Top 14: Perpignan and Toulon march into the semi finals
The regular season of the Top 14 reached a dramatic climax on sun-drenched pitches with a host of teams desperately fighting for their own causes.
At stake was direct qualification to the playoff semi finals, home advantage in the playoff quarter finals, the seventh spot synonymous with potential Heineken Cup qualification or most importantly, survival.
Going into the final weekend Perpignan and Toulon were in pole position to claim the top two positions in the league, and in doing so, direct qualification into the playoffs. The reigning champions entertained already relegated Albi at AimÃƒÂ©-Giral, a stadium where the home side were hoping to complete a perfect thirteen wins from thirteen in the league.
The Catalans got off to the perfect start with a try from Rimas Alvarez-Kareilis after just seven minutes. From there it was all one way as the hosts ran in six tries and denied their visitors the slightest point running out 44-0 winners.
Toulon, on the other hand, faced a much tougher battle in Brive, who themselves were still in contention for seventh spot. With some of their stars rested, Toulon struggled early on, and it was Brive who led 16-9 at the break after a try from full back Scott Spedding.
The introduction of scrum half Pierre Mignoni proved to be the turning point in the game and the veteran French international showed all his class in stealing the ball off the back of a Brive scrum before chipping and collecting his kick and passing to Gabiriele Lovobalavu for a try to bring his side level. Ten minutes later he was at it again as his 40m break resulted in Sonny Bill Williams putting the away side ahead. Toulon would not relinquish this lead despite a late try from Horacio Agulla, and held on for a 26-23 win which saw them finish the season in second place.
Third placed Clermont-Auvergne visited Biarritz knowing that if either of the top two slipped up, they could sneak an automatic semi final spot with a win in the Basque country. However their opponents were also desperate for the win that would keep them in seventh place.
The game started fairly evenly before Napolioni Nalaga finished off a great move from the Clermont backs to put the visitors ahead. Biarritz were able to get themselves back into it with a try from Dmitri Yachvili, but when Nalaga went over for the second time after a mistake from Takudza Ngwenya, there was no way back for the hosts despite Clermont being reduced to 14 men as LoÃƒÂ¯c Jacquet became their third player to be sent to the sin bin.
With the results elsewhere ClermontÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 26-19 win actually ensured that Biarritz would finish seventh whilst the victors on the day had to content themselves with third spot and a home playoff against Racing-MÃƒÂ©tro. The game provided some injury concerns for the remainder of the season as Damien Traille broke his arm, meaning that he will miss next weekÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s European Cup semi final against Munster, and Mario Ledesma suffered an apparently serious knee injury which puts his participation in the playoffs in doubt.
At Ernest Wallon in Toulouse, fifth placed Toulouse entertained fourth placed Castres knowing that they needed to win by at least eight points to ensure a home playoff against the same opposition in a fortnightÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s time. The hosts moved into an early lead thanks to a drop goal and a penalty from Jean-Baptiste Elissalde but as has often happened this season, their indiscipline allowed their opponents back into the match and four Romain Teulet penalties meant that Castres took a 12-6 lead into half time.
The hosts came flying out of the blocks in the second half and first new signing Vilimoni Delasau, and then ToulouseÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ other winger, CÃƒÂ©dric Heymans, scored tries as Toulouse regained the lead. However Castres were not done yet and when Yannick Caballero chipped over the Toulouse defence it was Romain Cabannes who reacted quickest to get Castres back to within a point.
The hosts had twenty minutes to score seven points, and with just five minutes left, a monstrous scrummaging effort allowed Finau Maka to score the decisive try which was converted by David Skrela, ensuring that Castres will have to make the short journey to their rivals in two weeks time for the playoffs.
At the bottom of the table all eyes were on Sapiac were 12th placed Bayonne were in town to take on 13th placed Montauban in a winner takes all encounter. The Basque visitors would certainly not have envisioned being in a relegation battle at the start of the season, but inconsistency has been a major issue with back to back victories coming just once in the league. The home side broke the deadlock after just ten minutes with a penalty from Julien Audy, and soon after Jean-Emmanuel Cassin collected Mathieu BÃƒÂ©lieÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s inch perfect cross kick to extend the lead.
Thanks to AudyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s boot they were able to extend their lead to 17-3 before Sam Gerber, the leagueÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s top try scorer, was able to take advantage of a great break from Jean-Baptiste Peyras to score. Unfortunately for Bayonne this would not be the start of a great comeback, and they paid for their insipid attacking play when Johan Dalla Riva collected the ball after an interception in the final minute to condemn the visitors to a 22-8 defeat.
However, despite finishing the season in 13th place, normally synonymous with relegation, Bayonne have been granted a reprieve as their hosts on the day were relegated for a financial deficit. Despite last minute efforts from president Patrick Vianco, Montauban were not able to find a sponsor to overcome their 1.7 million euro debt, and so next season they will ply their trade in the French second division.
In the two remaining games, Stade FranÃƒÂ§ais won the Parisian derby 41-17 against a Racing side missing several of its regular starters, and Montpellier won a pulsating encounter against Bourgoin 34-27.
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Read more on: basque country, catalans, contention, french international, Heineken Cup, home advantage, perpignan, pierre mignoni, pole position, quarter finals, scrum half, semi finals, sonny bill williams, top 14, turning point.