TOP14 Review: Plenty still to play for as Spring break arrives

TOP14 Review: Plenty still to play for as Spring break arrives

James Harrington examines the state of play in French rugby’s Top 14, after the 20th round of the season.

Twenty rounds of the Top 14 season completed. Six to go, broken by the return of the Champions and Challenge Cup competitions. Domestic leagues go on hiatus now for two weeks to accommodate the round of 16 and the quarter-finals of the inter-league cup competitions. Then there are further breaks for the semi-finals and finals in May. 

Some clubs have a two-week break here; others may have a week off after next weekend’s cup ties; and a few will hope to run straight through to the return of the Top 14 on April 20.  

How clubs manage this stop-start period of the season will be nerdily interesting to watch. Stade Francais, for example, are out of the Champions Cup running, and have their plans in place to keep their players match-ready through the down periods they know are coming. 


France’s second-tier ProD2 last week produced eight tense matches in which the sides were separated by less than a score. Only two Top 14 meetings at the weekend were as close – Stade Francais’ 12-10 win at Montpellier, and Toulouse’s rather more exciting come-from-behind 31-29 win over Pau. But every scoreline mattered…

Here are all the results from round 20 of the season.

Match of the weekend

Toulouse v Pau. Sebastien Piqueronies’ side became the first this season to head home from Stade Ernest Wallon with a point for their efforts. And – but for Matthis Lebel’s 78th-minute try – they would have left with the winner’s four-point share of the spoils.

Emilien Gailleton and Theo Attisogbe both shone as Pau gave better than they got for a large portion of the match.

Toulouse host Racing 92 next weekend in the Champions Cup round of 16. Antoine Dupont admitted afterwards that they had half-an-eye on that match, as they conspired to make life hard for themselves en route to winning a thoroughly entertaining nine-try encounter against a Pau side that were very much up for the challenge.

Dupont, meanwhile, didn’t provide a definitive answer to the question doing the rounds in French rugby circles: whether he’s better at nine or 10, as he played both roles in a relatively muted match by his standards. On the other hand, Romain Ntamack, returning off the bench after eight months out with injury, proved that Dupont is a better nine when he’s at 10… 

Individual performance

Baptiste Serin. One week after his 50-odd minute return from injury, French rugby’s forgotten petit general issued a reminder of his talents with a masterclass at Estadio Aneota, as Toulon beat Bayonne 46-10 to push their top six challenge. 

What’s absolutely astonishing is that the 29-year-old Serin has never featured in a Top 14 play-off match. Nothing’s still guaranteed but the odds of him breaking that record are shortening rapidly. Toulon suddenly looked like they could be challengers again…


Clermont. Yes, Castres conceded seven tries between the 35th and 55th minute of what was a pretty definitively abject 43-12 loss at Perpignan. And Bayonne’s annual one-match relocation to San Sebastien may be good for ticket sales and the bank balance, but they’re not, so far, working on the pitch – they shipped 46 points in defeat to Toulon on Sunday night.

Clermont’s 26-10 loss at Racing seems almost pedestrian in comparison. Midi Olympique six-word description of Clermont’s performance pretty much summed it up: “general clumsiness, obvious fragility, crass helplessness”.  

The fact is, Clermont – with a strong squad at their disposal – wasted a prime opportunity at La Defense Arena. As manager Christophe Urios said: “Once again, the main feeling is frustration and disappointment. We dominated the match. We controlled everything in the first half, and it was more of the same in the second.”

Then, he explained why. “We leaked the first two tries too easily, but despite that, we dominated Racing. The problem is when you go behind the line three times and don’t score. It’s an area of the game that gives us problems.”

Scoring points – the literal goal of rugby – is a problem for Clermont. It’s why they’re down in 11th, level on points with Lyon, and just four points above the relegation play-off spot with six matches of the season remaining. 

The fact is they’re too easy to read. They’ve relied too heavily on Peceli Yato and George Moala for go-forward in attack, and a determined defence will stop even those two. 

Captain Baptiste Jauneau summed it up: “We dominated the match, but we attacked badly. It hurts to not pick up points, especially as we’re running out of time.”

This is the story of Clermont’s season. And it has to change. There’s little wonder fans are beyond frustrated. An open letter has called for changes from the top down, and questioned the management of not just Urios but also president Jean-Claude Pats.

Coaching call

As often as not coaching calls aren’t spectacular and aren’t made in the heat of the moment. While throwing on two up-and-coming players in teenage centre Simeli Daunivucu and 20-year-old backrow Oscar Jegou worked match-winning wonders for La Rochelle against Oyonnax, it’s impossible not to grudgingly admire how Stade Francais choked the life out of Montpellier to rack up their sixth Top 14 win on the road this season and their first at the GGL since 2008. That was a coaching call made on the training ground.

The 10-12 scoreline betrays a match that won’t go down in the annals, but it could easily be used as an object lesson in how to control a game. Because, and despite Laurent Labit’s call for more from his players in attack, it was a muted masterpiece with a scoreline that belies Stade’s dominance of … everything. 

Talking point

The return of Romain Ntamack. Some 231 days after he suffered an ACL injury in Saint-Etienne, Ntamack played 25 minutes against Pau on Saturday evening. 

And, the second time he touched a ball, towards the end of a close game that Toulouse were finding much harder than expected, he beat three defenders with a trademark break through the middle. We’ve missed that, in his absence. And it’s a joy to see that his knee appears to be in excellent nick.

Quote of the week

“It was very emotional … When I got to the stadium, I shed a few tears. To finish this match, was incredible. I know that tomorrow, a year from now, twenty years from now, I’ll talk about this match. I’m leaving this stadium with a lot of love and a lot of stories to tell.”

As Lebel said of his team-mate’s return: “It wasn’t bad, was it? He’s a great player. If there’s one thing he’ll never lose, it’s his nose for rugby.”

And opposition coach Piqueronies, who coached Ntamack with France under-20s in 2018 observed, said, a little ruefully: “I would have preferred it if Ugo (Mola) had chosen to keep him back a little longer and give him fewer minutes… 

“Seriously though, I was delighted to see Romain back on the pitch, and that was the first thing I said to him before the match.”

Juan Imhoff, after his final game for Racing 92 at La Defense Arena. The club will play their last two ‘home’ matches of the Top 14 season in Auxerre, while their usual venue first hosts singer Taylor Swift, and then is transformed to host the swimming competition at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.


It was a week in which nine of the 14 positions in the table changed hands. Only Stade Francais, Toulouse, Lyon, Montpellier and Oyonnax remained locked into their positions in the top two and bottom three places respectively.

The awesome majesty of maths is keeping bottom-of-the-table Oyonnax’s survival hopes alive. There are six matches left – a possible 30 points up for grabs. It’s not done yet, officially. But they haven’t won a Top 14 match since the turn of the year, and they’re not going to win all of their last six. 

Meanwhile, Stade Francais – fresh from their sixth away win of the season, and with a two-week break in their calendar because of their earlier failure in the Champions Cup – and Toulouse look to have the automatic semi-final spots sewn up.

The battleground is everywhere in between. Every position between third and 13th is pretty much undecided. Crucially, that means five of seven play-off places – including the unwanted relegation play-off spot – are still firmly in play.

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