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France's Elite 1 Reaches the Semi-Finals

It's semi-final time in France this weekend and rarely has France's senior league been as unpredictable as it has been this season. For most of the past 20 years, France's elite league has been dominated by just one or two teams. Six of the last nine titles have gone to Montpellier, while Toulouse has emerged as their major rivals, replacing Perpignan. However, this year has been different.

In a surprising turn of events, neither Montpellier nor Toulouse finished on top of Poule 1, despite being drawn in the same group. Instead, Stade Bordelais, a team that has never reached a final, claimed the top spot. Bordelais has assembled an impressive pack in recent years, featuring players like Annaelle Deshaye, Agathe Sochat, Assia Khalfaoui, Madoussou Fall, and Julie Annery. Additionally, they have talented individuals like club captain and No 8 Fabiola Forteza, as well as promising teenager Morgane Bourgeois, who is also the captain of France's U18 squad.

During the pool phase, Bordelais lost only one game, away to Montpellier, and finished seven points clear at the top of their group. Montpellier ended up as the runner-up in the pool, securing a home quarter-final, while Toulouse trailed behind in third place with four losses in their ten matches, including a defeat to Lons, who claimed the final qualification spot.

In Poule 2, Blagnac emerged as the winners. They were finalists in the last two seasons and suffered only one loss, a close 24-22 defeat away to Romagnat in the final round. Led by players like Coco Lindelauf, Clara Joyeux, Axelle Berthoumieu, Audrey Abadie, Gabrielle Vernier, Melissande Llorens, Marie Dupouy, and Emilie Boulard, Blagnac possesses a formidable lineup. Unlike Bordelais, most of these star players have spent the majority of their senior rugby careers at Blagnac.

The pool also included 2021 champions Romagnat, Bobigny, and Lille. However, the team that finished as the runner-up was Grenoble, a successful "new" team from the expansion of the elite league a few years ago. Grenoble finished 12 points behind Blagnac but showcased an impressive performance, despite lacking the household names seen in many of their rival teams, except for Emeline Gros. Romagnat, famously the long-time club of Jessy Tremouliere, claimed third place, aided by their crucial final day win against Blagnac.

The final qualification spot was up for grabs on the last day of the season, with Bobigny needing to defeat Lille with a bonus point to surpass the 2016 champions. In an incredible display, Bobigny burst out of the blocks, scoring three tries in the first 28 minutes. Although Lille fought back, Bobigny consistently regained their three-try lead every time Lille scored. In the end, Bobigny secured the victory they needed.

Moving on to the quarter-finals, pool winners Blagnac and Bordelais won comfortably against Lons (57-0) and Bobigny (34-19), respectively. However, both pool runners-up failed to capitalize on their home advantage and secure a spot in the last four. Montpellier was brushed aside 27-8 by an inspired Romagnat, while the match of the round took place in Grenoble. The game featured 11 tries, constant changes in the lead, and an incredible climax when Lea Murie scored a try to tie the scores at 36-36 with less than two minutes to go. With no further scores, Toulouse advanced to the semi-finals as the away team.

As a result, this Saturday's semi-finals - uniquely - will witness teams facing each other once again having previously played in the pools, as Bordelais aims to reach their first final at home against Toulouse. Bordelais have won both games this season - 29-13 in Bordeaux back in January and 30-24 in the final pool round two weeks ago - so will start as favourites, though Toulouse have the experience at this end of the season, as they showed in Grenoble.

The other semi-final is a repeat of the 2021 final (won 13-8 by Romagnat) and one of last season's semi-finals (won 15-8 by Blagnac), with Romagnat playing Blagnac in what promises to be an enthralling encounter, especially after Romagnat's final round win. The other game in January was almost as tight, Blagnac taking that one 29-21.