Top 14: Toulon move top as Racing seal final play-off spot
A late drop goal from Jonny Wilkinson was enough to send Toulon top of the League in a clash of the Top 14 pace-setters at the Stade Velodrome.
In the penultimate round of games Philippe Saint-Andre’s team knew that if they could beat league leaders Perpignan, and in the process deny their visitors a losing bonus point, the team from the South East would move top of the league for the first time since their return to the top flight.
The game got off to a ferocious start with huge tackles coming in from both sides with Henry Tuilagi and Mafileo Kefu, in paricular, doing damage. After Wilkinson and Jerome Porical exchanged early penalties, it was Australian full back Luke Rooney who scored the first try for the hosts after a good break from Sonny Bill Williams.
However, the Catalans hit straight back with a well-worked try of their own from Farid Sid in the left corner. With Kefu for Toulon, and Candelon and Guirado for Perpignan, all having been replaced through injury, it was the hosts who scored again as Joe Van Niekerk spotted a gap in the Perpignan fringe defence and stormed away before handing Rooney his second try of the afternoon.
This allowed Toulon to take an 18-13 lead into half time, and thanks to Wilkinson’s boot they were able to extend their lead to 30-16 with just ten minutes to go.
Substitute Gregory Le Corvec then went over from close range for the visitors to bring them back into bonus point territory before Wilkinson hit a long range drop goal to put the hosts ten points clear and ensure that Toulon would be top of the League with just one round of games to go, winning 33-23.
On Saturday evening it was Biarritz and Racing who were effectively playing a playoff match of their own knowing that the winner would be almost certain of finishing sixth and keeping their title hopes alive. It was the Basque visitors who dominated the early part of the game with tries from Karmichael Hunt and Iain Balshaw allowing them to take a 19-6 lead early in the second period.
However, Racing showed great spirit to fight back to 22 apiece after a try from Johnny Leo’o, and with a minute remaining Sebastien Chabal produced a trademark charge through the Biarritz defence allowing Willen Leroux to score the decisive try. As a result of their 29-22 win the Parisians are now guaranteed to finish in the sixth place but will have to wait until next week to see where they will have to travel for the playoff quarter final.
In Friday night’s game Clermont were looking to overcome the disappointment of European defeat a week earlier in Dublin as they entertained Castres. With Brock James continuing his slump with the boot, it looked as though the visitors might secure a vital victory, but the introduction of Morgan Parra who rejuvenated his side, as well as taking over kicking duties from the misfiring James, proved to be the turning point.
The hosts eventually came through 25-19 to move up to third in the table and leave their visitors with a tough task next weekend at Toulouse to avoid slipping to fifth and an away quarter final in the playoffs.
It could have been worse for Castres though, had Toulouse not surprisingly lost at Bourgoin after a late penalty from Alberto di Bernardo. The relegation battlers fought back well after conceding an early try, and were deserved winners against opponents who never got anywhere near the level they showed a week ago in the Heineken Cup.
The defeat leaves Toulouse needing a win next week to have any chance of a home quarter final in the playoffs, and given their away form this season, they will need that home advantage come the playoffs.
In the remaining games Albi stunned Stade Francais 38-24 to guarantee that the Parisian club will not play in the Heineken Cup next season. Brive also saw their European hopes take a blow as they went down to Bayonne 33-25.
In the final game, a Montauban side in financial turmoil struggled to put their off field troubles to one side and fell to a disappointing 19-6 home defeat against Montpellier. They will have to turn things around next week as they take on Bayonne, but regardless of that result, it would appear that they will be relegated because of their financial difficulties.