Six matches decided by less than a converted try; four late come-from-behind wins; a promoted side 25-14 up after 44 minutes against one of the pre-season favourites for the title; and not one but two new rugby heroes to admire.
It wasn’t a bad first weekend of the new Top 14 season.
And here’s the table after the first of 26 rounds of the regular season.
There were some pretty decent tries, too…
Young Benmegal gives Racing a late, late getout
“He got us out of trouble.” That was the verdict of Henry Chavancy, after his 350th appearance for Racing, on 19-year-old Enzo Benmegal’s match-winning performance in just the second start of his career.
The teenage winger made two of Racing’s three tries at La Defense Arena, as they came from behind to beat last season’s losing finalists Castres Olympique 25-19.
Benmegal set up Ibrahim Diallo for the first shortly before the half-hour, then started the move that ended with Olivier Klemenczak going over in the corner for the match-winning score three minutes from time.
In between, prop Cedate Gomes Sa practised his try-scoring moves. Needs work, perhaps.
Laurent Travers, too, was full of praise for the youngster with Teddy Thomas-sized scoring boots to fill. “He has incredible acceleration, he knows how to play rugby,” Racing’s next president said.
“At his age, when you get a chance, he knows it, you have to seize it because you don’t get three. You have to take it – and then do it again.”
Castres head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan regretted heading back to southwest France with nothing to show for his side’s efforts. They had a chance to head home with what would have been a deserved losing bonus point, but opted for a shot at glory – and a first win in 14 attempts at Racing – rather than the posts.
But, he added: “On the performance, the intensity, it would not have been a scandal if we had won this match.”
He’s not wrong.
Stade rookie Parra wins … and loses
Thirty-three-year-old Stade Francais rookie Morgan Parra guided his new-look club to a 24-18 opening-day win over his former club – before leaving the pitch 12 minutes from time with a knee ligament injury that will keep him out of action for up to six weeks.
But it was a close-run thing. “If you have heart problems, you should not come to Jean-Bouin,” captain Paul Gabrillagues admitted afterwards.
When the clock ticked past the 80, Clermont’s pack won a penalty in Stade’s 22. A kick to touch later, they were less than 5m from a win at Stade Jean Bouin. But young scrum-half Kevin Viallard fumbled the ball, and was engulfed by Sekou Macalou, who won the turnover, to the delight of the 11,000 or so crowd.
The win won’t hide from defence coach Paul Gustard the scale of the task still ahead of him.
As Gabrillagues admitted: “Discipline … played tricks on us last season and it could have cost us dearly, today … If we don’t correct these mistakes, we won’t progress.”
Bayonne shock Toulon into action
According to Toulon’s South African backrow Cornell Du Preez, the club’s new sporting director Pierre Mignoni told the players at halftime in their opening day match against Bayonne at Stade Mayol to “keep their heads up, stay calm, and not be negative”.
That’s, no doubt, an entirely truthful comment. How honest it was is another question. There were, arguably, greater volumes in Du Preez’s preceding words – “At halftime, Pierre spoke.”
Bet he did.
At the time, Toulon were 18-14 down. Within four minutes of the restart, they were 25-14 down.
Four minutes after that, Toulon’s season started. Du Preez, Teddy Baubigny, Charles Ollivon and Gervais Cordon scored tries in a 15-minute blitz that blew away Bayonne hopes of an awayday shock.
No one is about to pretend that second-half turnaround erases a poor first half performance that was greeted by jeers from the Felix Mayol crowd as the players headed back to the changing rooms at halftime.
Captain Ollivon said: “We knew it would be hard. We showed character and solidity. We have defensive mistakes to correct, but a lot of positives to come out.”
Joseph saves Pau
Jordan Joseph opted for another season on loan at Pau – under the watchful eye of his former international under-20s coach Sebastien Piqueronies – rather than return to Racing 92 in July.
And he proved just how invaluable he is to this young Pau side that’s being moulded in its head coach’s image as they came back to win 16-14 at home against Perpignan. Joseph came on as a replacement early in the second half of a match short on highlights, and bullied his way through three defenders six minutes from time to give the hosts a sniff of a win they scarcely deserved.
Pau were still behind – as they had been since the 49th minute. But a Zack Henry penalty after 78 minutes took them into the lead.
“We wanted to be very disciplined … we were not able to do it,” Piqueronies admitted. “It’s up to us to be much cooler and more precise … Our ambitions, our goals, are absolutely not at that level.”
Four points, though. He’ll take that.
Lyon kick of Garba era with win on road
After seven years of Pierre Mignoni ended with Challenge Cup success, the Xavier Garbajosa era at Lyon kicked off with a 31-27 win on the road at Brive.
Garbajosa, returning to management after his first head coach job ended in January 2021, described his new club’s start as, “a satisfaction”.
“The players were keen to start the season well,” he said. “I knew they were ready.”
He admitted there was still plenty for his side to work on, but added: “It’s only the first day – you don’t have to draw plans on the comet but it’s a satisfaction to start like this.”
It was the very model of a first game of the season. Lyon were more powerful in the scrum, but struggled in touch. The game was played at a feverish pace, but broken by handling errors.
Joel Kpoku’s 52nd-minute interception try pretty much sealed the deal, allowing Lyon to snap clear in a match that neither side could, until then, get hold of. It was entirely appropriate this kind of score should prove so decisive.
Even then, there was still time for the two sides to share three more tries – Brive’s after-the-hooter bonus point-winning penalty try reward for unstinting effort more than cohesion and gameplan.
Advantage European champions
La Rochelle’s new fly-half Antoine Hastoy nailed five out of six at goal, kicked cleverly out of hand, delivered a try-scoring pass, saved what would have been a 50:22, and caused Montpellier problems all evening.
It was, by any metric, a decent first day at the office for the former Pau 10, sweetened by the 26-22 final score in the home side’s favour.
“Antoine did well,” backs coach Sebastien Boboul said. “It will give him confidence.”
First-time Top 14 champions Montpellier suffered the fate of their five predecessors in losing their first game back after a shortened pre-season.
But La Rochelle needed a late comeback to take the points – a penalty try two minutes from time with the visitors down to 14 after prop Mohamed Hoauas took a yellow for the team following repeated infringements at a 5m scrum.
It was the second time Montpellier had been reduced to 14 – and the second time it had cost them. Dillyn Leyds scored five minutes after Montpellier lock Bastien Chalureau was sin-binned for one offside too many.
Defence coach Alexandre Ruiz, a former referee, won’t have been impressed.
The visitors also experimented with right-footed new arrival Louis Carbonel at 10, and left-footed Paolo Garbisi at 12. With Anthony Bouthier also coming into the line, they were able to mix and match their positions on a whim.
The one downside – a certain defensive frailty that straight-running Jonathan Danty exploited joyfully…
Toulouse rain on Tambwe parade
It seems as sure as Jalibert follows Ntamack that new Bordeaux winger Madosh Tambwe is going to enjoy the Top 14.
The former Bulls player needed just 27 minutes to become a local hero with his first try at Chaban Delmas – against Toulouse – and another seven to cement his reputation with his second.
He touched down a third time early in the second half – but his hat-trick score was ruled out for an earlier knock-on. Cue rueful smile.
And the turnaround. Bordeaux were 22-9 ahead at the time. Tambwe’s hypothetical hat-trick score, if converted – and it was under the posts – would have made it 29-9.
As it was, the hosts scored just three more points, while Toulouse scored 15 in the closing 24 minutes to snatch the game 26-25. They were aided and abetted by some uncharacteristic nerves from replacement Mathieu Jalibert, who missed two late penalties, and scrum-half Maxime Lucu, who missed one.
With France team manager Raphael Ibanez watching from the stands, Jalibert – who has made no secret of the fact he covets Ntamack’s 10 international 10 shirt – failed to score a point after coming on for Zack Holmes in the 51st minute.
The Toulouse fly-half, by contrast, scored the try that got them back into the game, before new signing Melvyn Jaminet ended the scoring with a difficult 45m penalty from out wide.
Christophe Urios said afterwards: “Losing is cruel. Today with a not easy preparation we were able to come out with a high level match. I retain the positive, the pride of having made a great match”
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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