We are 12 rounds into the French domestic season and the table is beginning to take shape, with just a dozen points separating the top 10.
Former Toulon centre Tom May casts his eye over the most recent action to mark your card and let you know who has been pulling up trees in the Top 14.
Playing such a pivotal role for Oyonnax in a season where they have again found themselves at the bottom of the Top 14 is far from easy. His side are now three points adrift at the bottom but he has had an influence on every performance. In Round 11, Oyonnax continued their fine home form with a hard fought 32-32 draw against heavyweights Clermont. Botica’s attacking strengths ensure he creates chances for his teammates, they just need to take more of them.
He made two line breaks against Clermont which led directly to scores, finding holes which he exposed with his pace — he has loads of that too. The first break was finished in the corner by Quentin Etienne and the second scything run ended with him throwing a 20-metre pass out to Axel Muller. He nailed the conversion to make it 32-32 but shortly after missed with a drop goal to win it. In Round 12 his side travelled to the centre of France to take on Brive. Oyonnax ended up with a ‘bonus defensif’ as they lost 33-30 but again Botica kept his side on the move and nailed his kicks. They will need him to keep up this form if they are to have a chance to extend their stay in the top league.
Chris Ashton (again!)
In the last two rounds of the Top 14 Chris Ashton has put on Toulon’s No. 15 shirt and it gives his side an added attacking threat, alongside Semi Radradra on one wing and any number of class finishers — including JP Pietersen, who continues to score — on the other. Serious pace with any selections they make. He continued his crazy run of scoring over the last fortnight with another three. Round 11 saw Toulon lose away to Castres but Ashton got on the end of a great nudge through from Ma’a Nonu. A relatively easy score for him as he just showed all of the players around him a clear pair of heels in the race to dot the ball down.
The weekend just past saw Toulon back at home but against high-flying Lyon. Another two in the bag. He combined with his go-to support player, Radradra, who put Ashton in to score and then, bizarrely he scored after making two pick and go’s deep in the Lyon 22. The second saw him drag a defender over the line to score his 13th in the Top 14, making him the top scorer in the French top flight.
When La Rochelle play well ex-All Black No. 8 Vito normally plays well and that was certainly the case as his side beat Pau at home. He scored a sensational try, not so much due to his finish but more the pass from a spinning Rene Ranger. Moving in the opposite direction, Ranger offloaded around his back while under close attention from four defenders. One of the most ridiculous things you will ever see.
Vito was the architect of this victory, though. For two other La Rochelle scores he picked up from the base and fixed the defence, creating massive space for the players around him. He is truly class and his side destroyed Pau easily in round 11. He played well against Montpellier last weekend and was part of a fantastic 26-14 win. Should they continue in this form then La Rochelle will be right up there at the end of the season. There’s no doubt they’ll be looking forward to another chance at the Champions Cup too.
Only three standout performers this week to speak of, but there were some very notable performances. Tom Taylor and Colin Slade have been doing what they can at Pau, helping them win one of their last two games. Malakai Fekitoa is still a pain in the backside for the sides Toulon come up against and whoever he plays with [Nonu or Mathieu Bastareaud] are proving equally good performers. Nick Abendanon and Dave Strettle have had scoring fortnights and Alivereti Raka has again been in good form and very threatening.
Ranger’s arrival at La Rochelle has thrown the cat among the pigeons and I have no doubt he may well appear in this column very soon. Many of the top players will have a rest if the French clubs aren’t focused on Europe and I can’t wait to see some of the fixtures around Christmas — no doubt there will be some brilliant performances to write about in four weeks’ time.