It seems crazy to think that only a month ago Toulon were apparently another defeat or two away from relegation from the Top 14.
But after a 19-15 win over Toulouse in front of a raucous 62,000-strong crowd in Marseille, the team’s fifth victory on the bounce in the league, Toulon are now only one win away from the play-off places.
The game was a big occasion, but it was only really the defences of both teams who lived up to it. Toulouse, who opted to field a slightly less-than-full-strength team, had control early on, with Thomas Ramos kicking them to an early 9-0 lead, but Toulon fought back gamely.
Louis Carbonel chipped away at that lead with a faultless kicking performance before Gabin Villiere, who is having quite the season, won the game with a moment combining light feet and physical resilience in the corner, much as Vincent Clerc used to do for the opposition.
Carbonel’s conversion meant Toulouse had too much to do at 19-12 with ten minutes to go, although Ramos gave the result some cosmetic touching up with another late penalty.
As a result, Toulouse slip back to sixth, level on points with Lyon in seventh and in danger of missing out on the play-offs completely having been top of the table just before Christmas.
They were leapfrogged by Racing, who obliterated Biarritz 40-7 in Paris La Defense Arena and making the latter now one defeat away from certain relegation.
Biarritz were actually 7-6 up at the break, but the hosts turned on the style in the second half, with Virimi Vakatawa and most notably Teddy Thomas in fine form. The latter scored a brace of tries among Racing’s five second-half touchdowns, while Biarritz faded from the game completely.
There will likely be a disciplinary hearing for Biarritz President Jean-Baptiste Aldige as well, for some choice remarks about the referee – the best among them: “Every week the committee appoints these people, and says to itself ‘Biarritz are last in the table so we’ll give them the dodgiest ones.’ And we end up with people like that… he made a load of lunatic decisions which let them back into the game.”
The win puts Racing back up to fifth, with a trip to Pau next up on the agenda.
At the top of the table, Union Bordeaux-Begles took a big step towards securing a home semi-final with a one-point, last-minute win at table-toppers Montpellier.
In another game big on occasion but low on quality, the visitors ought to have been out of sight after being in the lead 17-6 with half an hour to go, courtesy of a barnstorming early try from hooker Maxime Lamothe and four penalties from scrum-half Maxime Lucu.
But the introduction of Handre Pollard, Mohamad Haouas and Fulgence Ouedraogo turned the momentum completely. Pollard kicked his goals, and with five minutes to go Florian Verhaeghe got the home team a crucial try. Pollard’s conversion made it 22-20.
A side entry at a splintered ruck – the rucks were a shambles for both teams all match – gave Lucu the chance to win it for Bordeaux with the final kick of the game and he took it, giving Bordeaux’s Francois Trinh-Duc a win in what was most likely his last game at Montpellier where he played for so many years.
La Rochelle remain in third after a routine 32-16 win over Perpignan, Castres stay fourth after a 12-0 win over Clermont in an absolute cowpat of a game and Lyon remain seventh after easing past Brive 31-17.
Brive meet Perpignan next week; if Perpignan lose they will be playing the promotion/relegation play-off against a team from the Pro D2 in June, even if they win it will still be tough for them to escape that fate, but at least it would be possible.
In the weekend’s other game between the two teams with barely anything to play for except forlorn mathematical play-off chances, Stade Francais beat Pau 21-18.
It’s tight at the top. Montpellier are top with 69, Bordeaux second with 67, La Rochelle third with 62, as have Castres in fourth, while Racing are now fifth with 61. Toulouse in sixth, are level with Lyon on points in seventh on 58, with in-form Toulon eighth on 55.
The coming weekend will have a big bearing on it all. Bordeaux will test Toulon’s form, Toulouse will host La Rochelle with the visitors knowing a win probably seals their play-off place and Lyon know that a win at home to Montpellier will be the perfect tonic should Toulouse slip again.
Only Castres have it ‘easy’, visiting Biarritz. The race for play-offs will go to the wire.