, the semi.

“We knew that the pace would be high, on dry ground, and that’s difficult for a calf injury. The physios did a very good job, we took their advice. Their advice was: 15 minutes. We'll see how he feels on Monday - we hope he doesn't have too many aches.” 

The staff are also sweating on Vito’s fitness, after he limped off with an ankle injury five minutes into the second half. Ryan didn’t seem unduly concerned in the immediate aftermath of the match: “We'll see on Monday,” was all he said.

By the score divided 

On the day the administrative route was cleared for Stade Chaban Delmas to be declared a historic monument in the near future, Bordeaux ended a four-match Top 14 losing streak at home to claim a play-off place with a bonus point 42-10 win over Lyon.

Manager Christophe Urios has reset a long-established challenge for his side that had been under threat as they stuttered in the league. “The goal is the top two and direct qualification for the semi-finals,” he said.

In the first half that ended 6-3, Bordeaux looked like a side that had not played for three weeks, while Lyon played like a side with a Challenge Cup final on their mind. There was, frankly, no hint of what was to come.

And then Matthieu Jalibert happened. He had looked undercooked on his return from injury in the home loss to Toulon on May 1, the last time Bordeaux were in action. He was at his game-changing best on Saturday, scoring two tries in six early second-half minutes to set the host on their way. Then the rest of the squad caught on to the idea that rugby is a game you aim to win, running in three more before Lyon got a late consolation score.

For Lyon, the loss could not have come at a worse time. Lock Felix Lambey admitted it was “not ideal before playing a European final”, adding: “This defeat complicates everything in the race for the top six. We will have to bounce back quickly.” 

Rouge et noir redemption 

It is the story of the Top 14 season. And it will never get old for the retelling.

A change of coach after a dismal start to the season amid rumours of a mutinous dressing room, games postponed because of Covid-19, a flirtation with the relegation zone - on February 5, Toulon were bottom of the table with games in hand. Then 12 wins in 14, a climb to seventh, two points behind Toulouse, and a run to the Challenge Cup final.

Forgotten in all this: games being rescheduled because of Covid-19 mean Toulon have played every week since January 30. On Friday, they face Lyon in Marseille, then head to play-off rivals Racing 92 a week on Sunday for the final round of the Top 14. No matter what happens in those two games, it’s been an astonishing tale of rugby redemption. The rest of their season - and two trophies - is in their hands when once any shot at silverware looked unlikely.

As Franck Azema said: “It's nice to depend only on us. We'll see what we're going to do - I don't know if we're going to do it at Racing. What is certain is that we will not have to wait for other results.”

Louis Carbonel played his last game at Stade Felix Mayol as a Toulon player on Saturday. It was almost pre-ordained that he would score a try in the 37-20 bonus-point win over Pau. It took him eight minutes after coming off the bench to do it. And Mayol erupted.

The fans don’t want him to leave. It’s not entirely clear he wants to leave. But leave he will when Toulon’s season finally ends at some point in June, to join Montpellier. Anthony Belleau, Eben Etzebeth, Leone Nakarawa, Lopeti Timani and Julien Ory are also leaving at the end of the season.

Montpellier mission 

“Finally we can say that we are qualified,” Montpellier’s relieved manager Philippe Saint-Andre said after his side beat Racing 92 22-13 in a scrappy match at the GGL Stadium in which the result was all that mattered.

“This victory was very important in terms of the standings, it puts us back in a positive dynamic after four consecutive defeats. I said ‘well done’ to the players but not’ thank you’.

“The objective for [the final match at] Clermont is to finish first or second and go directly to the semi-finals in Nice.” 

Racing left the Herault with nothing to show for their efforts, and slipped to fifth in the table - their next match to all intents and purposes a winner-takes-all round-of-16 tie against a raging Toulon.

Maxime Machenaud didn’t mince his words after the loss: “The last match [against Toulon] will be crucial. It's up to us to make sure we're ready in a fortnight … We have no choice now.”

Faint hopes 

Maths remains Clermont’s friend. Just. An ugly 28-6 win at Biarritz - just their second away win of the season - came with a bonus point, courtesy of the returning Damian Penaud’s second try in the 76th minute. That means they still could break into the top six on the final day with a bonus point win at home to Montpellier.

If, that is, several other results go their way.

Defence coach Benson Stanley admitted the odds of qualifying for the play-offs were heavily against Clermont: “There is very little chance,” he said, “but we’ve picked up five points, it's done and we will have to prepare well for the next match against Montpellier.” 

That’s the truth of the matter. Clermont cannot control what happens outside Stade Marcel Michelin a week on Sunday.

They need some big favours - and that’s their own fault. Even if they, somehow, sneak their way in - and the final weekend, when all matches kick off at the same time, is never shy of drama - Jono Gibbes has to accept that.

A player too many 

For a few hours, a question mark hung over Toulouse’s 26-8 win at Brive. For 14 seconds late in the second half, the defending champions had one player too many on the pitch.

Charlie Faumina was sent off after just 17 minutes for a dangerous clearout, but - despite their player disadvantage - Toulouse had the edge over indisciplined Brive in front of a packed house at Stade Amedee Domenech.

They went briefly back to 15 in the 74th minute, when three replacements came on, but only two left.

Those 14 seconds at illegal full strength could have been costly. Brive filed a complaint. Two years ago a Nationale match between Nice and Narbonne was replaced after Narbonne had 16 players on the pitch for 30 seconds. The last thing Toulouse need would be a replay.

A few hours later, Brive retracted their complaint. As backrow Esteban Abadie admitted straight after the match: "We did not lose the match in these 14 seconds, but over 80 minutes. This defeat is completely our fault."

President Simon Gillham said he had spoken to his opposite number at Toulouse, Didier Lacroix. As Gillham once told this writer, there’s little in Top 14 or ProD2 rugby that can’t be sorted out in a phone call between club presidents.

Now Brive’s focus shifts to the final weekend’s trip to Stade Francais - where they’ll be without captain Said Hireche, who suffered a fractured fibula on Saturday evening and has already undergone surgery.

Consistent Castres qualify 

Castres’ head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan is no rugby romantic.

A number of old warhorses had run-outs this weekend in front of home fans one last time before heading to retirement pastures but Rory Kockott’s likely last appearance at Stade Pierre Fabre was not in a blue home kit, but in a white polo shirt and chinos, as a spectator.

The home fans did their bit. They chanted their marmite hero’s name in the ninth minute, and cheered every time his face appeared on the big screen. But he played no part in the 28-12 bonus point win over a Perpignan side that shipped three yellows and were down to 13 players at one point that ensured Castres’ place in the play-offs.

Broncan explained why he’d left out the club legend at the end of a season in which the club has only been outside the top six for two weekends out of 25: “(Rory) will not be missed by the referees,” he said. “But he will stay a while longer in Castres, and I am sure he will continue to talk - if next year, we have a problem at scrum half, we will not go looking for a medical joker.

“There are still matches this season, and I need everyone. There are also two other scrum halves, Jeremy Fernandez and Santiago Arata, who are ahead of him. Rory has slipped down the hierarchy.” 

The loss kept Perpignan - who lost Melvyn Jaminet early on to a knee injury - in the relegation play-off place, three points adrift of Brive. They are at home to Bordeaux on the final weekend. Stade Aime Giral will be a bear pit.

Captain Mathieu Acebes said: “There is a feeling of helplessness and bitterness, because once again, we made bad tactical choices. Now, we have to focus on the next game … we have a tiny chance to stay directly in the Top 14.”

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