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French Top 16 Round 17 round-up
Huw Richards
January 23, 2005

Few rugby players enjoy more journalistic goodwill than Stade Francais back rower Remy Martin. The possibilities of that name are endless, even if it will be hard ever to top the effort of the chap from L'Equipe who rang Martin and told him his name was now illegal under the rules against advertising alcohol.

The excitement when he was on the verge of the French team three years ago was palpable, the disgust when Bernard Laporte opted instead for Imanol Harinordoquy, sentencing journos to cope with a name that it took most of our time to learn to spell and could forget fitting into punning single-column headlines, pretty well audible.

And of course Messrs Betsen, Magne and Harinordoquy have pretty much made any other French back-rower surplus to international requirements ever since. Even if they hadn't, Martin would have been ruled out much of the time by injury.

But for the first time in three seasons, there are international prospects for those fit and in form. Betsen and Magne are injured while Laporte has been publicly critical of Harinordoquy. Martin is fit, back in contention - one of a busload of Stade players who recently passed medical tests - and can have done his cause no harm on the weekend before Laporte announces his squad for the Six Nations opener against Scotland by scoring the opening try in the 29-12 win at Pau that keeps Stade atop the TOP 16.

David Skrela kicked 19 points to take his season's total to a championship-leading 241 while hooker Mathieu Blin claimed their other try. Pau stay out of the bottom four only by virtue of the postponement of the Grenoble-Clermont match.

Stade's advantage at the other end of the table is similarly tenuous.Second-placed Bourgoin continue to belie both their desperate European form and a reputation as non-travellers, taking their winning run to five including two away with a 22-17 victory at struggling Montpellier.

Alexandre Peclier landed four penalties during wind-associated domination of a first half that ended with them 19-3 up - back row Julien Bonnaire claimed their try - then added a fifth after Montpellier had clawed their way to within two points with a few minutes to go.

If Perpignan were not as consistently dreadful in this year's Heineken as Bourgoin, their conclusion, a 40-17 defeat at previously winless Edinburgh, was no better. But they too recovered from a Heineken hangover by leaping back into third place with an 18-16 win over Toulouse - the same score as their Championship semi-final victory last season - at a packed and rapt Aime Giral.

Never behind after Manny Edmonds had scored and converted a first-half try, USAP had to hang on for the final ten minutes after Jean-Baptiste Elissalde had kicked his third penalty of the afternoon to cut the gap to two points, but dominated possession and position to survive. Yannick Jauzion, Toulouse's try-scorer, added to Bernard Laporte's injury worries by leaving the field with a thigh strain.

Toulouse drop to fourth, with a two-point advantage over Biarritz who moved up into fifth with a 20-9 win away to doomed Auch. The prolific Jean-Baptiste Dambielle did his unfraternal best for Auch against a Biarritz line-up including brother Benjamin, landing three penalties.

But he was outpointed by what might just be France's Six Nations half-back pairing - newly-converted outside-half Damien Traille scored a try and drop-goal and Dimiti Yachvili kicked a penalty and two conversions. Wing Jimmy Marlu, another international hopeful, scored his 12th try of the season, four more than anyone else in the championship.

Elsewhere it was kickers rather than try-scorers who put up the noticeable numbers, but not always to match-winning effect. Richard Dourthe landed six penalties for Castres at Bayonne, but wound up a 29-18 loser as the Basque pack dominated and tries by Christophe Laurent and Stephane Delpuech plus 19 points from Daniel Larrachea hoisted Aviron out of the relegation zone for the first time since the table became meaningful.

Among those below them are Beziers, for whom Argentinian Federico Todeschini landed seven penalties, including six in the second-half, and also picked up a yellow card. But his efforts were cancelled out by five penalties from Valentin Courrent and two Alain Penaud drop-goals for Brive. The 21-21 draw in new coach Mark Bakewell's first match leaves Beziers third from bottom and Brive a point behind Castres, who hold the last Heineken place.

Immediately behind Brive are Agen who halted both their own recent slide and the run of away form by Narbonne that had brought the two teams together in mid-table after they'd been at opposite ends of the table a few weeks earlier.

Rupeni Caucaunibuca got them off to a flier with a fourth-minute try, then a string of second-half penalties by Francois Gelez, who totalled 17 points, took them to a 27-13 win after they'd trailed at the break.

Quite when Grenoble and Clermont will get to play the match postponed due to bad weather on Friday is unclear given the crowded fixture list. April 2nd is one date being mooted. Both remain in serious jeopardy of relegation, while Montauban recaptured the lead in the Division Two chase to replace them.

A 33-12 win over La Rochelle takes them back past Toulon - their conquerors last week in a clash watched by 13,000 - who went down 33-27 at Dax. Both, though, are now looking over their shoulders at Lyon, now only four points off the top after their fifth consecutive win, 19-6 over Oyonnax.

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