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Top 14 column: Second coming of Jules Plisson is down to TLC of O’Gara

Jules Plisson

It’s astonishing what careful and empathetic player management can do. Jules Plisson – remember him? – returned to the club where it all started on Saturday evening. The club he’d given 14 of his 28 years to. Where, for an all-too-brief period, everything looked so bright – and which had turned into something of a personal hell.

The former French international fly-half left Stade Francais in November for La Rochelle. It wasn’t enough for him that the club’s former head coach, Heyneke Meyer, who had no time for the Frenchman’s mercurial talents and confidence issues, had left a week earlier, jumping before he would be pushed.

Plisson needed a change and Meyer’s departure was not change enough. He was at Stade for nine Top 14 weeks this season. In that time, he managed 94 on-pitch minutes – one start in four appearances – all but frozen out as Meyer almost religiously handed the playmaking reins to Nicolas Sanchez, Joris Segonds, or Morne Steyn.

At La Rochelle, given the freedom and trust of Ronan O’Gara, a coach who knows a thing or two about fly-halves, Plisson has been reborn. He was this week named Top 14 player of the month for January, has already been honoured with rugby newspaper Midi Olympique’s player of the week ‘Oscar’ and he picked up the maximum three-star rating in the bi-weekly on several occasions.

The prodigal son was at the heart of a lot of what La Rochelle did well, until he was sin-binned in the 79th minute for a high hit on opposite number Nicolas Sanchez, with the score at 16-20 in the visitors’ favour. It proved decisive. Nearly five minutes after the 80, following scrum after reset scrum, Stade’s fly-half made the most of the extra space in the Rochelais’ defence to dart over and give the hosts the win by a single point. It was a result that moved the Parisians provisionally off the foot of the table. 

Earlier, the second-versus-first clash between Bordeaux and Lyon kicked off the Top 14’s latest block of three matches. As you’d expect from the two best attacks and two best defences in the league, this was a full-throated affair in front of a full-house at Stade Chaban-Delmas, and closer than the final score suggested.

In the end, most of the crowd celebrated at the final whistle  as Bordeaux picked up a bonus-point 37-19 win, courtesy of tries from big dogs Tamanivalu, Cordero and a brace from Radradra, to overtake their opponents at the top of the table. France coach Fabien Galthie, however, will be concerned over international call-up Lyon scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud, who left the pitch early in the opening period after vomiting. Maxime Lucu impressed off the bench.

Nemani Nadolo scored a hat-trick for Montpellier, but visitors Bayonne would not go quietly into the night at the GGL. The sides shared eight tries in a pulsating game that ended 31-29.

A late, late try from Alivereti Raka gave Clermont the bulk of the  points and consigned Pau to their sixth defeat in a row. But the 20-23 final score meant the hosts picked up a losing bonus that moved them a point clear of 12th-placed Castres Olympique.

It is all but impossible for Toulon to stay out of the rugby headlines in France though they tried their best in the Six Nations’ break. They got so close, too. All was relatively quiet on the Stade Mayol front until Wednesday, when the club announced the previous day marked the end of an era as Bernard Lemaitre formally succeeded Mourad Boudjellal as president.

The switch has been on the cards since Lemaitre first invested in Toulon in 2018.

Boudjellal’s big-spending after he took control of the club in 2006 quickly catapulted Toulon out of the ProD2 and into the upper echelons of the Top 14. A ProD2 championship in 2008, a Top 14 crown in 2014 and three European titles (2013, 2014, 2015) is a pretty decent return in 13 years.

The club were French championship finalists in 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017, and Challenge Cup runners up in 2010 and 2012.

But the trophy cabinet has been bare since 2015. However, after several false coaching starts, including a fairly miserable season under France saviour Fabien Galthie, it looks like Toulon finally have their man in Patrice Collazo who is rebuilding the squad from the inside.

Eben Etzebeth scored his second try for Toulon – his first came with his first touch in his new club’s colours after the World Cup – as they brushed a dogged yet outgunned Brive aside 34-17 to move, briefly, ahead of La Rochelle and Racing 92 in the table.

Racing 92 will entertain Toulouse in the match of the weekend this afternoon.

Both sides are shorn of many of their Six Nations stars, but have plenty of talent in reserve – Racing, in particular, with a rested Finn Russell likely to be in action.

Toulouse, without Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos and Antoine Dupont, who are with France, and Zack Holmes, who is suspended, will start with Cheslin Kolbe at 10.

In the boardroom, Racing’s billionaire owner Jacky Lorenzetti has outlined a long-term plan to step back from day-to-day running of the club. His likely successor? Current sporting director Laurent Travers. Don’t expect change to come quickly, however. As Lorenzetti told Midi Olympique this week, “There’s no precise deadline but it’s much more than a hypothesis”

At the relegation end of the Top 14 table, yesterday’s other game, in which 13th host 12th, is of crucial interest beyond the semi-romantic return of Castres’ coaching duo Mauricio Reggiardo and Stephane Prosper to their old stomping grounds.

The pressure – mounting after Bayonne, in 10th, and 11th-placed Pau picked up crucial points yesterday – is on the 2018 champions to pull away from the foot of the table, and fast.

Club president Pierre-Yves Revol recently admitted Castres are now in survival mode. What this means for the Challenge Cup quarter final at Leicester in April depends heavily on results in the Top 14 between now and then.

JAMES HARRINGTON

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