David Barnes reports on the opening weekend of the Top 14
“Cruden was behind most of the menace that helped Montpellier beat Agen, orchestrating perfectly through boot and hand a team happy to hand him the role of maestro”
Montpellier, under the new control of former Clermont and Scotland boss Vern Cotter, are generally considered to be the new hotshots of the Top 14.
And, although their opponents yesterday were promoted Agen, they did nothing to damage their image as serious contenders.
Especially as, among the expensive recruits assembled by ambitious president Mohed Altrad, appeared new fly-half Aaron Cruden, still around the peak of his All Black powers.
Cruden was behind most of the menace that helped Montpellier beat Agen 48-19, orchestrating perfectly through boot and hand a team happy to hand him the role of maestro.
It took him only ten minutes to bewilder Agen with an unexpected cross-kick that allowed giant Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo to plunder the opening try from 40 metres.
Cruden was then instrumental in creating the second first-half try for Aussie winger Joe Tomane with a quickly-taken penalty. The floodgates were open.
Agen, whose survival chances are increased by a Top 14 decision to relegate the bottom club only while giving the second bottom a play-off against the loser of the Division Two final, could scarcely have had a more formidable baptism.
In the end, they conceded seven tries, the others coming at regular intervals from full-back Benjamin Fall, No.8 Martin Devergie, centre Alexandre Dumoulin, sub hooker Romain Ruffenach and South African flanker Wiaan Liebenberg.
Agen, for their part, registered tries, one in the first half and two in the second, from Argentine hooker Facundo Bosch, centre Julien Heriteau and, bang on the whistle from Georgian Tamaz Mchedlidze, a sub centre.
Lyon were linked in this column last week by Clermont champion Nick Abendanon to Montpellier as the major threats to his title.
And, much strengthened by signings, they confirmed his forecast with a 25-16 win at Stade Francais after a promising series of pre-season friendlies.
Stade decided to start with Fijian centre Waisea Nayacalevu after sacking his compatriot Josiah Raisuqe, who faces trial on violence charges.
Waisea helped them to a 13-0 lead with an early try to give new boss Greg Cooper some hope of a successful takeover from Argentine Gonzalo Queseda.
Lyon, though, under the muchpraised control of Pierre Mignoni, showed why they could provide the same impact as little-fancied La Rochelle last season.
Centre Thibaud Regard and winger Alexis Palisson provided first-half tries before sub South African lock Albertus Buckle ensured the win.
Racing went ahead of Parisian rivals Stade with a pulsating 25-21 win over Castres, who must still be wondering how it happened.
Despite missing three kicks for goal early, Castres were still ahead 18-3 with Racing boss Laurent Travers fuming on the touchline. Two tries from winger Armand Battle, their new signing from Grenoble had them in a dominant position.
Racing, however, who reduced the gap by the break with a try from Kiwi winger Anthony Tuitavaka, hit back with more from Argentine flier Juan Imhoff and, three minutes from time, full-back Louis Dupichot.
Cheslin Kolbe has the electrifying pace to have won a bronze medal for South Africa in the last Olympic Sevens tournament.
He has wasted no time, either, in making a speedy impact on the Top 14 by scoring one try and making another on his debut for Toulouse.
A 23-23 draw on the synthetic turf of promoted Oyonnax may seem no big deal, but it represents an encouraging start for a team who finished last season in crisis one place above relegation.
Especially as they were without seven French internationals kept on the sidelines by a protective Federation. Kolbe, late of Stormers, looks destined for a prominent role in the desired ressurrection. He dashed 60 metres to allow young full-back Thomas Ramos to set up scrum-half Sebastien Bezy for their first try.
He was on hand, too, just four minutes from time to touch down for a deserved share of the points.
Ramos, top Division Two scorer while on loan to Colomiers last season, is sure to be of value, too. He kicked 13 points, as did Ben Botica, who also scored one of Oyonnax’s two tries.
Kiwi Botica, once of Harlequins, joined Oyonnax in January as a medical replacement from Montpellier.
His try gave his team a one-point lead. Captain Valentin Ursche, their Rumanian lock, had given Oyonnax a similar lead at the break to confirm his recovery from a back operation.
But the combination of Kolbe and Ramos, whose nerve held with a conversion from the touchline, secured the draw.
La Rochelle served notice that they would once again be dangerous contenders with a 19-10 victory at Brive, a usually formidable outfit at home.
Class act: Aaron Cruden masterminded Montpellier’s victory