Top 14: Time for the end of season awards
They were 10 months with more than a fair share of highs, lows, talking points, controversies, brilliance and enthralling contests. Sadly, when it was supposed to be a crescendo rising to a climax it was, in fact, a season which concluded with two disappointing semi-finals and a tedious showpiece. Lessons to be learned there. But for those like me who live and breathe French rugby the good news is that the new season is now just 10 weeks away. Time to dish out the gongs …
Top Team … through gritted teeth, champions Toulouse. These days they inspire respect and admiration rather than love and affection – their 30-odd million budget, plus a guaranteed “home” semi-final, gave them such a leg up this season that they could afford to operate in a low gear for much of the season. They should have been beaten in the semi-final by Castres when reduced to 13 men for about eight minutes but the “visitors” froze when presented with their chance. Meanwhile, the Rouge et Noir were professional and ruthless – qualities they took to the final in Paris where a powerful scrum and the boot of Luke McAlister did the rest.
Sublime moment … Francois Trinh-Duc’s speed of thought and finesse of foot in Montpellier’s win against Stade Francais in January which set up the most spectacular try of the season. Following the fly-half’s deft 22-metre drop-out the ball travelled through several pairs of hands before landing in those of Martin Bustos Moyano who crossed the goal line. Stunning, brilliant, uniquely French … no superlative could do it justice
Leading player … Steffon Armitage. Cast into the international wilderness by short-sighted regulations, the former London Irish openside flanker produced magnificent display after magnificent display with virtually no hope of an England call-up.
Surprise package … I first saw 6ft 6in wing Romain Martial in action on his Castres debut in 2009. He was hopeless. The next time I saw him play was more than two years later in a weakened Castres side for the visit of Northampton. He was still looking for his first try. But on that December afternoon at the Stade Pierre Antoine he crossed the Saints’ try line twice. Ten tries followed in his next dozen Top 14 games and earned him a place on the France tour to Argentina. Who knows, he may even make his Test debut this month?
Coach of the season … Marc Delpoux of Bordeaux-Begles. Shocked by their elevation from Pro2 they went into the new season with a tiny budget and with no obvious recruitment strategy in place. Pundits were running a sweep on when they’d get relegated but, remarkably, they not only survived but finished 8th.
Top quote … Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal following defeat at Clermont in January: “I had my first refereeing sodomy in the (2010) semi-final against Clermont. I’ve just had my second tonight. It appeared to hurt the first time but it was just as bad this time. We will review the images not on Youtube but on YouPorn.”
Biggest flop … Rugby League convert Willie Mason whose move to Toulon was heralded with great fanfare. He played once in September but was never seen again.
Most underwhelming occasion … Saturday’s final. A cast list worthy of the London Palladium but a match that would have had them leaving their seats at the Pontefract Playhouse. Europe’s most affluent, star-studded league deserved better.
Underachievers … Clermont Auvergne went into their centenary season with their most powerful ever squad and a record at their Stade Marcel Michelin home which has most visitors chucking in the towel even before arrive. A domestic-European double had been a realistic ambition at the start of the season and odds shortened point-by-point on that all the way to half-time in their Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster. But a second half comeback by the European champions turned the tide in Bordeaux and worse was to come in the Top 14 semi in Toulouse when they fell to Toulon.
Transfer coup … the most anticipated summer arrival is Sona Taumalolo to Perpignan. The Tonga prop had just one start at the World Cup but has been ripping up trees for the high-flying Chiefs in the Super XV.
Greatest survivor … Racing Metro head coach Pierre Berbizier. The former scrum-half and France coach’s solution to his side’s failing fortunes in the first part of the season was to sack his sidekick Simon Mannix and later his marquee star player Sebastien Chabal. Then, in February, and when things hadn’t got any better, the players declared a revolt and demanded Berbizier’s head. And Pierre gave it to them … his brother Philippe’s head. The coach’s brother was the forwards coach. Going into the summer Pierre Berbizier remains in charge – his position apparently as solid as ever.
Unsung hero …When Didier Faugeron became Bayonne’s third head coach of the season in January they were favourites to join Lyon in relegation. Under Faugeron, the Ciel et Blanc won 5, lost 5 and drawn 1 and retained their status. With the Agen turncoats Christian Lanta and Christophe Deylaud already contracted for next season Faugeron departed on the final day with no job to go to.
Brian Clough award for short service … Jean-Pierre Elissalde’s reign as Bayonne coach was four days shorter than Brian Clough ‘s at Leeds. Elissalde was dismissed by club president and money man Alain Afflelou whose record reflects sublime skill in building up a chain of nationwide opticians but a rather ham-fisted one in stabilising a small town rugby club.
My thoughts are with … Eric Bechu. Fabien Galthie’s No.2 at Montpellier was a key figure in the club’s rise and rise in 2011 but has been missing virtually all this season because of ill-health. Bechu’s battles continue and following Mario Ledesma’s appointment as forwards coach Bechu’s move away from the frontline appears to have been made a permanent one.
ESPN rugby expert Martin Gillingham is the lead commentator for the broadcaster’s live coverage of the French rugby union championship, the Top 14. Visit espn.co.uk/tv for more informationTagged in: Rugby, rugby union, top 14
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