06 June 2011
Toulouse edge Montpellier, bag 18th French rugby crown
By Chris Wright (AFP) – 1 day ago
PARIS — Toulouse scrapped their way to an 18th French league crown on Saturday, justifying by a whisker their favourites' tag to edge underdogs Montpellier 15-10 at the Stade de France in the Top 14 final.
Eschewing the flair both sides had shown in making the trophy match, Saturday's showdown was a cagey affair as Toulouse, despite dominating, had to battle back from a seven-point deficit and survive some wayward kicking from veteran David Skrela before emerging with a deserved victory.
To get so far Montpellier, who only finished sixth in the regular season, had nipped Castres 18-17 in the play-off, then edged much-vaunted Racing-Metro 26-25 in the semi-finals, while Toulouse breezed past outgoing champions Clermont in their last-four game.
On paper Toulouse should have walked it, having finished the regular campaign top of the heap while coach Guy Noves was experiencing his 11th final.
That record made them overwhelming favourites to land another crown against a side whose only previous silverware comprised a second division crown in 2003 and a European Shield a year later.
But it was only in the final quarter when Toulouse finally made their overall superiority count as Nicolas Bezy swept over a pair of late penalties as Montpellier buckled under the pressure of defending a wafer-thin lead.
"You have to make your superiority count," said Noves, who admitted he thought it might not prove to be his day.
"When David was missing his kicks I said to myself 'it's just not possible' - it was complicated. I thought at one stage it might slip away," a relieved Noves told French television.
"Finally we made our domination count," he added.
The win marks the end of an era for Toulouse with Clermont-bound Skrela only one of a raft of aging players in the out-tray.
But despite his less than stellar finale he saluted a "magnificent season."
"We dominated almost the whole match. This is a special feeling - I've experienced some great moments with this club," he acknowledged.
Seven others will leave the red and black this summer - including Byron Kelleher and Frederic Michalak - as Toulouse, whose incoming reinforcements include New Zealand centre Luke McAlister and Australia scrum-half Luke Burgess, turn a page.
Joint Montpellier coaches Fabien Galthie and Eric Bechu have transformed their fortunes from potential relegation candidates to true title contenders - but in the end Toulouse were too good, as Galthie admitted.
"In the end we had difficulty keeping the ball and directing the game. Well done Toulouse, they were better than us," Galthie said.
But Saturday saw a blank scoreboard for an opening 25 minutes which Toulouse dominated in terms of possession only for their rivals to make the breakthrough.
France outside half Francois Trinh-Duc found Timoci Nagusa and the Fijian wing promptly seized his chance, kicking forward, retrieving and sprinting through, his deft footwork seeing him elude a clutch of defenders to touch down under the posts.
By contrast, compatriot Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who notched two tries in the semi-final win over outgoing champions Clermont, was seeing little opportunity to shine.
Argentinian Martin Bustos Moyano converted for 7-0.
Skrela came into the game with a lingering doubt over a knee problem and missed a trio of kicks before he at last got the four-time European champions off the mark just before the break when Georgian Mamuka Gorgodze was caught offside.
Yet that did not puncture Montpellier's self belief and barely 60 seconds after the restart Trinh-Duc restored the seven-point advantage with a drop goal as nonchalant as it was accurate.
Skrela again reduced the arrears for 6-10 seven minutes into the second period but his next two efforts sailed wide and his frustration was apparent.
But Montpellier kept on handing out chances and the 32-year-old gratefully accepted the next gift, trimming the deficit to a single point with 14 minutes left in boosting his ratio to a mediocre three out of eight.
Skrela then took his leave of the proceedings with youngster Bezy coming on.
And with ten minutes left Toulouse finally took the lead their overall dominance warranted, Bezy thumping over after a flagrant foul by Gorgodze.
Montpellier were losing their discipline and scrum half Benoit Puillaughe was yellow-carded as he conceded yet another penalty which Bezy gratefully despatched to settle the outcome.