Harrington column: Top 14 clubs pay respects to France icon ‘Domi’

France’s rugby world shifted on its axis last Tuesday afternoon as news broke that Christophe Dominici had died, aged 48.

The national team honoured the 65-cap international winger before and during Saturday night’s Autumn Nations Cup match against Italy at the Stade de France. They wore his name, ‘Domi’ on their sleeves with pride, and remembered him with a minute’s silence before the anthems in an empty Stade de France, while a massive banner in his image reminded the players in the ground and the fans at home just who they were missing.

It was, at the same time, everything that he deserved and less. He really should have had a full stadium to remember, first in silence and then in full voice.

The Top 14 and ProD2 have also remembered him at their matches this weekend – with a minute’s applause and a tribute video – the pain of his loss most keenly felt at his hometown club, Toulon, where he played for four seasons, and at Stade Francais, where his legend was created between 1997 and 2008.

It’s undeniable Dominici imprinted himself on rugby’s collective memory. That 1999 Rugby World Cup semi-final, as a Dominici-inspired France… well, Franced their way back from 24-10 down midway through the second half against the mighty All Blacks to win 43-31 was the highlight of that tournament.

The blistering try he scored, first glueing New Zealand’s much bigger defenders to the pitch before racing away to score; the try his break made for Christophe Lamaison, when he had the wherewithal to offload out of the tackle.

It was a performance for the ages, from the man and his colleagues, and an indelible marker of that tournament.

In the World Cup pantheon, for meaning it’s way behind Nelson Mandela handing the Webb Ellis Trophy to Francois Pienaar in 1995 or Siya Kolisi lifting the trophy in 2019, but it ranks alongside Jonah Lomu’s four tries against England, Jonny Wilkinson’s drop-goal to win it all in 2003, and – a personal one because I lived in Ireland at the time – Gordon Hamilton’s lead-taking try for Ireland in the 1991 quarter-final against Australia at Lansdowne Road. And the three minutes of quivering nervous excitement that followed, almost physically shaking the country… before the inevitable heartbreak as Michael Lynagh went over at the death.

It has not been a good week for French rugby. Former international hooker Marc Dal Maso, who was capped 33 times between 1988 and 2000, has taken an extended break from coaching at Top 14 side Brive for health reasons.

The forwards coach has been battling Parkinson’s for almost eight years, but he this week informed head coach Jeremy Davidson that he needed to ‘take leave to devote himself fully to his health’, the club said in a statement. It went on to say his condition had worsened in recent weeks, and in light of the current health situation he thought it best to take a step back from his role.

Brive’s statement concluded: “Like his career, Marc Dal Maso shows self-sacrifice and a courage that commands respect. He is a genuine example for all of us.” Never a truer word.

Then, on Saturday, it was announced that legend Roger Fite – who was capped twice in the second row for France in 1963 – had died, aged 82.

After more than a month of playing in front of empty seats and silent stands, however, there may finally be a glimmer of hope that crowds will soon return to Top 14 and ProD2 grounds.

On Thursday, Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu said that she hoped to be able to allow at least some fans back from December 15, the date that France is due – hospitalisations willing – to launch the second phase of its lockdown exit strategy.

As before, the number of fans allowed into grounds will, for the foreseeable future, be limited based on regional coronavirus levels. But it’s something for the fans to cling on to before any vaccines are rolled out. According to the government the first treatments for frontline workers and the most vulnerable could begin before the end of the year.

For the first time since the start of the season, a cancellation-free Top 14 and ProD2 programme kicked off this weekend with Castres v Clermont – two sides, both alike in games played but at different ends of the table – at Stade Pierre Fabre. It was a game the hosts would prefer to forget. They were 14-13 ahead at halftime, when they had a strong wind in their favour. But they failed to trouble the scoreboard in the second half, as the visitors ran in a bonus-point 14-40 win.

Elsewhere, a number of sides were happy to welcome back key players from French international duty, after Fabien Galthie, as per the FFR-LNR three-match-maximum deal released 20 players back to their clubs.

France captain Charles Ollivon and lock Romain Taofifenua were pressed straight back into club action as Toulon beat Pau 18-13 at Stade Mayol in a match that barely deserved the time it’s taken you to read this sentence.

Another returnee, Thomas Ramos, scored an exceptional solo try, starting a mazy run from his own 10m line as Toulouse fairly marmalised Agen 63-18, in Regis Sonnes’ first match in charge of the Top 14 basement club. Cheslin Kolbe had the last try-scoring word on his return from injury.

Not to be outdone, Ramos’ French colleagues Arthur Retiere and Gregory Alldritt scored for La Rochelle as they beat Brive 36-22 at Stade Marcel Deflandre. A solo score from Springbok full-back Dillyn Leyds will make the highlights reel – but the hosts will be disappointed not to have picked up an attacking bonus.

It was, however, much closer at Montpellier’s GGL Stadium, where Bordeaux came from behind to win 22-23, courtesy of a late score from Ben Lam, after another Bleu back on club duty, Mohammed Haouas, propped over to give the hosts a second-half lead. It’s a result that will do nothing for head coach Xavier Garbajosa’s job security.

The two Paris sides are in action this evening. Racing 92 welcome Bayonne to La Defense Arena and Lyon host Stade Francais.

JAMES HARRINGTON

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