A sparkling performance by Matt Giteau on his return after an absence of over two months inspired champions Toulon to a 32-23 victory over Racing-Metro on Saturday and end a run of two defeats.
The match took place in a highly-charged atmosphere in the wake of the Islamist killing spree this week in Paris which resulted in 17 deaths — the players and spectators joined in both a minute’s silence and applause followed by a rousing rendition of the French national anthem ‘La Marseillaise’.
Victory for Toulon kept them in third place, three points behind Stade Francais, who beat Castres 44-13 on Friday.
Clermont stayed top by running in six tries in a 44-20 bonus-point romp against Brive.
Toulon manager Bernard Laporte said he was delighted with how his players had reacted to the defeat by Montpellier last weekend.
“This was a terrific match and I very much liked the reaction of the players to the defeat last week,” said the 50-year-old.
“On the other hand our target set at half-time of getting the bonus point was not realised.”
Toulon got off to a superb start scoring two tries in the opening quarter-of-an-hour.
Their first came through fullback Leigh Halfpenny — set up by Giteau who has been out since late October with a groin injury — and the Welshman then gathered himself and converted.
Benjamin Dambielle reduced the deficit with a penalty for the visitors but they were hit by a second Toulon try in the 15th minute.
Former Springbok Juan Smith was responsible for it, managing to touch down at full stretch, and Halfpenny converted for 14-3.
Racing didn’t do themselves any favours in terms of getting back into the match as they were reduced to 13 men in the 22nd minute with both Jamie Roberts and Adrien Plante sin-binned in separate incidents.
Halfpenny punished Roberts sin-binning with another penalty and the hosts then added a third try as Bryan Habana went over — this time Halfpenny saw his effort cannon back off a post — for his third try of the campaign.
– Botha injured –
Toulon lost another of their formidable South African contingent when lock Bakkies Botha had to go off with what looked like a broken finger.
Toulon were suddenly on the back foot too as the visitors stormed back into the match with tries either side of half-time firstly through former Toulon wing Marc Andreu, who completely out-foxed Halfpenny.
Roberts got back in the good books as he sent Habana the wrong way to go over for his first this season three minutes into the second-half — the hosts down to 14 men as Drew Mitchell had been yellow-carded.
Dambielle converted them both to reduce the deficit to five points — 22-17 — and they got to 22-20 when another former Toulon player fullback Benjamin Lapeyre landed a long range penalty in the 46th minute.
However, like the champions they are Toulon responded in style.
Halfpenny kicked a penalty and then Giteau did just enough to break a tackle and at full stretch touch down over the line for his 10th try of the season — Halfpenny converted for 32-20.
Dambielle hit back with a penalty in the 56th minute but try as they might Racing were unable to breach the Toulon line again.
Clermont’s try romp began after 32 minutes through full-back Jean-Marcellin Buttin as the home side built up an 11-0 lead from which they never looked back.
Further tries from Benjamin Kayser, Napolioni Nalaga with a quickfire brace in the 51st and 55th minutes, Ludovic Radosavljevic and a penalty try sealed the points against a Brive side who ran in three second-half tries of their own.
The victory also set up Clermont for their European Cup date against Sale next weekend.
Toulouse squeezed past rock-bottom La Rochelle 29-26 after seemingly cruising at 26-10 at the 50-minute mark. They scored four tries with centre Yann David scoring twice.
“I felt my players were tired and La Rochelle were more aggressive in the rucks,” said Toulouse boss Guy Noves.