The bonus point system in French rugby is different in a positive way. Not that it felt much like that as Clermont grabbed two late tries against La Rochelle last Saturday to reduce our booty from five points to four.
We’d already bagged four tries but in the Top 14 the winning bonus point only comes with a three-try margin between the sides. So before our inexplicable ending, we were four tries to one in front and heading for five points.
Generally, it’s a system I love. You must keep three tries between yourselves and the opposition for the BP. Too often in the Champions Cup I’ve watched a side like Leinster run over four tries in the first 20 minutes to bag the early bonus point. That’s zero intrigue for the spectators, or any incentive for the poor sods at the receiving end. In that same scenario in France, you could be cruising three tries to none up, or maybe 40 points in front, only for the opposition to get half a sniff and score a try. Now you’ve lost the bonus point and are forced to go chasing again. There’s a delicious bit of jeopardy involved. Imagine, even better, if it’s a tight game, four tries to two, and the winning side is faced with the dilemma – chase the fifth try and the BP or make sure the other crowd don’t get within five points and take a bonus point of their own.
Knowing all that, you’d find it hard to swallow the script that describes how we lost two late tries against Clermont. We are about to close the deal and ambitiously throw out a skip pass that’s intercepted and the lad from Clermont is legging it up the pitch. Then one of our lads lets it drop straight through the bread basket, they get a try as a result and Morgan Parra is a machine from the tee. From 31-13 it’s now 31-27.
You’re thinking, ’hasn’t La Rochelle got a bit of history here?’ Recent history, yes. But we’ve conceded fewer points than every other side in the league bar second-placed Montpellier, who’ve played a game less. Whatever way you slice and dice it, the themes of the week all return to the same topic: playing smart via good decision-making.
We go to Pau Saturday, a side that beat Toulouse with 13 men last weekend. This is a mental examination. When the gun is to our head, have you the nerve? It’s not like we are conceding a lot of points – we are conceding them at bad times and presenting the opposition with reasons to keep believing. If age wasn’t turning me grey, this would.
Attaquer sans ballon – attack without the ball – has been our mantra, the focal point of our team. You don’t defend, you attack without the ball. However, our defensive work has not been where it should the past few weeks, and if you are looking for cause and effect, we have seven players in French camp which is unheard of historically for Stade Rochelais.
Of itself, that presents more than one issue. Some are released back to the clubs by France for tomorrow’s domestic fixtures, but it’s less than ideal. In fact, it’s never ideal. They hold bags in the French camp from Monday to Wednesday, have Thursday off and two or three of them come back to us on Friday – at which stage we have our gameplan fairly nailed down. It’s no picnic either for those involved, the likes of Jules Favre or Thomas Lavault, who get penalised on the basis of no game time for country or club. Think the GAA inter-county player who’s No 33 in the squad and isn’t available to his club either. It’s the classic lose-lose.
Pau’s Estadio du Hameau in the Pyrenees will be humming tomorrow evening. The France-Scotland Six Nations game is at 3.15 and will be available on the big tv screens in the stadium. The locals will land at midday, enjoy a good lunch and the bottles of red, and by five o’clock there will be a boisterous atmosphere in the stand.
At the moment, the Top 14 and national team are feeding off each other. A dream day for the person who loves rugby is