With the midway point of the Top 14 season gone, the race for the Bouclier de Brennus is hotting up. Five points separate Montpellier in first and Castres in fourth, while there is only three between fifth-placed Toulon and Pau in ninth.
But who stood out in the latest rounds to impress former Toulon, Newcastle and England back Tom May?
Ryan Lamb (La Rochelle)
The way he plays the game fits perfectly into La Rochelle’s open system as he will run from anywhere. He played 20 minutes against Bordeaux in round 13 and it was one of his trademark passes that allowed his side to score in the corner. Lamb then started at 10 the following week and helped smash Agen to pieces. The home side scored seven tries with their fly-half converting six of them.
His performances saw him start at Oyonnax last weekend and he was again on form, kicking four conversions and a penalty. What works so well, though, is his ability to take the ball to line for others to run into holes [Pierre Aguillon’s score against Agen, one example) or pull off accurate wide passes meaning the likes of Jérémy Sinzelle have the space to run in scores. There’s no doubt he’s enjoying French rugby and Patrice Collazo has a key ingredient for the game he wants to play.
Joe El-Abd (Oyonnax)
I normally try and stick to looking at players in this roundup but El-Abd is one guy who needs a mention as he has been part of a coaching team that has been doing fantastically of late. El-Abd has been working alongside Christophe Urios since they were both at Oyonnax together. Having had coaching as his goal from early on, the influence these coaches are having on Castres at the moment is great to see.
In round 14 Castres travelled to Top 14 heavyweights Clermont. Normally you would expect Les Jaunards to win in convincing fashion. Clearly they are having a tough time at the moment but El-Abd’s side recorded an outstanding 31-27 win keeping them in the hunt at the top of the league. With an away trip to Agen last weekend, there is no doubt he would have been pushing his team for a bonus-point win which could have seen Castres hit top spot had other results going their way. Incredibly their run was ended in dramatic fashion though as the wheels came off, losing 30-3 — perhaps they had one eye on this weekend’s Champions Cup.
Ben Botica (Oyonnax)
Life is tough right now in the eastern town of Oyonnax. Consistently they have struggled against the big sides and they find themselves being slowly cut adrift at the bottom of the table. If they are to avoid automatic relegation this season, Botica will have to be the man to save them. In round 13 they lost 49-25 at the Stade Mayol to Toulon, but led 18-19 going in at half time. He kicked two conversions, two penalties and dotted down himself in the first half. His line break also set up Daniel Ikpefan in the corner for the visitors.
Botica kicked four penalties as his side narrowly lost to Racing in round 14, ending up with an important defensive bonus point. Before that game he topped the scoring charts but, should the worst happen, it would be pretty likely that one of the the bigger sides would come and rescue him. You would have thought that against one of those teams near the top, La Rochelle, Oyonnax would have been put to the sword but Botica was again instrumental in providing painful opposition for the visitors. He kicked three conversions and four penalties and had a hand in two of the tries the hosts scored. Sensational performances week in, week out bearing in mind what Oyonnax are faced with.
Alby Mathewson (Toulon)
Mathewson has been on the road with his rugby of late, having spent some time with Bristol during last season. He now finds himself on the south coast of France plying his trade with Toulon as a medical joker. It’s amazing how may players used as such turn in massive performances and find themselves part of the permanent squad [Fritz Lee at Clermont is a prime example]. He’s commanding in the scrum-half position and over the past couple of weeks has been bossing his forwards around the field to good effect. No matter the experience Toulon have up front, this seems to work well for them.
In round 13 against Oyonnax, Mathewson was once again on the scoresheet with a try from a scintillating break 40 metres out from the line. Oyonnax were painfully slow getting into defensive positions at the breakdown and Mathewson was gone, showing great pace to burn a path to the line, stepping the covering winger in the process. He’s been on a good scoring streak with three tries in his last three outings in all competitions before last weekend and there is no doubt he is helping Toulon find some form. He again played well away in Brive but ultimately his side lost in horrific conditions. He nearly continued with his scoring form but fell no more than an inch short of the line, he’ll be looking to get back to it in the Champions Cup.
Chris Ashton (Toulon)
It’s becoming slightly annoying writing about Ashton all the time but it’s quite hard not to when he continues to perform in the way he has been. After round 13 he had made the most line breaks in the Top 14 with 22 notched up, as well as being top of the try scoring charts. He didn’t play against Toulouse in the last round but there is no doubt he will be back playing sooner rather than later.
What will perhaps concern Toulon is what Ashton said in the press last week. He said he would like to play again for his home town rugby league club Wigan Warriors in Super League. There is no doubt that Mourad Boudjellal will want to keep hold of his winger, especially if he keeps up this form.