The exhilating – frustrating – mediocre – brilliant first weekend of France’s Top 14

The Top 14 table after the opening round of matches. Image: LNR

Four home wins, two away victories and a draw, five yellow cards, one red, 22 tries – and two horses. The opening weekend of the 2021/22 Top 14 season in numbers fails to describe seven games that were, by turns, exhilarating, frustrating, mediocre, brilliant, fascinating, and enthralling.

Bordeaux boss Christophe Urios was, unsurprisingly, unimpressed with his side’s performance in defeat at newly promoted Biarritz – for whom ex-Quin Brett Herron contributed 17 points on his competitive debut.

The visitors looked a preseason outing shy of campaign-ready as they lost 27-15 at Parc des Sports Aguilera.

The result meant the Monday debrief at Bordeaux was always going to be a fly-on-the-waller – but it would have been much worse, had his players not found some late pride … or, possibly, terror … and scored two late tries.

The Basque side’s notice of intent was clear – and the 12 other Top 14 sides will have taken note – but head coach Matthew Clarkin will want his side to maintain concentration for the full 80. They won’t always be far enough ahead to ship 12 points in the closing minutes.

Perpignan, promoted as ProD2 champions at a canter, discovered life was a little more difficult back in the Top 14, losing 36-15 at Brive.

The hosts’ Enzo Herve scored 26 points – including the try, conversion, penalty, drop full-house – as the hosts finished the opening day at the head of the Top 14, having picked up the only try-scoring bonus of the round.

Be interesting to see if Perpignan will do better against Biarritz next weekend.

‘A hard-fought arm wrestle’ would be the polite way to describe Castres-Pau, which finished 16-12 in favour of the hosts. 

Missable would be more accurate. This was far from a thrilling affair and one more suited to a miserable January evening than a sun-soaked August afternoon, though both sides would take positives from it – not least fly-half Zack Henry, who scored all of Pau’s points on his competitive debut.

The losing bonus for Sebastien Piqueronies’ side was deserved – while opposite number Pierre-Henry Broncan will be pleased enough that Castres only conceded 10 penalties in the whole game. 

And there’s always the first Rory Kockott moment of the season to savour.

You’ll miss him when he retires at the end of the season.

There have been more bizarre pre-match events at Stade Francais than a bloke bringing in the match ball while standing on two horses – but you can find those yourself.

Fortunately, the game lived up to the equine hype. It was a breathless, error-strewn affair – finishing 21-36 to the visitors. 

Let’s be honest, backs with the talent of the ones wearing Racing’s shirts don’t need many second chances to make the most of their opponents’ mistakes. Watch out for Donovan Taofifenua’s try and Olivier Klemenczak’s touchdown in particular. They’re breathtaking.

Saturday opened with an Atlantic coast rivalry and ended with a Med one, as Toulon – missing no fewer than 20 senior players – entertained Montpellier at Stade Mayol in the fifth of seven matches at the weekend.

Anthony Belleau, on his return to competitive rugby after a knee injury kept him out for the bulk of last season, scored all 24 of Toulon’s points, as the hosts looked set to claim an opening-day victory. It would have been an important one, too, for a side that finished eighth last season and is hoping some big new recruits will bring the good times back to the Var.

But Toulon counted without former Bath backrow Zach Mercer. He’d been Mercer-standard decent throughout – but paid back at least some of his salary with a short-range after-the-hooter touchdown under the posts that gave young fly-half Louis Foursans the simplest of chances to level the scores with the last kick of the game. 

But there’s bad news for former France captain Guilhem Guirado – another to announce that this will be his last season as a player. He has suffered a shoulder injury that is expected to keep him out of action for four months. The final, Montpellier-phase of his career, which started with an serious injury in his opening game in 2019, is his most frustrating … and he was captain of France.

Former Munster out-half JJ Hanrahan’s competitive career at Clermont got off to a mixed start.

He needed treatment after being winded challenging for a high ball a matter of a few seconds after the match kicked off. Then he scored a try in the eighth minute of the game – but that was about as good as it got, as Lyon ran in three scores in reply to win 28-19, including this one

And this one

Then again, Clermont’s Morgan Parra, landed a 42nd consecutive kick at goal, taking him past former team-mate Brock James’ long-standing record

The opening weekend ended with a repeat of last season’s Top 14 and Champions Cup finals, as La Rochelle entertained Toulouse at a full and fervent Stade Marcel Deflandre.

It started at warp factor 10. It didn’t really let up from there – and turned, as the Champions Cup final did back in May, on a red card, this time for Will Skelton.

La Rochelle’s new head coach Ronan O’Gara was unimpressed with that decision from referee Jonathan Dufort – and, it would appear, a few others. He told reporters after the match that “the game was too big for the referee” and questioned why an internationally experienced ref wasn’t appointed for such a big game.

Even so, it took a spellbinding score from Romain Ntamack, nine minutes or so after Skelton’s departure, to finally swing the scoreboard in Toulouse’s favour.

What makes it even better – and what this clip doesn’t show – is Ntamack and centre Lucas Tauzin plotting away as the scrum that started it all was being set up. Either that, or they were deciding on where to stop for late-night scran on the way home…

The visitors ended up winning 16-20 – their 10th victory in 11 meetings over La Rochelle.

So that’s it. The first round of the 2021/22 Top 14 done and dusted. Here again, for what it’s worth, is the first league table of the new season. 

No wonder Brive president Simon Gillham has called for the title race to be halted…

My name is James Harrington. I’m a freelance sports journalist based in France, writing mostly about French club and international rugby. If, after reading this, you feel the urge to commission me for some match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

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