Saturday, May 17, 2014

Top 14: Americas Exports Semi Finals Wrap


The Top 14 underlined itself as the world's leading domestic professional competition as the Semi Final weekend saw two phenomenal crowds in attendance at the Stade Pietre Mouroy in Lille, a non-traditional rugby city. The strong attended matches were well disputed contests with the two winning sides needing to perform well to secure their place in the final. This year's final is to be a repeat of 2013 as Toulon will have an opportunity to win the Top 14 in a third consecutive finals appearance as it faces the current champions, Castres Olympique.  


Toulon 16-6 Racing Métro
Played on Friday evening the first Semi Final drew a crowd of 48,982. It was played at a time which coincided with the Rabo Direct Pro 12 Semi Final in Glasgow and the Aviva Premiership Semi Final in Northampton. In terms of attendances the fixture in France was vastly superior as crowds of 10,000 and 13,491 were at Scotstoun Stadium and Franklin's Gardens. Figures aside the two matches in the U.K were more memorable as both featured two teams putting everything into the match in an effort to reach the final and in doing so demonstrating a comparable level of ability on the day.

In Lille Racing Métro failed to fire as Toulon was instead the superior side for the majority of the match. The 2012 and 2013 beaten finalists led the match from start to finish with the soon to retire Jonny Wilkinson demonstrating what made him so famous in 2003. The former English international impressed with the boot in scoring eleven points. Ireland's Jonathan Sexton scored six for Racing Métro while the only try of the match was scored by Matt Giteau who, on form, is arguably the best Australian inside centre in the world.

Involved in the Semi Final were three Pumas. Captain Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe started in the back-row for Toulon and played seventy-three minutes. Juan Martín Hernández started at fullback for Racing Métro while Juan Imhoff played on the left wing. Both played the full 80 minutes. Also featuring was Italian tighthead prop Martín Castrogiovanni who is from Argentina but opted to represent Italy despite having been born and raised in South America. Castrogiovanni was a second half replacement. 

Castres 22-19 Montpellier
Toulon is to face Castres Olympique for a second consecutive final after the club from the small south-western French town of Castres defeated Montpellier for a third time this season. Castres has been winning matches without dominating this season, similar to what had took place in the 2012-2013 season. Montpellier, in constrast, performed better this season and went into the Semi Final rested after having avoided Les Barrage play-offs

The week in hand, like last season, saw Castres triumph. The win, though, was much more hard fought that the 2013 Semi Final against Clermont in Nantes. On that occasion Castres broke clear and held a second half lead with Clermont knocked out of the competition well before the final whistle. Against Montpellier in Lille it was vastly different as the teams were forced into over time after they were tied 19-19 at full time. 

Forced into overtime Castres won in unlikely fashion as the clubs Fijian replacement mid-fielder Seremaia Bai landed an opportunistic dropgoal in the first half of over time. Montpellier had an opportunity to draw level but turned down a kickable penalty to take a scrum which Castres won against the head. Similar to the Semi Final from the night before the game was very much a commercial success with 49,257 people in attendance. By way of comparison there were crowds of 18,246 for Leinster v Ulster and 9,961 for Saracens v Harlequins.

Quite remarkably in eliminating Montpellier Castres is now likely to face Toulon with an uncapped Argentine tighthead prop who only arrived in France in April. Ramiro Herrera started the match and played the full 80 minutes of regular time and fifteen minutes more before being substituted. Uruguayan veteran Rodrigo Capó Ortega also started for Castres and played the entire match in the second-row. None of Montpellier's three Pumas props featured. Juan Figallo missed the entire season after being injured against New Zealand in the Rugby Championship, Maximilano Bustos was injured against Perpignan in February and Nahuel Lobo last played against Grenoble in April. 

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