By Gavin Mortimer
HERE’S A stat that will heap more misery on the heads of four clubs in the Top 14. In the nine years since the Top 16 shrank to the Top 14, any club ending the regular season on 49 points was safe from relegation. But not this season. With the final round of matches to be played on 3 May, after this weekend’s Heineken Cup action, any one of four clubs are in danger of joining Biarritz in the long and very costly drop to Pro2.
Perpignan, Oyonnax and Bayonne (13th, 12th and 11th) are all on 50 points, while even Grenoble on 53 points aren’t safe. Let’s take Grenoble first, who really only have themselves to blame for finding themselves in this predicament. On Saturday they hosted fellow strugglers Bayonne, a club whose only victory on the road this season came against Biarritz. With half an hour gone Grenoble were leading 13-0 and on course for the victory that would guarantee their survival. And then they switched off, allowing Marvin O’Connor to score two tries as Bayonne fought back in what ended a thrilling 21-21 draw.
All-square was how it also finished in Oyonnax as they held on for a deserved share of the spoils against Toulouse. Whereas Bustos Moyano kicked a penalty on 80 minutes to draw Bayonne level against Grenoble, so Lionel Beauxis missed a penalty with the final kick of the game that would have given Toulouse a 22-19 victory. Such are the fine lines being drawn in the Top 14 denouement.
The hard-fought points earned by Oyonnax and Bayonne were bad news for Perpignan. As many as 20,000 fans, most sporting the club’s sang et or (blood and gold) colours had poured into Barcelona’s Stade Olympique de Montjuïc to roar on their boys against Toulon, but the Catalan cacophony was helpless in the face of a dominant display from the Top 14 leaders. There was another powerhouse performances from Steffon Armitage but it was fly-half Frederic Michalak who ran the show, scoring 26 points in visitors’ all-too-easy 46-31 victory.
The crushing defeat leaves Perpignan staring relegation in the face, extraordinary given that only five years ago they beat Clermont to win the Top 14 title. Almost as extraordinary is their collapse in form in the second half of the season. Back in the early autumn they ran up four wins in five matches, including memorable victories over Montpellier and Toulouse. Then in November the wheels came off and Perpignan won only one of their next nine.
The upshot of that slump is that all that stands between Perpignan and the ignominy of the Pro2 is a trip to Clermont on Saturday week where 76 sides have tried and failed to win in the last four and a half years. Ironically, given their present plight, the side that last won at the Stade Michelin was Biarritz in November 2009.
Clermont will field a full-strength XV against Perpignan after their defeat to the Racing on Saturday dropped them to third in the table. A victory against the Catalans, coupled with defeat for Montpellier against Racing Métro, would see Clermont finish in the top two and qualify automatically for the semi-final on 16 May.
The best Perpignan can realistically hope for is a defensive bonus point, but that still wouldn’t be enough if Oyonnax achieve something similar away at Brive and Bayonne get at least a point from their home clash against Castres.
So Perpignan, who have been ever-present in the top flight of French rugby since 1911, are on the brink of relegation. One wonders how long it will take in Pro2 for the Blood and Golds to staunch the bleeding.