Two weeks and as many matches into a 10-month, 26-to-29-game, Top 14 campaign is way too early to even be thinking of hitting the ‘operation maintien’ panic button. But at least two top-six hopefuls who are currently in the table’s lower reachers have urgent issues to address quickly if they’re to avoid a problem season.
A total 35 tries were scored in this weekend’s seven games – Toulouse led the way, with six – while there was one red and 12 yellow cards. And a number of clubs welcomed back returning France internationals, with varying degrees of success.
Stade Francais have now shipped 73 points in just two games and lagged a long way behind a Mathieu Jalibert-inspired Bordeaux at Stade Chaban-Delmas on Saturday evening.
The final 37-10, four-tries-to-one, scoreline could have been much worse for the visitors if Bordeaux had entered try-scoring mode in the opening half rather than waiting until the 53rd minute to cross the whitewash.
Jalibert’s ever-threatening gamebreaking skill was a timely reminder to Fabien Galthie and anyone else watching that, not-so very long ago, he was heir apparent to the French 10 shirt ahead of Romain Ntamack.
As well as the brilliance, he did the basics, too, notching 14 points with the boot – and was, unsurprisingly, heralded as Midi Olympique’s Top 14 player of the week.
As for Stade, the optimism prompted by last season’s late surge to the play-off has evaporated in the harsh light of a new campaign. Backs coach Julien Arias admitted: “We will go back to Paris with a big dose of humility.
“Our work in attack was very poor: we lost the ball after two or three phases and against a good team like that, we paid in cash. We (the staff) are very worried, the players too.”
Meanwhile, Clermont’s own defensive woes are mounting. They have conceded 62 points in their opening two outings, and lost 30-34 at home to Castres on Saturday afternoon.
The hosts’ problems weren’t evident when Tani Vili came into the starting XV as a late replacement for Wesley Fofana. And they definitely weren’t evident when he scored the game’s opening try after eight minutes.
After that early success, however, Clermont found it increasingly difficult to match their opponents’ physicality at the breakdown. They should have gone in 20-11 ahead at the breakdown, after JJ Hanrahan scored his second try in as many games for the club – but conceded an avoidable penalty that the visitors took seven-point advantage of.
It was the first of two occasions that Castres’ players successfully ignored pitchside instruction. Pierre-Henry Broncan had called for a three-pointer that would have taken them to within six points rather than two.
They did it again, much later, opting for a tap penalty rather than David Darricarreres’ preferred scrum option. It worked, too, with Kevin Kornath bursting over for what would turn out to be the decisive score.
Afterwards, Clermont coach Jono Gibbes said his side had ‘no excuses’ after a second defeat, and first at home, under his stewardship. “After these 80 minutes, one team was able to manage the key moments and the other is asking questions,” he said. “Against La Rochelle, next week, it will be a challenge. But it’s the perfect challenge for this group – there is no more choice.”
Who could have predicted that Gibbes’ early-season reunion with his old club, La Rochelle, next Saturday evening would be a 12th v 13th battle at Marcel Michelin? But that’s how it has worked out, after Ronan O’Gara’s side lost 23-10 at Racing 92.
Like Clermont and Stade Francais, La Rochelle have zero wins from two games – but they have hard the more difficult opening matches – at home to Toulouse and then at O’Gara’s old club Racing.
Not that it will be any consolation to O’Gara, who has now lost three times at La Defense Arena since joining La Rochelle. What would be more galling to him is that the KBA merchants once again failed to break down a determined and organised defence.
It’s almost as if Racing saw how Toulouse did it in the Top 14 final and copied the idea to let La Rochelle exhaust themselves pounding into a wall that failed to breach. It didn’t help that they were easily controlled in the lineout, confused in the scrum, slowed down in the rucks and clumsy when running the ball.
Nor were out-half Ihaia West’s two missed penalties welcome. No wonder La Rochelle are reportedly in the market for a fly-half with proven goalkicking credentials.
On the few occasions Racing bothered to get hold of the ball, they were dangerous. They took an early lead through Virimi Vakatawa’s 11th-minute try.
They later took it beyond the visitors’ reach courtesy of a penalty try after a moment of wonder from Vakatawa’s midfield partner Gael Fickou. Frankly, it was all too easy.
La Rochelle’s Michelin mission against former colleague Gibbes should make for interesting viewing.
After a promising, threatening start, Toulon, the fourth Top 14 side to have played two games without winning one of them, were scarcely in the hunt at Toulouse.
Gifting the defending champions two intercept tries is nearly guaranteed to end in defeat, and so it proved as the reigning champions ripped the heart out of their opponents’ young matchday squad to win 41-10.
It was a final score that, frankly, flattered Toulon who could have scored the game’s opening try in the first few minutes, but who finally made it into their hosts in-goal area after the final hooter.
It could have been even worse – but it seems someone was able to sneakily replace the Toulouse squad’s resin with Fry Light spray. That, or the use of a washing-liquid soaked matchball, is the only thing that could explain some of the spills made by the hosts’ otherwise rampant side.
Afterwards, Sergio Parisse – who retires at the end of the season – pointed out the youthfulness of Toulon’s squad. “I’m not going to tell you that when we have a full squad we will be stronger. I don’t like to say that. But it’s a fact: we played with young people. In some positions … we were perhaps not at the same level, it must be said,” he admitted. “But we should have done better. This match will be very useful for young players.”
Next week Toulon meet another winless side, Stade Francais, in a second unexpected battle of the bottom places.
Pau were not the only side to welcome a France international back into the fold – but while the likes of Castres’ Gaetan Barlot and Wilfrid Hounkpatin made an impact, and Anthony Jelonch a positive impression on his debut for Toulouse – none of them made the matchwinning mark of Pau’s Antoine Hastoy.
He scored all of his side’s points in a 21-17 win over Lyon at Stade du Hameau and was a bustling, busy danger throughout. There’s a reason so many Top 14 rivals are watching Hastoy with great interest.
It’s a defeat the visitors will rue, even if it’s one that, ultimately, they may not live to regret. Pau were a player down for nearly an hour after Lekima Tagitagivalu was sent off for a dangerous tackle – but a profligate Lyon were unable to make their numerical advantage count.
Hence head coach Pierre Mignoni’s obvious frustration. “In games like that, you have to be patient, work together and blow your opponents away physically,” Mignoni continued. But our power didn’t take over, we didn’t blow them away at all. That’s what disappoints me the most.”
Worse, Lyon were 11-9 ahead at halftime. But when they slipped behind, they became reckless in trying to regain the lead and gave Pau too many easy defensive options.
Montpellier followed up their hard-won draw at Toulon last weekend with an entertaining 39-17 win over Brive – a match that featured eight of the round’s total number of tries.
Truth be told, however, Montpellier really should have picked up a try-scoring bonus. Centre Thomas Darmon summed it up: “Last season, I think we didn’t put 40 points on a team. We wanted to show that it would be difficult to come and win with us, and we succeeded.
“We are more confident this season, we play a serious game, we respect the fundamentals … We have to continue like this, but work, because there are things to improve.”
Next weekend, Montpellier entertain Toulouse in a first major challenge to their new mental fortitude.
Perpignan came out on top against Biarritz in an early meeting of the Top 14’s two promoted sides – and thus avoided the nightmare of their last top-flight campaign when they had to wait until after Christmas for their first win.
In Melvyn Jaminet and Tristan Tedder it seems they have found a playmaking and point-scoring partnership to worry more than a few sides. They were certainly in match-winning mode on Saturday afternoon, for all that Perpignan were aided and abetted by some oddly reckless Biarritz defending – at one point the visitors were down to 13 players.
The France fullback, playing his first-ever Top 14 game, converted all three of Perpignan’s tries, and added a trio of penalties, while Tedder scored a five-pointer of his own as well as a drop goal.
There’s a long way to go to the end of the season, yet, and a great deal of rugby between here and now and there and then. Both promoted sides could yet find themselves at the relegation end of the table at the business end of the season – but, today, both are in the middle of the peloton, not that far off the head of the race.
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