In a masterful performance brimming with courage and commitment, the Ciel et Blanc have created history in Barcelona, not only winning the TOP 14 final against Toulon (29-21), to claim a first championship title since 1990, but doing so with one man short for more than an hour.
Memories for the rest of their lives. In the build-up to this historic TOP 14 final, all through the week the Ciel et Blanc coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers hammered home the theme: “Just do it, so that in twenty years, thirty years you will still remember this night.” Well, Dimitri Szarzewski and his men did more than that on Friday night in Barcelona, winning the French Championship final (29-21) one man short in a performance that will remain forever inscribed in the history of French rugby. Not to say rugby full-stop.
Accordingly, it is worth betting that each one of the 99 124 spectators present at Camp Nou Stadium - setting a new rugby world record for a club game – will also keep an undying memory of a game which, in a temple dedicated to Soccer, merely exalted the qualities of the game of Rugby Football.
Because, on a hot Catalan summer’s night, in the biggest stadium in Europe, the Racingmen were more than worthy of the magnificent setting of Camp Nou, home to the famous Barca Soccer Club and its demi-god Lionel Messi. Showing an unbelievable spirit of self-sacrifice and boundless courage against the battle-hardened Toulonnais, Jacky Lorenzetti’s men quite simply obtained the first letters of nobility in the professional era for this 130 year-old club. “It was a true team performance,” puffed Dan Carter minutes after the final whistle. “It’s for occasions like these that we play the game,” added the former All Black, who scored 15 points with the boot, and won the man of the match award. “We showed incredible resilience and great team spirit, we never gave up. It’s simply immense!”
With a nod in the direction of their forebears, notably the notorious “Show-Bizz” and their pranks in the years 1987-1990, before kick-off the Racingmen had run on to the pitch still wearing their blazers. But despite this concession to whimsy during the pre-game protocol, once the game kicked off there was no lack of hard-headed resolve from the Franciliens, who even gave their prestigious rivals an object lesson in the art of contesting the ball at the breakdown. Apart from the numerous individual feats, which were many, the towering achievement of the Ciel et Blanc in this final was their collective effort, preventing Toulon from scoring a single point from the 29th to the 70th minute, while simultaneously piling on 20 unanswered points between the 33rd and 58th minutes of play.
Nevertheless, it was Toulon who took charge early in the game, opening the scoring in the second minute with a penalty to Leigh Halfpenny. The first turning point of the game, but not necessarily in the sense one could expect, came after only 17 minutes, when Racing scrum-half Maxime Machenaud was red-carded for a dangerous tackle on Matt Giteau. This was a harsh decision by the referee, as Machenaud was at worst reckless, but showed no intention to harm the Aussie fly-half. But after repeated playing of the video, M. Raynal reached for the red card, awarding the penalty to Toulon and sending Machenaud permanently from the field.
That could have signalled the end for the Ciel et Blanc. But refusing to accept their fate, they closed ranks, changed their game plan and put their faith in their indomitable heart and spirit. On the air-waves of Radio RTL, the commentators recalled how, only two weeks ago Ireland had beaten South Africa (20-26) for the first time in South Africa, despite being down to 14 men for 57 minutes. While on the pitch, skipper Dimitri Szarzewski recalled the painful memory of last year’s game against Stade Français at Colombes when the Parisians won (19-28) despite losing their talisman Sergio Parisse for most of the match. “We remembered how we had been beaten when we were 15 against 14, and how that year Stade Français had gone on to be champions. So we thought : ‘They managed to pull it off, so why can’t we?’, recounted Szarzewski in the jubilant atmosphere of the locker room. We stayed solid, we stuck together right till the end, and it is just magnificent!”
In the minutes following Machenaud’s red card, however, the game’s fate seemed to swing clearly in favour of Toulon as the Ciel et Blanc conceded two penalties under pressure, both kicked by Halfpenny (18’, 23’) then a try to Gorgodze after Toulon had created space on the outside with disconcerting ease. Toulon lead 6-14, but a colossal goal from Johan Goosen, from 47 metres out near the touchline, then another from Carter just before the half-time whistle enabled the Racingmen to narrow the gap to 12-14 at the break.
“At half-time, we just repeated the message: don’t over commit to the rucks, always contest the ball on the ground, look at what’s in front of you, and keep scanning the opposition defence alignment,” confided Szarzewski. “Otherwise, I just told the guys to keep believing, keep believing till the final whistle guys! Because if we really want it, we are capable of pulling it off. And if we do it in these circumstances, the joy will be only the greater. And we did it!”
Galvanised into action, exalted by the challenge before them, the Racingmen attacked the second half without the slightest inferiority complex. Well organized and ferocious in defence, they continued to pressure Toulon into making mistakes, Goosen kicking two more long-range goals from 43 metres in front (48’), and 42 metres near the left hand touch (51’). An air of stupor suddenly swept through the packed stadium : despite being one man short the Ciel et Blanc had their tails up and were now leading 18-14 while Toulon struggled to get a grip on the game. Things seemed to tip even further in Racing’s favour only minutes later when Toulon lost their captain Guilhem Guirado to injury (56’).
Carter slotted another goal (21-14, 58’), until suddenly, like a thunderbolt in the star-studded Barcelona sky, Joe Rokocoko produced a piece of magic to score a crucial try for the Ciel et Blanc. From a turnover ball won by Dan Carter in centre field, Yannick Nyanga first took the ball into contact, Juan Imhoff improvising at scrum-half fed Goosen on the right, and the South African centre drew two defenders before passing to Rokocoko on the wing. He still had 53 metres to go, but with a copy-book goose-step the former All Black gained the precious centimetres to get him past the first tackler Samu Manoa, shot down the touch line before kicking ahead, lobbing his opposite number Bryan Habana, regathering and flying across the line to score. These were just skills that Rokocoko had rehearsed a thousand times in training, but in the steaming cauldron of a TOP 14 final at Camp Nou, they were executed with such unblemished purity, that they enabled the Ciel et Blanc to draw even further ahead (26-14).
There still remained 20 minutes to play. Toulon again began to throw everything in to the battle, working through the phases and encroaching ominously on Racing territory. The Ciel et Blanc supporters began to tremble when Mermoz crossed for a try, converted by Halfpenny, these being the first Toulon points scored in over 40 minutes. Again the Toulon machine threatened to erase Racing’s lead in the 77th minute, with a long sequence of play in the Ciel et Blanc 22, finishing with an attacking scrum only 6 metres out from the line.
But once again, just as he had done in the quarter-final against Toulouse, Ben Tameifuna came back on to save the day. Having been replaced by Luc Ducalcon (64’) at tight-head, “Big Ben” came trumbling back on to replace Khatchik Vartanov at loose-head, and in the ensuing scrum the Toulon pack simply exploded under pressure from the combined Ciel et Blanc shove. Result: penalty to Racing, Carter clears to the 40 metre mark, and from the lineout Camille Chat powers away with the ball, forcing Toulon into another error in mid-field. With only seconds left on the clock, Carter kicked the goal, taking the score to 29-21, while Camp Nou erupted in deafening applause.
“It’s historic, it’s fantastic!” exulted Szarzewski. “We pulled it off because we stuck together, and because we love each other. Every day at the club we live amazing moments as a team, we work hard together and tonight that came through on the pitch. We never gave up, and I am just so proud of my team. It’s incredible, we accomplished our mission, it is our dream and we made it come true. It’s a just reward for all those who work hard for this club.”
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Saturday 26th August