Top 14 Review: And then there were none

Four rounds into the 2022/23 Top 14 season and every team has lost at least once.

La Rochelle were the last to fall, defeated by a masterclass in tactical defence at Clermont on Sunday night.

This is quite unusual. Only once in the past seven seasons – and only four times since the creation of the Top 14 in 2005 – have all clubs been beaten in the opening four matches of the campaign. 

Here, then, are the results from the fourth weekend of matches in France’s Top 14.

And here are the five best tries from the weekend.

In-demand Tedder kicks Perpignan to a season’s first

There should have been a rainbow over Stade Aime Giral at the end of Perpignan’s 19-13 win over Toulon. Not just because it was their first win of the season. Not just because the win came on the day of the Catalan club’s 120th anniversary, and not just because the match started in torrential rain.

A rainbow may have hinted at other good news. Perpignan have won just seven games to date in 2022 – and every single one of those wins has come with a starting halfback partnership of Tom Ecochard and Tristan Tedder.

Tedder kicked 14 of Perpignan’s 19 points on Saturday afternoon, which will have had interested clubs sitting up and taking notice. More importantly, for a player better known for his attacking flair, he managed a game in difficult conditions with tremendous skill. 

The South African’s current deal ends in July and word is Tedder – who has market-enhancing JIFF status – is being courted by a number of clubs. Perpignan are, unsurprisingly, as keen to keep their man and started talks about a new deal recently.

Next up for Tedder and Perpignan – another must-win match against Castres.

The best of Lyon, the worst of Lyon

“When I saw the quality of our first 20 minutes, I said to myself, “Wow, here we go, maybe this is the right day!” Xavier Garbajosa said after watching his side beat Stade Francais 33-27 at Stade Gerland.

“Except a game doesn’t last 20 minutes, but four times as long…” 

This was very much Dr Lyon and Mr Lou. When they were good, as they were in the opening 20 minutes, Lyon were very, very good. That was when they scored two converted tries and two penalties to Stade’s solitary three-pointer.

When they were bad, they conceded penalties. Twenty in total. And that didn’t impress the boss: “we went from 10 penalties to 20, that’s how good a job we did this week … Either we are an average club and we can be happy with the victory, or we are ambitious and we can’t be satisfied with that. Our indiscipline is a work in progress and we need to become more aware of it because it’s serious.”

And that’s the paradox at the heart of Lyon. They can be brilliant in one moment, then let their opposition back in the next by failing to even do the basics. As Garbajosa said, it’s a work in progress. For the staff as well as the players.

Bordeaux in three-four time

It’s still too early to cry crisis, even if Bordeaux have slipped to a third loss in four matches this season and sit second from bottom.

But their latest defeat – a 20-15 reverse at a Camille Lopez-inspired, pack-driven Bayonne in front of a sold-out and partying Stade Jean Dauger – may be the moment to start whispering it quietly, as long as no one’s listening.

Christophe Urios’s side are at home to Stade Francais next weekend – then face Lyon, Racing, Clermont, Toulon and Pau before the international break. It’s not impossible they could have just two or three wins to their name by the last Saturday of November.

Post-match comments don’t exactly inspire confidence. “We can only blame ourselves, we failed completely,” Matthieu Jalibert told Canal Plus straight after the match. 

“If we had wanted to lose the match, we could not have done better,” boss Urios added.

Bayonne have now beaten Racing and Bordeaux – but are at Brive next weekend, for a match that could have a huge bearing on the end-of-season table. 

Lopez, for one, expects a tough battle. “Brive are playing for survival like us. This game is important. It would be an opportunity to pay off the regrets of Stade Français – we’re going to do something. But be careful because Brive is used to fighting to stay up.”

Champion weekend for champions

A bonus-point 43-17 win over Pau, including some players making their first appearances of the season. Second in the table with three wins in four, the club featuring French rugby’s player of the year Zach Mercer, revelation of the year Leo Coly, and coaching set-up of the year – it’s all looking pretty rosy for Montpellier ahead of next Sunday’s match against top-of-the-table Toulouse. 

Certainly, Philippe Saint-Andre was more than happy with the six-try performance of his squad, which featured nine changes from the previous weekend’s win at Brive, and included players making their first Top 14 appearances of the season, such as try-scorer Masivesi Dakuwaqa and Marco Tauleigne.

But, he insisted there was room for further improvement. “I was a little upset at half-time,” he admitted, “because we led 17-3 … but then  we fell-off in intensity, we made mistakes, we missed tackles and they scored a try. 

“I told the players to maintain intensity in the second half and they did it with a high quality 40 minutes. We had a great match in the end. It was a tricky meeting on paper but it allowed us to validate this good start to the season.”

Castres win in the rain

Castres extended their unbeaten Top 14 run at home to 23 matches with a12-6 over Brive, the last side to beat them on their own turf in the French league back in December 2020. 

That stat might linger in the memory. The match won’t – nor should it – but neither side were helped by a second-half played out in diluvian conditions as an autumn storm dropped an awful lot of water on the town.

Castres were expecting difficult conditions. “In truth, we thought it was going to rain from the start of the match,” backrow Baptiste Delaporte said afterwards. “In the rain, the plan was clear: we had to keep them under pressure by putting kicks over their heads and tightening the game around the number nine.

The hosts did have – and wasted – at least two try-scoring chances with sloppy handling against a Brive side that offered rather more in defence than attack – something of a reversal compared to the rest of their season so far. 

They also cut their penalty count, conceding just eight penalties all match, compared to 12 in 40 minutes last weekend. Which pleased head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan, as did the points. 

Losing scrum-half Jeremy Fernandez for several months to knee ligament damage won’t impress him quite so much. He did suggest last season – only half-jokingly – that, if necessary, Rory Kockott might be persuaded to come out of retirement to save the club having to search for a medical joker.

We’ll have to see how serious he was.

Ange glory shone around

Ange Capuozzo has settled in so quickly and so well at Toulouse that it’s easy to forget he only moved from ProD2 side Grenoble in the summer, and had never played a Top 14 match until two weeks ago.

On his first start at Ernest Wallon on Saturday evening, the stats say, he made 151 metres with ball in hand, beat seven defenders and scored a try as Toulouse made light work of seeing off a much-changed Racing 92 37-10. The stats don’t say he had a smile on his face so wide the top of his head fell off. 

“I recognise myself in the intentions of the game advocated here,” Capuozzo recently told L’Equipe. “I’m not talking about madness, because it’s not about doing just anything, but about the little freedoms given to us at certain moments that brings so much pleasure.

“This is the kind of rugby that I enjoy.”

Capuozzo, at his spiritual home, enjoyed a night to remember in a match in which Toulouse laid down a gauntlet. Racing – who were much better than their last away match at Bayonne – didn’t pick it up on the pitch, but Laurent Travers did – a couple of days before a long-expected announcement confirming his impending move upstairs at the club and the arrival of Stuart Lancaster from Leinster.

“[This loss] shows us what separates us from Toulouse. They had strong periods and they scored, and we had strong periods and we didn’t. That’s it,” he said.

“Pragmatism, realism and success. I hope some of our young players will use this game for the future. Toulouse were more efficient and better than us.”

Plisson seals Iturria’s deal

The immediate post-match headlines after Clermont beat La Rochelle 22-13 were all about ex-La Rochelle player Jules Plisson and his game-deciding trio of nerveless penalty kicks in the closing eight minutes to win the last match of the weekend and ensure the visitors.

With good reason. It’s an instant tale of struggle and redemption that writes like butter. And Plisson’s post-match comments fanned the flames of the tale. “I think the people of La Rochelle understand what I went through last year,” he told Canal Rugby Club in the moments after the match, his first start of the season, ended. 

Then, in the post-match press conference, he fired another broadside. “When you have a guy waiting for you to miss and who destroys you all day long, you are inevitably less confident. But when you have a guy who is behind you, who pushes you to perform and give your best, it’s easier. I think that’s what I managed to find at Clermont.”

Plisson’s nine points in eight minutes, as La Rochelle, who have never won in 21 attempts at Stade Marcel Michelin – lost discipline trying to win a game they had fought their way back into, were decisive, his accuracy unwavering, despite the pressure. But he will be among those to admit this was Arthur Iturria’s match, as Clermont feasted on crumbs, leading 13-3 at one point, before Yoann Tanga’s 60th-minute try dragged the visitors back into the game.

The captain led from the front from first minute to last in a fussily refereed stop-start match that took five minutes shy of two hours to complete. He scored the opening try, stole lineouts, tackled anything in black-and-yellow that moved, and was the link between forwards and backs all night. There have been few more complete backrow performances even on a night of near-perfect gameplan execution.

No wonder coach Jono Gibbes was pleased: “It’s a performance with 100% commitment, heart, solidarity and spirit,” he said. “That’s our rugby, at Clermont: heart on the field, the public in the stands, and together we were able to beat the European champions.”

Let’s finish with the table… 

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