Top 14: Toulon miss out while Castres top the table

Lawrence Nolan

On a day of high drama in the Top 14, a moment of madness by Charles Ollivon, of all people, cost Toulon a place in the playoffs they had fought so hard to be in the frame for.

Instead, Toulouse host La Rochelle next week, while Racing will have to go to Union Bordeaux-Begles; both games likely to be belters in what has been a fine Top 14.

A great night of rugby

There were goodbyes, tries and action aplenty, not to mention the amusing sight of scores of coaches and sideline players furiously checking their mobile phones for news of games elsewhere in the final moments, but in the end, not a lot changed in the final table from the standings at the end of day 25.

The two all-or-nothing games were won by the teams already in the playoff spots, Racing and La Rochelle, while at the bottom, Perpignan’s possible great escape win over Bordeaux-Begles was negated by Brive’s win over a limp Stade Francais side. Perpignan will now play Mont-de-Marsan next Sunday for the rights to Top 14 rugby next season.

Castres, the least touched of all the top teams by Six Nations call-ups mid-season, ended up top of the pile and with a week off before the semi-final to look forward to after a 26-16 win in Pau.

The visitors started as well as it is possible to start, with Vilimoni Botitu capitalising on a mistake by the Pau receivers at the kick off and scoring after only a handful of seconds. Pau responded with a soft try of their own three minutes later from Thibault Daubagna but the game tightened up after that.

Castres had their noses in front at the break courtesy of a try from Julien Dumora, but emerging fly-half star Antoine Hastoy had Pau to within a point with 20 to go at 17-16.

The visitors kept up the pressure and the boot of evergreen fly-half Benjamin Urdapileta, whose three late penalties involved him spending at least 89 of his allotted 90 seconds wiping bead after imaginary bead of sweat from his nose and forehead before booming the ball over, saw Castres home.

The other members of the top two, Montpellier and Union Bordeaux-Begles, had tougher assignments. Montpellier were at the Marcel Michelin to face a Clermont team with a purely mathematical chance of a playoff spot but with a fitting send-off for Morgan Parra to deliver.

The hosts certainly delivered a fun time, running the ball with abandon in a pacy game that somehow failed to deliver a hatful of points. Parra converted tries by Giorgi Beria and Jean Pascal Barraque and added a penalty before departing to rapturous applause on 67 minutes. He might have signed off with a try, but not even the most benevolent of TV officials could have failed to notice that he was quite firmly sat on his backside at the base of a ruck before pulling the ball out and twisting to place it on the line.

The coup de grace was instead applied by another departee, Camille Lopez, with a late penalty.

Montpellier, for their part, were pretty poor and will need to buck their ideas up ahead of the playoffs. but they will have a week off before the semi-final as well thanks to a poor display by Union Bordeaux Begles in Perpignan.

The hosts knew a win might save them from the relegation playoff and absolutely threw themselves into the match, playing with an intensity Bordeaux found it hard to match.

The visitors clearly had more finesse and were 12-10 ahead at the half-hour mark, thanks to tries by Romain Buros and Ulupano Seuteni, the latter of them a really quality piece of finishing. Perpignan had some finishing nous of their own though, and the tries by Lucas Dubois and Genesis Lemalu either side of the break both featured the high-risk offloads, intensity to get loose balls and ability to break tackles that Bordeaux couldn’t match.

Christophe Urios’ face at the end was a mask of fury; amusingly at the final whistle, a youngster showing a breathless mix of audacity and timing immediately ran up to him and managed to get him to pose for a selfie. Urios’ back was to the TV camera when the shutter clicked but given as his team had just chucked away a welcome week off in favour of yet another match against La Rochelle, you can only imagine the mix of grimace and smile on Urios’ face that youngster will have on his phone forever.

Perpignan meanwhile, could not pull off the great escape in a season where the team has let too many games get away. Brive’s win at Stade Francais, which sealed Perpignan’s fate was rarely in doubt once Joris Jurand had given them a 20-12 lead, finishing off a fine counter-attacking try. That lead was stretched to 33-10 before Marcos Kremer’s purely cosmetic try at the end. The home fans were less than wowed by their team’s efforts, it might be an interesting off-season in Paris.

Toulouse knew they had to win to seal a playoff place, fortunately they were at home to Biarritz, long-since relegated and with bigger problems off the field than on it. They offered some early resistance, but that vanished as soon as the referee refused to blow for a mind-bogglingly obvious piece of crossing that allowed Antoine Dupont to score Toulouse’s third.

It was a procession after that, also a goodbye party for two of the Top 14’s most familiar features: the huge frame of Iosefa Tekori and the mutton chops of Maxime Medard. Tekori scored in minute 46 and was subbed immediately thereafter to huge acclaim from the crowd, to hugs and handshakes from all the players and a couple of the visitors as well. A lovely goodbye indeed.

The problem was, he actually wasn’t done yet. Rory Arnold headed off for an HIA 20 minutes later, allowing Tekori back on. He then promptly landed a wide conversion of Medard’s goodbye try for his encore before finishing out the game. Toulouse scored 12 tries in all in an 80-7 win; for the visitors, the hope generated by that penalty-kick win over Bayonne a year ago has been replaced only by savage infighting, bitterness and disillusion. It could be a while before they are in the top flight again.

And so all that left us with the two all or nothing games: Racing v Toulon and Lyon v La Rochelle. The equation was simple in the first game, winner takes it all. the second was a little more complicated: Lyon needed a bonus-point win and to deny La Rochelle a bonus as well.

In a surprisingly open game at times, Toulon looked to have the upper hand in Paris and were good value for their 16-14 lead heading into the last quarter. Both sides were going for the kill, with plenty of offloads and breaks, equalled in number by handling errors and turnovers.

But it was Charles Ollivon who provided the turning point. Chasing a chip, he ludicrously took out Teddy Thomas in the air and was shown a yellow; in truth he could not have been surprised had the card been red. Two minutes later Yoann Tanga Mangene crashed over to give Racing the lead again, but Toulon visibly lost their mojo after the card.

In Lyon, the hosts roared to a 19-7 lead and were good value for it, but it should now be common knowledge that La Rochelle are not to be written off. Back they came, led by the leviathans in the pack and the wrecking balls in midfield, and scored three tries in ten second-half minutes, from Julien Sclavi, Jules Favre and Uini Atonio that ultimately killed off any hope Lyon had.

At the end, Lyon frantically searched for the consolation at least of taking the win. One maul was collapsed on the line to give them a penalty. The ball was whisked wide to full-back Toby Arnold who caught it off-balance and flailed limbs heroically to keep his balance all the way to the tryline, then dropped the ball just as he flopped over it.

No matter, there was another penalty for offside and again Lyon ran it, this time with Jordan Taufua doing the heroic stuff and taking three defenders with him before placing the ball firmly down on the patch of turf three centimetres in front of the tryline. The TMO tried hard to find an angle where the ball had touched the line, but there just wasn’t one available and in a microcosm of Lyon’s season, the Top 14 ended.

READ MORE: Who’s hot and who’s not: Ulster and Leinster, European boost for South African teams, another blow for Manu Tuilagi