Top 14 Week Two Review: Lyon’s lost hour, 22-and-on for Castres, Clermont wing it

Crucial scores in the dying minutes decided three matches on the opening weekend of the Top 14 season – in this second weekend, three matches were decided before halftime.

Two sides didn’t even have to score a point in the second half to win their matches.

Here are the results of the second weekend’s matches.

This is the table after two rounds, with Toulouse top, Brive hitting third, and Bordeaux, of all sides, languishing in 13th – one of two sides yet to record a win this season.

And, here are the five best tries from the French top-flight.

Lyon’s costly lost hour

It took Lyon 57 minutes to register their first points, a converted try for Davit Niniashvili, in front of their fans in their first home match of the season. 

Visitors La Rochelle responded with seven points of their own inside five minutes. The score was 20-7. Eight minutes from the end, Antoine Hastoy kicked a penalty to make it 23-7. And that should have been it. The Champions Cup holders had the day over their Challenge Cup-winning rivals.

Then Josiah Maraku happened. The centre joined Lyon from Narbonne in the summer amid little fanfare – but his made one, scored one in the last five minutes of a messy match pulled the final score to 21-23, and rescued a scarcely deserved bonus point.

“We were out of the game for 70 minutes,” Lyon head coach Xavier Garbajosa admitted. “The bonus point is the most we could have hoped for.”

Opposite number Ronan O’Gara, meanwhile, had a veiled warning for future rivals: “We didn’t always make the right choices in attack or the score would have been heavier,” he said.

And La Rochelle fullback Brice Dulin said the last few minutes were unnecessarily nervy: “We have to be able to kill the matches and not let the opponents come back. Those last 10 minutes left us with a bitter taste.”

22 and counting

They were 30-10 ahead at halftime, courtesy of tries from Geoffrey Palis, Adrea Cocagi and Vilimoni Botitu. Though they lost the second half 10-0, the result was never even close to being in doubt. 

Castres’ unbeaten Top 14 run at home, dating back to December 2020 now extends to 22 matches. It’s still a long way off Clermont’s 77 games in all competitions – but it’s still pretty impressive.

Rarely has a relatively lacklustre second half appeared more calm. As the hosts’ backs coach David Darricarrere said: “Stade Français would not have stolen the defensive bonus.”

The result left Stade scratching for positives. Romain Briatte’s post-match comment  “We could have shipped 50 … but in the end we were not far from taking a point”, was the best straw they had. 

But head coach Gonzalo Quesada found something – a ‘learning’ perhaps: “When Castres made mistakes, they showed that they are a mature team that accepts weak times. That’s all we have left to do.”

Life after Vakatawa

Racing 92 kicked off their post-Virimi Vakatawa era with a 31-25 loss at promoted Bayonne – but revealed a new star in the process before they got round to unveiling Christian Wade has joined the club until the end of the season.

Their new hero is 18-year-old Enzo Benmegal, who – a week after creating two tries in the win over Castres, prompting high praise from veteran club captain Henry Chavancy – ran in the first of what look set to be many scores of his own.

But, at the other end of the playing age-range, 32-year-old Gaetan Germain was the point of difference between the two sides, converting two of three Bayonne tries and adding four penalties, as the home fans celebrated the return of top-flight rugby to Jean Dauger.

“We knew that this first match was very important to give a positive image and show that it will not be so easy to come to Bayonne,” hooker Facundo Bosch said. 

Bayonne have successfully done that. No team will underestimate them at home, now – especially with Fiji Sevens World Cup-winner Kaminieli Rasaku arriving soon to team up with the remarkable Sireli Maqala – who was player of the match on Saturday.

Papali’i breaks Perpignan

Brive ended a 51-year bust with a 17-6 win at Perpignan – their first success at Aime-Giral since 1971.

That may be a fact that excites only deep-stat rugby historians, while the rest of us raise a vaguely impressed eyebrow, then promptly forget it.

But, it’s probably the biggest win of the weekend – one that has the potential to reverberate through to the far end of the season, Led from the back of the pack by former Connacht player, Abraham Papali’i – who beat five defenders, flattened 14 more and carried 15 times on a busy and effective day at the office.

Ignore Brive’s current early season-inflated position in the league. Both sides are favourites to be involved in the relegation dogfight 20 rounds from now. This result could be the difference between survival and the drop.

“I hope it clicks,” Brive head coach Jeremy Davidson said. “We were all very disappointed to have lost at home to begin with. Now, we have six points. It removes a little bitterness from the defeat against Lyon. The guys provided the response they needed by being disciplined and aggressive in defence.”

Clermont wing it

Two tries from Alivereti Raka and one from Damian Penaud – and another from backrow Arthur Iturria – set Clermont on the road to a bonus-point win over Pau in their first outing of the season, the day the fans bade an emotional farewell to Wesley Fofana.

But a penalty try after the hooter denied them a try-scoring bonus, with the scores finishing 33-24, and the try-count four-two.

It was, then, an ultimately frustrating afternoon at Marcel Michelin: “The big regret is obviously this fifth point that we have in our hands a few seconds from the final whistle, and that we are unable to keep,” scrum-half Sebastien Bezy said.

But there were also improvements to recognise. Clermont were better at the breakdown, and in transition. After Stade Francais and Pau, their next fortnight features matches against Toulon and La Rochelle. That upward trajectory in key areas could prove important.

Carbonel-Garbisi should scare you

Italian fly-half Paolo Garbisi has started this season playing at inside centre, on the shoulder of Louis Carbonel. The thinking is clear. Two playmakers, one right-footed, one left-footed, equals multiple attack options and confusion for the defence.

Two games in, it’s working pretty well. Montpellier ran La Rochelle all the way at Marcel Deflandre in week one, then closing out their first home match of the season 29-19 to consign Bordeaux to their second defeat in a row.

“We both feel very good,” Carbonel told reporters after a match that had started with a first-half rout. “We alternate a lot because we communicate well. We said to ourselves that the first in position called the play. It is harder to read for the cover of the opposing field.”

Opposite number and rival for the understudy role to Romain Ntamack, Mathieu Jalibert had another difficult night, in which Bordeaux were, in the words of manager Christophe Urios, “ beaten on speed, movement, commitment, aggressiveness – we were always late, we couldn’t hold the ball”.

But he insisted the player just needed to find his rhythm, like the rest of the squad. “Matthieu is like the team, he needs to regain his confidence, he’s one of the important players in our team, don’t try to talk bullshit about him, it’s useless.”

Nine minutes of Dupont

Richie McCaw, in an interview published in Monday’s Midi Olympique, revealed an unsurprising opinion – he would “love to see Antoine Dupont play for Crusaders”. Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t like to see Dupont play for [insert your team of choice here].

“He is one of those players who can decide and dictate a game on their own,” he added, unecessarily. 

Actions speak louder than words. It took Dupont from the 18th minute to the 27th to put Sunday’s game at home to Toulon beyond doubt – making decisive contributions to the tries of Matthis Lebel, Dmitri Delibes and Emmanuel Meafou, as the score raced from 3-3 to 20-3.

A try apiece in the second half took the final score to 28-8 – a bonus-point win at Ernest Wallon for the hosts, and a reality check for the visitors.

“We let Toulouse live their rugby, we fed them with our mistakes,” Toulon’s Franck Azema admitted, with Gallic poeticism, afterwards. “We had to hold the ball and we were not in place enough to do so.”

Perfectionist that he is, Dupont won’t be happy with every facet of his performance, despite ensuring Toulouse maintained their perfect first-Top-14-home-match-of- the-season winning record.

With Jalibert struggling again, France coach Fabien Galthie will have watched nervously as Romain Ntamack left the field with an injury less than half-and-hour in. But the early news is reassuring – a minor sprain means he will be absent for about a month and should be available for France’s November internationals against Australia, South Africa and Japan.

The news is less good about another French international, Francois Cros, who suffered ‘a recurrence’ of knee ligament damage three minutes after coming on to the pitch for the first time since picking up the injury at the end of last season.

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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