After the first three rounds of the Top 14, Rugby World looks at why sticking with a regular starting XV is paying off for Grenoble
WHICH CLUB has enjoyed the best start to the Top 14? Toulon is the obvious answer. The reigning champions lead the pack on nine points having scored 12 tries in winning two of their first three games. Then again, nine of those tries did come in the 60-19 destruction of La Rochelle ten days ago, the visitors arriving on the Cote d’Azur with one eye on the home game against Toulouse seven days later. La Rochelle won that encounter handsomely, inflicting a 37-25 defeat on Toulouse who, like Toulon in their loss to Racing Métro, failed to pick up a point in round three of the championship.
There’s an argument for saying Grenoble have enjoyed the most satisfying start. They may lie eighth with seven points but no other club can boast three bonus points. They collected one on Saturday for the five tries they scored in the 37-23 win over visitors Bordeaux but more impressive were the points they picked up on the road against Clermont and Montpellier, particularly as this season bonus defensive points are awarded only to those sides finishing within five points of their opponents, not seven as in previous years.
No club had such a daunting start to the season as Grenoble so to lose 30-26 to Clermont and 20-17 to Montpellier – a match they should have won had it not been for a couple of late moments of indiscipline – is a sign of the life that head coach Bernard Jackman has breathed into the squad since taking the helm in the summer.
First there was a slew of canny signings, from Blues centre Jackson Willison to Sharks scrum-half Charl McLeod to Jonathan Wisniewski, the latter making the move from Racing Métro after being frozen out following the arrival of Jonathan Sexton. Jackman took his squad to Argentina in July for a fortnight to play two matches against the Pumas. There were a couple more warm-up games in early August so by the time the Top 14 began Jackman had a good idea of his strongest XV. And you know what? He’s stuck with it.
In an age of squad rotation, Grenoble have done something remarkable in their first three matches: they’ve fielded the same combinations at half-back (McLeod & Wisniewski), centre (Nigel Hunt & Willinson), back row (Rory Grice, Henry Vanderglas & Fabien Alexandre) and the lineout, hooker Arnaud Héguy throwing to locks Ben Hand and Hendrik Roodt.
The result was plain to see on Saturday when Grenoble produced arguably the all-round performance of the season against a Bordeaux side that had started the campaign with victories over Lyon and Racing. Significantly, Bordeaux arrived in Grenoble with a new half-back pairing and changes in the centre and back row.
Grenoble’s settled side gave them the edge in the set-piece with the pack producing the quick ball that allowed Wisniewski the freedom of the Stade des Alpes. The 29-year-old is a confidence player and for the first time in years he’s playing like a man who believes in himself, his team-mates and the game plan.
Contrast Grenoble’s consistency in selection with Toulouse, who scraped a narrow 20-19 home win over Oyonnax on the opening day of the Top 14 season, then beat Castres, before being run ragged in La Rochelle. As is his custom these days Toulouse coach Guy Noves blamed the players, labelling their display “intolerable”, but might his selection policy have something to do with Toulouse’s dishevelled performance? Noves has picked different combinations at centre/half-back/back-row/hooker and locks in every game so how can players be expected to develop the cohesion and understanding that underpins good sides?
Grenoble, on the other hand, are showing that on a rugby field familiarity breeds not contempt but contentment.