The Off Load: Rupert Cox's best and worst from the last week in the world of rugby
Last Updated: 23/02/15 4:43pm
Rupert Cox shares his highlights from the week's rugby action in his round-up blog.
Snakes and Ladders
The Top 14 battle to avoid relegation or win a place in the 'Barrage' is a massive game of Serpents et Échelles – that’s Snakes and Ladders to you, matey. As games are won and lost, vulnerable clubs drop in and out of the two-team drop zone or leap into the play-off places. With the top six clubs qualifying for the play-offs, the difference between a shot at the title and life in the second division is turning on a roll of the dice.
La Rochelle started the weekend in 13th place but hauled themselves out of the last two with a win against Brive. Some of the finishing at the Marcel Deflandre was French farce - our studio guest and former Toulouse champion Gareth Thomas needed oxygen administered after one laughing fit - but the home side did enough to grab the four points needed to leap out of the danger zone.
That win for La Rochelle meant Bayonne slipped into the bottom two, but the Basques pulled off a big result at home against high flying Stade Français, outscoring the Parisians 23-6, and importantly bagging a bonus point for scoring three clear tries. Having been in the mire just 80 minutes of rugby earlier, Bayonne jumped up to 10th, four points clear of relegation.
Lyon, without a win on the road all season, gave Toulouse a fright at the Ernest Wallon, but failed once again to end that record and a losing bonus point wasn't enough to prevent a slide into the relegation slipstream. Former England pivot Toby Flood, now settling in well at his new home, scored a second try in as many games for Toulouse.
The biggest losers in Round 18 were last season’s beaten finalists Castres, while Oyonnax - who have just signed All Black scrum half Piri Weepu for next season - increasingly look like holding onto Top 14 status for another campaign. Oyonnax’s 20-18 home win moved them up to eighth place, just four points away from the Barrage places. Castres, on the other hand, are in deep, deep trouble – the 2013 champions are now five points away from safety and rooted to the bottom of the table.
Bordeaux-Begles staged a fantastic comeback to beat the champions Toulon in front of a huge crowd at the Chaban Delmas. Toulon looked on course for a fourth away win of the season, racing to a 20-9 lead, but a spirited retaliation, helped by a properly daft piece of play from Delon Armitage, allowed Raphael Ibanez's side to stay in the top six with a 28-23 win.
Meanwhile, Clermont drew with Racing Métro in Paris, which was enough for Les Jaunards to reclaim top spot.
The awful weather and the state of the grounds at this time of year means little of our Northern Hemisphere rugby is what you'd call easy on the eye. Games are often forward-dominated affairs, decided by penalties; which was exactly the case at Scotstoun Stadium where Glasgow achieved a narrow win against the Ospreys. Peter Horne held his nerve to kick the Warriors to victory in the 75th minute, and get them four points clear at the top of the table. The Six Nations break looks like a heavy burden for Steve Tandy and the ‘Spreys – after a great start to the season the Welshmen have fallen to fifth!
Ulster are the big upward movers, back up to second spot after beating Edinburgh away from home. Munster drop to third on points difference while Leinster held off Zebre at the RDS to move back into fourth spot.
Hurricane hits Super Rugby
New Hurricanes coaches Chris Boyd and John Plumtree must have rolled their eyes when the new season’s Super Rugby fixture list landed. For the second year running the Canes have had to start their campaign with a road trip to South Africa followed by a stopover in Perth – not a kind draw. But the Canes have stormed through the brutal schedule with two straight wins in the Republic, both on the Highveld against the Lions and the Bulls. The last time they did that was in 2006 when they ended up going all the way to the famous 'Fog Final' against the Crusaders. It's early days, and I hold no bias, but GO YOU MIGHTY CANES!
The Chiefs also went two-from-two after knocking over the Brumbies at New Plymouth, and the Stormers took control of the South African conference after beating the Blues in Cape Town. Blues lock Hayden Triggs copped an early red card, and despite a brave fight from the remaining 14, that was pretty much that. Two early contenders for try of the season: make sure you catch a clip of the Dillyn Leyds try – a solo special from a rising Stormer star. And a sweeping move that was finished off by new Blue Jimmy Cowan – which proved to be in vain.
It really is all Blue in Cardiff. A big defeat to Italian side Treviso, and Cardiff’s head coach Mark Hammett is back off to New Zealand with the season barely six months old. Word is that the man they call 'Hammer' was unpopular at the club due to his overly authoritarian approach. Well, duh, fellas – this is the guy who sent All Blacks Ma'a Nonu and Andrew Hore packing the day he turned up to coach the Hurricanes… and we all know how that ended up. The Cardiff Blues knew who they were getting, and they got him. Now he’s gone, and Cardiff are left the last placed non-Italian side in the competition.
The Queensland Reds. Talk about taking lemons and making lemonade: the injury-ravaged Reds had suffered a record defeat to the Brumbies in the opening round, and were the subject of the worst sort of headlines a few days later when news broke that star recruit Karmichael Hunt was under investigation by police for an alleged involvement in a drug dealing scandal. Then moments before their match against the Force kicked off, another big name signing, James O'Connor, failed a late fitness test. Such a sequence of events might well have completely derailed the Reds, but they hung tough and clawed out a win against the Western Force. The quality of their performance was far from accomplished, but their strength in adversity was impressive indeed. That’s the spirit.