Toulon, Racing to clash in Top 14 final
Rennes (France) (AFP)
Toulon reached a fourth Top 14 final in five years on Saturday with a 27-18 defeat of Montpellier and will face fellow big-spenders Racing 92 for the title at Barcelona's Nou Camp next Friday.
Racing had reached their first final in 26 years by beating Clermont 34-33 in an extra-time thriller 24 hours earlier.
Toulon's joy was tempered, however, by a worrying head injury suffered by Ma'a Nonu in the second half which forced the All Blacks centre to groggily leave the field.
Welsh international full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who finished with 17 points, marked his first match of the season by kicking three penalties to two from Montpellier's South African fly-half Demetri Catrakilis in the opening exchanges.
Halfpenny had not featured since a knee ligament injury ruled him out of the World Cup last year.
Toulon, the Top 14's leading try scorers in the season with 89, grabbed the only try of the first half after 30 minutes.
Steffon Armitage demonstrated his status as the tournament's turnover king by stealing the ball from a desperate Montpellier defence which had failed to clear their lines.
Armitage fed Georgian flanker Mamuka Gorgodze who in turn freed Nonu whose pass found Fijian winger Josua Tuisova in space for the score. It was 22-year-old Tuisova's fifth try against Montpellier this season.
Halfpenny missed the conversion but the Welshman played a key role in his team's second try, three minutes into the second period.
Halfpenny side-stepped past two defenders to make the break before feeding Nonu who powered over for the score despite having Jesse Mogg clinging onto him.
The Welsh full-back added the extras for 21-6.
Australian full-back Mogg pulled European Challenge Cup winners Montpellier back into the game when he went over for a try from close range.
But Catrakilis missed the conversion before South African teammate Francois Steyn pushed a difficult long-range penalty wide of the posts.
Mogg then grabbed a second try in the space of three minutes when he intercepted an ambitious miss-pass from Toulon scrum-half Jonathan Pelissie on halfway and sprinted away for the score.
This time, Catrakilis hit the target with the extras to move to 24-18 down.
But Bismarck du Plessis was then penalised at a ruck which allowed Halfpenny to relieve the pressure and push Toulon to 27-18 with a straightforward penalty.
Toulon then lost Nonu to a head injury after the 34-year-old centre came off worse in a sickening, accidental high-impact collision with New Zealand compatriot Anthony Tuitavake.
Catrakilis missed another penalty, making it eight points squandered with the boot by Montpellier in the second period.
Halfpenny saw a difficult penalty kick come off the post as the clock ticked down but it didn't matter as Toulon gave their supporters, who had made the marathon 1,000km trip north to Rennes, a night to remember.
On Friday, Racing and Clermont had been tied 27-27 at the end of normal time.
Clermont, who had finished the regular season on top of the table, then nudged ahead 33-27 thanks to a long-range penalty from Scott Spedding and a monster drop goal by Brock James.
But Clermont self-destructed when Georgian flanker Viktor Kolelishvili was yellow carded for a dangerous tackle on Racing prop Luc Ducalcon with seven minutes left.
Argentine winger Juan Imhoff then scored a breakaway try for Racing with three minutes of the 20-minute extra-time period to go and World Cup winner Dan Carter showed nerves of steel to slot over the crucial conversion.
© 2016 AFP