Toulon put concerns over an upcoming Steffon Armitage court case for assault to one side Friday to notch up a 24-17 victory over Bayonne that moved them to the provisional head of the Top 14.
Fresh from qualifying for the European Champions Cup, but missing a host of players who have received international call-ups for the Six Nations, Toulon’s run-up to the Bayonne match had been marred by news surrounding star flanker Armitage.
Armitage learnt Thursday that he will have to appear in court on February 10 over a fight last month in a Toulon restaurant where the team had spent an evening drinking after their side’s 23-8 victory over Leicester in the European Champions Cup.
According to witnesses, a fight broke out and Armitage and prop Xavier Chiocci, who was later released without charge by the police, felled the restaurant goer before striking him, injuring his eye.
Armitage, capped five times by England, was in the initial squad to play Bayonne but was left out of the starting team and replacements at Stade Mayol.
“I am not going to talk about it (the Armitage case). I am not the judge and justice will takes its course,” said Toulon manager Bernard Laporte who was happier to discuss the match.
“I am very proud of my team — four games, four wins.”
In Armitage’s absence, Toulon stuttered to victory, their off-loading game not quite gelling against a defensively strong Bayonne team.
The victory, however, left the home side on 51 points, with Clermont and Stade Francais, both on 50, playing Saturday against La Rochelle and Oyonnax respectively.
Bayonne deserved a defensive bonus point for their efforts.
Bryan Habana opened the scoring for Toulon, latching on to a perfectly-weighted Maxime Mermoz grubber into an unmanned corner.
But Bayonne, against the flow of play, hit straight back through Argentinian full back Martin Bustos-Moyano, who beat scrum-half Eric Escande to a neat chip by Santiago Fernandez for a try under the posts he also converted.
Juan Martin Hernandez, starting at fly-half in the absence of both Australian Matt Giteau, who underwent a groin operation on Tuesday and will be out for two months, and Frederic Michalak, still to make his comeback from a shoulder injury, handed the advantage back to Toulon with a penalty.
Marvin O’Connor was on hand to hold up Rudi Wulf over the line with a fine tackle, but Bayonne’s line had strayed offside and Hernandez added his second penalty.
Toulon looked dangerous with ball in hand and soon had two tries disallowed for forward passes.
Things got worse for the visitors when prop Gert Muller was sin-binned for a ruck infringement, Hernandez kicking his third penalty for a 14-7 lead at half-time.
Georgian prop Levan Chilachaya opened the scoring for Toulon in the second period, muscling over from short range with Hernandez converting.
But once again Bayonne responded, the impressive Fernandez chipping the home rush defence for centre Matthieu Ugalde to gather and cross for a simple try converted by Bustos-Moyano.
Nicolas Sanchez then missed a long-range effort for Toulon, who struggled to break down the resolute Bayonne defence and whose forced passes more often than not went to ground.
The Basques were dealt a blow with 14 minutes to play when lock Pele Taele was yellow carded for a high tackle, Sanchez kicking the resulting penalty to pull Toulon away.
But Bustos-Moyano grabbed a 72nd minute penalty for a sniff of a bonus point as Habana was denied a late try after compatriot Juan Smith’s pass was correctly ruled forward.