French rugby champions Toulouse returned to the top of the Top 14 table on Sunday after a penalty try helped them to a 20-13 victory over Clermont to end a run of four successive victories by their opponents and avenge a defeat earlier in the season.
Toulouse’s victory – which also saw France wing Vincent Clerc score a try – sees them two points clear of Stade Francais, who beat Toulon 22-12 on Friday, while Clermont at least took a defensive bonus point which keeps them in the vital fourth and final play-off place, seven points ahead of Bayonne, who beat Perpignan on Saturday.
Referee Didier Mene may have brought down the curtain on his 17 year club and international match career but he is unlikely to be receiving too many slaps on the shoulder from Clermont after awarding the hosts a penalty try in the 16th minute.
Mene took the decision after the Clermont scrum defaulted three times near their line.
Clermont’s Australian fly-half Brock James reduced the deficit with two penalties in the first-half but a brilliant move prompted by Maxime Medard taken on by Clement Poitrenaud and finished by Clerc, which was converted by David Skrela, pushed Toulouse into a 17-6 lead which they never looked like surrendering.
Skrela’s kicking – he contributed eight of the points – could see him recalled to the France squad for next Friday’s Six Nations clash with Grand Slam holders Wales as Lionel Beauxis picked up an injury on Friday against Toulon.
All Blacks great Tana Umaga returned to action for the first time in 18 months on Friday, but the veteran centre was unable to halt Toulon’s worrying slide towards relegation from the French top flight.
The Toulon manager, 35, was playing his first match since August 2007 when he featured for Wellington, but he struggled to impose himself and was replaced after 50 minutes with his side trailing 16-0.
Ironically, it was his replacement, Fijian centre Gabiriele Lovobalavu who shone by playing crucial roles in Toulon’s two second-half tries.
First, he broke the Stade line to set-up Tongan prop Saimone Taumoepeau to score midway through the second period.
He then released winger Martin Jagr who scored a memorable try in the closing minutes. The Czech flyer collected Lovobalavu’s pass, chipped ahead and caught his own kick to sprint into the corner to reduce the deficit to 22-12.
By that time, however, Stade had wrapped up the game.
“It was tough but I enjoyed it,” said ex-All Blacks skipper Umaga. “My main goal was not to let my teammates down.”
Stade had cruised to a 13-0 lead at the interval with Beauxis, the architect of his country’s Six Nations win over Scotland last weekend, kicking an early penalty and drop goal for a 6-0 lead.
Stade scored their only try in the 23rd minute when centre Mathieu Bastareaud finished off a fine three-man move, which had involved Beauxis and Aussie rugby league convert Mark Gasnier, and which had also left Umaga on the floor as he tried desperately to stall the advance.
“I made an error and Gasnier swerved inside, showing what a class player he is and they scored,” explained Umaga.