2023 Section Paloise vs Stade Francais

Top 14 Round 8 Recap: Penaud Finds Four, Pau Keeps Pace In Title Race

Top 14 Round 8 Recap: Penaud Finds Four, Pau Keeps Pace In Title Race

News flash: Damian Penaud is good at rugby. That, and Pau kept pace with table-topping Racing 92 after a huge result over European giant Stade Francais.

Nov 27, 2023 by Briar Napier
Top 14 Round 8 Recap: Penaud Finds Four, Pau Keeps Pace In Title Race

If the Top 14 is the best club rugby league in the world today, weekends like Round 8 only strengthen that claim.

It was an action-packed round across France, as six clubs reached at least 30 points, and one man outscored multiple teams by himself — in the first half. 

Also, multiple early-season surprises only saw their confidence grow with victories, though the powers of French rugby still hover around them looking to spoil the party.

Who will step forward, and who will falter as the Top 14 season continues? Stick around to find out, and enjoy the ride throughout the year on FloRugby.

Here’s a look back at the best of the best in Round 8 of the Top 14 season, as the competition approaches the latter two-thirds of the schedule:

Pau Pushes Back

Though Racing 92 officially took the lead atop the Top 14 table after taking down the continually struggling La Rochelle in a bonus-point 32-10 victory Sunday in Round 8’s finale, Section Paloise bounced back from a loss to Bayonne in Round 7 and crucially gained ground in the top half, while others nearby slipped up. 

In a critical fixture against continental powers Stade Francais, usual basement-dweller Pau was far from intimidated. In fact, led by English fly-half Joe Simmonds, it ran the Parisians off of the pitch in a 30-6 rout to temporarily take first place in the league. 

The uncapped former Exeter Chiefs man slotted through three penalties and three conversions — given those opportunities from the tee thanks to tries from Sacha Zegueur, Mickael Capelli and Luke Whitelock — as he continued upon his career year in France. 

Simmonds remained on his perch as the Top 14’s top point scorer through eight rounds, as Pau has won six out of a possible eight, basking in rarified air for the club from the southwest of France. 

Castres’ loss to Toulon, meanwhile, meant that with Pau and Racing’s wins, only those two clubs can claim more than five wins through eight matches. Plus, both now have a bit of a buffer over the rest of the top half, as four points separate second-place Pau (27) and third-place Stade Francais (23). 

It’s a dream start for Pau, yes, and the team should be proud of what it’s accomplished so far, roughly one-third through the Top 14 campaign. 

It takes more than eight weeks of great play to win a French top-flight title, however, so the next couple of months at the club will tell a lot about if a Cinderella run to the top will have a happy ending.

Penaud’s Quadruple

What’s there left to say at this point on just how good Damian Penaud is? 

To most fans, there’s not much left to say, but in case you needed further evidence that the 27-year-old Les Bleus superstar is one of the best rugby players alive, his first half in Bordeaux-Begles’ 46-22 win over relegation battler Perpignan should be enough to answer any remaining questions about his ability. 

One of the stars of the French national team over the past few years as arguably the world’s best No. 14, Penaud did something this weekend that no other player in the Top 14 has done in five years - he scored four tries in a single match — and it only took him one half of rugby to do it.

Sitting on just one try on the season (albeit in just three games played) to start the round for his new club since transferring over from Clermont Auvergne in the offseason, Penaud crossed over for the first time at the three-minute mark and had another before the match reached 20 minutes, then scored his final two of the match within six minutes of each other before the intermission to take sole possession of the first place in the Top 14 top try-scorer chart and be the first player in the league to score four tries solo since 2018. 

It was a brilliant home debut as part of Bordeaux-Begles for Penaud, as the Rugby World Cup star has absolutely hit the ground running in his new surroundings, though the club could use some more similar performances from its star man, since the team sits outside the top 6 in seventh place, four points behind sixth-place Toulouse and nine points off first place.

Oyonnax Here To Stay?

A bit lost in the shuffle behind Pau’s surprising early-season charge to the top of the Top 14 table is how well newly-promoted Oyonnax has been playing over the past month in its first season in the top flight after capturing last season’s second-tier Pro D2 title. 

That’s a bit unfortunate, because Oyonnax has been one of the league’s best stories so far and also deserves its flowers.

The Oyomen, who are back in the Top 14 after five years away, are comparative minnows to the rest of the clubs they’re facing, with the league’s lowest budget and being situated in a mountain town of just over 22,000 people near France’s border with Switzerland. 

Under English manager and former player Joe El-Abd, however, Oyonnax has been brilliantly punching above its weight in a similar vein to when it qualified for the Champions Cup for the 2015-2016 tournament. 

Winner of three of its past four matches (including a thrilling 19-17 triumph over La Rochelle earlier this month), Oyonnax continued the good vibes by defeating Montpellier 26-21 over the weekend, as tries from Daniel Ikpefan, Jules Bouraux, Chris Farrell and Maxime Salles helped the Oyomen do their job and pick up maximum points in victory against Les Cistes. 

The squad is full of heavy-level experience, especially in the forward pack, as Tonga international Steve Mafi — a lock in three World Cups, including the most recent one for the Sea Eagles — and Scottish prop Rory Sutherland, a full international and former British & Irish Lion, lead the line for Oyonnax.

Oyonnax sits ninth on four wins, with an enticing clash with Bordeaux-Begles to come in Round 9. Not bad for a city more known for its beautiful scenery than its rugby.