Top 14: Wild final weekend looms in France

Lawrence Nolan

Nine of the 14 teams are still in contention for a Top 14 play-off place heading into the final weekend, while the relegation situation is also still not yet resolved.

Montpellier guaranteed themselves a semi-final spot with a fairly routine win at home to Racing, but again they made life far harder for themselves than it should have been.

Jittery finish

At 19-3 up with a little under 20 to go, Racing were huffing and puffing but not really creating all that much, when Montpellier fly-half Gela Aprisidze took it upon himself to jump in with a textbook foot-first soccer tackle to deny the visitors a try.

Suddenly it was 19-10 and the hosts were also a man down, and Maxime Machenaud made it 19-13 with eight to go, just before Aprasidze returned.

But Montpellier saw the game out, even denying Racing a bonus point after a late penalty from Paolo Garbisi and taking them to 73 points.

Racing face a potential do-or-die match against Toulon, who have very much been masters of doing recently. They did again on Saturday, easing past Pau 37-20 and moving up to seventh place.

A win against Racing would almost certainly see them complete a remarkable late-season comeback which has seen them drive from the brink of a relegation dogfight and heavy supporter unrest to a Challenge Cup Final and the brink of a play-off dogfight instead.

Plummeting out of play-off contention, and thus also earning themselves an all-or-nothing play-off against Champions Cup finalists La Rochelle, were Lyon, who were singularly awful in the second half of a 42-10 defeat at Bordeaux. It was not their strongest side, but it was not their weakest either and it had to do better.

It had nothing to show – deservedly – for its efforts until a late penalty try. For Bordeaux however, the uncertain mood of recent times was enlightened by a vintage performance from Mathieu Jalibert, who has had a miserable season with injuries.

Bordeaux led 6-3 at the break, but Jalibert cut loose in the second half, scoring two and having a big hand in two more before exiting to a standing ovation.

Castres also have a foot in the semi-final after a win at home to Perpignan, which surprisingly did not feature the soon-to-retire Rory Kockott in the last home game of the season.

“We have two scrum-halves today, Jérémy Fernandez and Santiago Arata, who are excellent scrum-halves and who have passed Rory in the hierarchy,” said the Tarnais coach Pierre-Henri Broncan.

“It’s a shame of course, because Rory has spent eleven seasons at the club, he has contributed a lot and he will continue to contribute. But today, sportingly, it’s such a tough championship that we put the best on the field. To win the games.”

Kockott still got his ovation, with he and his young daughter brought up on the screen during the game as they sat in the stands, and with Castres qualified for the play-offs at the very least, Kockott may yet get his finale.

They won the game 28-12, benefitting from a penalty try given on the stroke of half-time that left the visitors furious, with Bautista Delguy adjudged to have batted the ball out deliberately.

It was a little rich to complain though: even if that decision was harsh on Delguy, the decision not to award a penalty try when yellow carding Perpignan flanker Seilala Lam for not retreating 10 metres at a tap penalty moments before was farcical.

That put Castres 21-12 in the lead, and they eased to victory from there. Montpellier. Bordeaux and Castres face Clermont, Perpignan and Pau away respectively on the final weekend. Montpellier have 73 points, the others have 72. Whichever pair does the best out of the three has another week off and a home semi-final, third place will have a home play-off – for Montpellier the motivation has a little extra spice, as every home game at the moment is potentially the last for club legend Fulgence Ouedraogo, also retiring at the end of the season.

La Rochelle moved fourth and need only a bonus point at Lyon to ensure a play-off place of some sort, although a win would make it a home play-off; lest we forget however, while Lyon have some R’n’R over the next couple of days, La Rochelle will be crashing into Leinster. A nondescript 32-13 win over Stade Francais was at least reasonable preparation for that.

The other team in the play-off places is Toulouse, who beat Brive 26-8 but with the game now subject to an official complaint from the hosts after Toulouse mistakenly played with 15 men for 14 seconds near the end of a game which they quite clearly had extremely good control of.

They had that control despite being down to 14 men since the 17th minute after Charlie Faumuina was sent off for some ugly rucking. But eight minutes from the end, a momentary lapse from all concerned on the sidelines saw three subs come on and only two players come off. For 14 seconds. Then the error was corrected.

But Brive love a good bit of drama, and have filed an official complaint with the league, asking for the match to be replayed. There is precedent: the same thing happened in 2020 in a match between Nice and Narbonne, but that match was significantly tighter and the error made lasted longer.

French referee boss Franck Maciello was as dismissive as he could politely be when asked about Brive’s request being successful: “There’s a lot of hustle and bustle for not much,” he said.

“The decision belongs to the LNR, via its Disciplinary Committee. It will meet this week. But the applicable regulation is that of the FFR and it says that if the incident did not change the score, the error will be recognized but the score will be validated.”

So Toulouse will stay very much in play-off contention and with a match to come against the comedy show that is Biarritz, are pretty much home and hosed into the play-offs. Brive are not yet technically safe from relegation; if they lose to Stade Francais and Perpignan can upset Bordeaux, Brive would be in the relegation playoff with a Pro D2 team instead of Perpignan.

Clermont have, after a regulation win against Biarritz, a purely mathematical chance of making the play-offs: they have to beat table-toppers Montpellier and hope Toulouse lose at home to Biarritz. Stranger things have happened though – just ask Brive.