Faced with tenacious Bretons, the Oyomen, after three unsuccessful attempts, reached the semi-finals.
The fourth will have been the good one. Having fallen in Mathon against Bayonne in 2019, then in Perpignan (2021) and Bayonne (2022), the Oyomen finally managed to cross the semi-finals by winning, not without difficulty, against Bretons who fought until at the last second. By betting on the quality of his conquest, his ability to recover precious balls in the rucks, but also on a mastery never faulted, Oyonnax won his ticket for the final which can allow him to fully live his dream. “We have come 95% of the way. We know what we have to do to get to the end”, summarizes the second row Phoenix Battye, his face marked by the scars of the bitter fight fought for eighty minutes.
Nearly four hours earlier, in a perfectly regulated ballet of coaches, the two teams had arrived on the esplanade of the Mathon stadium, before entering the enclosure between the double hedge of their respective supporters and smoke bombs in the colors of the two clubs. The tone was set, even if the opposition between nearly 11,000 Oyomen supporters and just over two hundred Bretons, proudly wearing the Gwen Ha Du and accompanied by a bell ringer, could seem unbalanced. “There was an incredible atmosphere in the stadium. Since the beginning of the season, one of our objectives was to be a source of pride for our supporters. We achieved this goal. The public gave us a lot of energy and obviously not to mention an asset, this support was a big plus”, fits Phoenix Battye.
However, on the ground, the differences faded very quickly. “From the kick-off we took the initiative of the game, for almost nine minutes we played in their camp, we were able to create danger near their line, but without managing to score. Conversely on their first ball played in our twenty-two meters, they score a try”explains the third row Kevin Lebreton, refuting the idea of doubt which could then have interfered in the heads of Oyonnax, fed moreover by the memory of previous unfortunate experiences. “From these defeats, at this same stage of the competition, we learned a lot. This allowed us to work, to put a system in place. In this kind of match, despite the pressure, everyone knows what they have to do and stay focused on his game. The experience is at this level. It’s also what allows us today to be where we wanted to be ten months ago.” explains Phoenix Battye. Breton pragmatism was therefore opposed by the mastery of the Oyomen supported by certainties about their game, like those of a dominating scrum. The response to the test scored in force by Cyril Blanchard, crowned French Pro D2 champion ten years earlier with Oyonnax on the same lawn in Mathon, was immediate. Vannes might have been able to drive the point home by attempting the penalty obtained in a new high point… it was played on touch and Oyonnax, recovering the ball, returned to the Breton camp in an offensive stopped on a forward. On the scrum, Cassang recovered the ball to spin under the poles. “We wanted to take matters into our own hands, choosing the penalty button was a way of keeping the pressure on Oyonnax”, explains Joseph Edwards, the Vannes captain, continuing “on the scrum Cassang comes to get the ball at our feet…”.
At the break a point separated the two teams. “This is the scenario we imagined, reveals Jean-Noël Spitzer, be in contact at half-time to be able to benefit from a match point.” And this expected opportunity, the Bretons had it, in the last minutes of the duel. However, in five minutes, on the hour mark, Jules Soulan, barely entering the field after six weeks of absence due to injury, seemed to have put Vannes at a distance by chaining two penalties, including one of fifty meters and a try at the conclusion of a Cassang breakaway. But Vannes had returned to five points from the feat on a power try from his captain.
For months, Joe El Abd has been inviting his players to stay cool, to keep control in all circumstances. Carried by their public, they were able, on a final touch, to steal this match point from the Bretons to open the doors of the final. At the end of the suspense, the Mathon stadium could let its joy burst. He did so while savoring this long-awaited moment and it took many minutes for the stands to start emptying after a clapping shared with the players.