Toulon compound Toulouse misery
FRANCE TOP 14 WRAP: Richard Cockerill emerged with a 33-23 win from his first match in charge of crisis-hit Toulon on Sunday, compounding the misery of Top 14 arch-rivals Toulouse.
Cockerill took over after fellow Englishman Mike Ford quit as head coach this week after Toulon were beaten by Clermont in the European Champions Cup quarter-finals.
"This win is very positive for us. The team's spirit was not broken. Our fate is now in our hands," said Cockerill.
Toulon is well positioned to qualify for the elite six-team play-offs as they sit fourth with 57 points after overtaking Castres, beaten 16-17 at home by Lyon, on Saturday.
But record 19-time French champions Toulouse slipped to 12th - six points off the first play-off spot - and are set to miss the final phase for the first time since 1976. And their nightmare season continued with France international prop Cyril Baille ruled out for months with ruptured knee tendons.
"This evening we took another knock on the head. To qualify we need to take 15 points and again that might not even be enough. The season has been very long, harsh. We've left a lot out there, even if this evening, I didn't have the impression that Toulouse gave up.
"We have to finish the season well for the players, then we have to think about rebuilding," Toulouse coach Ugo Mola said.
Toulouse was always on the back foot with Toulon getting a first penalty try after a Maxime Médard knock-on after 11 minutes, with Guilhem Guirado touching down the second on 23 minutes.
Paul Perez got a try five minutes later as Toulouse came within four points at the break, 13-17. But Toulouse were out of the running after former All Black Ma'a Nonu powered over to push Toulon 33-16 ahead on 66 minutes.
Leigh Halfpenny accounted for 18 of Toulon's points, with Francois Trinh-Duc's drop kick rounding off the scores.
Earlier All Black legend Dan Carter helped Racing 92 shade Pau 34-32 to push the defending champions up to sixth. This was Racing's second successive win in the wake of the aborted merger fiasco with Stade Francais, and it lifted them back into the play-off contention for the first time since before Christmas.
The Parisian outfit was far from happy with the result, however.
"It's two points lost and if we finish level with them at the end of the season, Pau will be ahead of us," Racing backline coach Laurent Labit said in reference to the attacking and defending bonuses.
Racing prop Eddy Ben Arous reflected: "That's the second straight game where we started well but failed to finish off. We have to take it a step further."
Carter, booed off after Racing's defeat last month to leaders La Rochelle, contributed two penalties and converted all four tries from fellow New Zealanders Joe Rokocoko and Ben Tameifuna, Juan Imhoff and Henry Chavancy.
Racing were coasting 27-8 at the break and heading towards a bonus point but Pau launched a vigorous fightback in the second half, crossing over four times in the closing 20 minutes. Their fifth and final try came from Daniel Ramsay in the 79th minute.
"I was proud of how they finished, it showed the values that exist at this club, we never let it drop," said Pau head coach Simon Mannix whose side also picked up a defensive bonus point.
La Rochelle edged closer to a semi-final spot Saturday with a 16-5 home win against Bordeaux but rivals Clermont faced increasing pressure from Montpellier after losing 21-26 to Brive.
La Rochelle extended their lead on second-placed Clermont to 14 points and matched Toulouse's unbeaten record of 11 games from the 2009 and 2012 seasons. But Clermont's shock defeat saw their advantage on third-placed Montpellier, who beat Grenoble 54-14, cut to four points with the top two teams qualifying automatically for the semi-finals.
French Top 14 results:
Racing92 34-32 Pau
Toulon 33-23 Toulouse
La Rochelle 16-5 Bordeaux Begles
Bayonne 16-32 Stade Francais
Castres 16-17 Lyon
Montpellier 54-14 Grenoble
Clermont 21-26 Brive
French Top 14 table:
(played, won, drawn, lost, points for, points against, bonus points, total points)
La Rochelle 23 16 3 4 616 402 9 79
Clermont 23 12 3 8 688 498 11 65
Montpellier 22 13 0 9 571 473 9 61
Toulon 23 11 2 10 593 472 9 57
Castres 22 11 1 10 541 436 7 53
Racing 22 12 1 9 528 507 3 53
Pau 23 11 1 11 544 591 7 53
Brive 23 12 1 10 498 553 2 52
Lyon 23 10 2 11 503 531 6 50
Stade Français 22 10 1 11 529 539 7 49
Bordeaux 23 10 1 12 514 514 7 49
Toulouse 23 10 0 13 482 487 7 47
Grenoble 23 6 1 16 505 729 7 33
Bayonne 23 5 3 15 389 769 0 26
Note: Top six in play-offs; bottom two relegated