La Rochelle retake the lead, as Montpellier fail
TOP 14 WRAP: La Rochelle bounced back from successive defeats as they retook first place in France by crushing struggling Agen 47-6 on Saturday.
La Rochelle, who had lost their two previous matches at Bordeaux-Begles and against Wasps in the European Champions Cup, scored seven tries and picked up a bonus point to climb to 44 points from 14 games.
That leaves them two ahead of Montpellier, who suffered a shock defeat, going down 29-10 to struggling Brive.
For La Rochelle, the big win came against an Agen team showing 15 changes from the side that had won against Brive last weekend.
"Agen brought in a lot of young players," La Rochelle centre Pierre Aguillon said. "We won't get too excited."
Agen kicked both their penalties in the first 13 minutes, but by then Jeremy Sinzelle had scored the home team's first try.
La Rochelle pounded away and forced holes in a disorganised Agen defence. Hooker Pierre Bourgarit went over after 24 minutes and Alexi Bales found a gap and raced 40 metres for another try before half-time.
Gregory Lamboley, Aguillon, Afa Amosa and Pierre Boudehent added further touchdowns in the second half. Ryan Lamb converted six of the seven tries.
"We played the best team in the Top 14 at the moment," said Mauricio Reggiardo, the Agen manager. "We prepared for this match in just two days with players who had not played together much."
Defensively, La Rochelle were able to keep an enthusiastic but limited Agen team from scoring a try of their own.
"That allows us to have confidence in our defence for the matches to come," said Aguillon. "That's important and shows the character of this team. They could have scored at the end but, despite everything, we did not let them."
"When you are back in your own stadium in front of your family, your friends, there's going to be a good atmosphere and that makes a difference after two defeats," Aguillon said.
Montpellier made changes to their team and paid a heavy price, as Brive ran in four tries, including two from Nadir Megdoud, to claim a bonus-point victory that lifts them above Agen to third-bottom spot.
The visitors went 10-7 ahead early in the second half when Benjamin Fall scored a try that was converted by Benoit Paillaugue.
However, they then conceded 22 points without reply to slump to defeat, to the frustration of boss Vern Cotter.
"It is a good lesson for us to keep working to the end, maintain a game plan and put pressure on the opposition, especially against a team like Brive who needed points," Cotter said.
Racing 92 are up to third thanks to a narrow 16-12 victory away at bottom side Oyonnax, with Marc Andreu crossing in the second half for the only try of the game.
Teddy Iribaren kicked the rest of the points for Racing, who will see Castres go back above them if they win at Clermont on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Bordeaux-Begles bid 'adieu' to coach Jacques Brunel, who is taking over the French national team, with a 22-12 loss at Stade Francais in Paris where Waisea Nayacalevu secured a bonus point for the home team with a 77th-minute try.
Brunel will officially start his new job as the national team boss next week after replacing the sacked Guy Noves on Wednesday, just five weeks ahead of France's Six Nations opener against Ireland at the Stade de France.
Toulouse beat Toulon 18-13 in the late game and both of these sides lie four points above seventh-placed Lyon, who face Pau on Sunday.