Last-gasp Rochelle take Top 14 lead

3 min

Paris (AFP)

A last-gasp penalty from Australian fly half Brock James ensured La Rochelle kept up their unlikely Top 14 title tilt on Saturday in a thrilling 23-20 success at triple European champions Toulon.

La Rochelle, a solitary point behind Clermont going into the weekend, moved a provisional three points clear as they made it four straight wins and four on the road in only eight outings in claiming Toulon's scalp.

Toulon, who waved a fond farewell to Leicester-bound Maxime Mermoz, were looking for a win to close the gap on third-placed Montpellier.

But La Rochelle scuppered those hopes with a typically gutsy showing which suggests Les Corsaires' form is no flash in the pan.

James may have bagged the plaudits for holding his nerve with his 35 metre kick, the last action of the contest.

But it was a pair of tries from Vincent Rattez that underpinned the westcoasters' triumph, the wing going over on 24 and 62 minutes.

Zack Holmes and then fellow Aussie James converted and added a penalty each before the latter's final coup de grace.

La Rochelle, who have never won a major trophy in 119 years of existence, began the weekend a solitary point behind leaders Clermont and nine ahead of fifth-placed Toulon.

But having picked up more points away from their Stade Marcel-Deflandre home before Saturday than in the entire two previous campaigns they again showed that travel sickness -- they failed to land a single away success last season -- is a thing of the past.

"It's a great result for us. They made it very tough for us but we gave everything out there and that was the key," Rattez told Canal+ Sport afterwards.

La Rochelle came through despite being without props Uini Atonio and Mohamed Boughanmi and back-rower Kevin Gourdon, all called up for the Six Nations by France.

Mermoz received a standing ovation after the match as the 35-cap 30-year-old bade farewell to the crowd ahead of his joining Leicester.

Mermoz, 2011 World Cup finalist, was given a tumultuous reception by fans brandishing "Merci Max" banners at the Stade Mayol.

"We missed a few balls and that cost us. It's sad to lose at home," said Mermoz as he brought his personal curtain down in France.

The centre benefited from Mathieu Bastareaud's call-up to the Six Nations squad amid the absences of Wesley Fofana and Henry Chavancy to enjoy a final taste of Top 14 action alongside Ma'a Nonu.

Mermoz comes in as cover for the Tigers for injured Manu Tuilagi, out for the remainder of the campaign with a knee problem.

After winning league crowns with Toulouse and then Perpignan, Mermoz joined Toulon in 2012 and helped to land three European Cups in 2013, 2014 and 2015 as well as a league title in 2014.

He will now look to galvanise a Leicester side struggling after a European exit brought about by a 43-0 caning by Glasgow and three straight league losses.

Richard Cockerill has moved in the other direction, joining Toulon, now fourth level on points with Toulouse, from the Tigers as consultant to coach Mike Ford.

Clermont will look to catch up in the title race Sunday when they travel to Bordeaux who stand one spot outside the play-offs in seventh.

Elsewhere Saturday, fourth-placed Toulouse were hosting Pau while Racing 92, still smarting from a failed European Cup campaign, travelled to Lyon, looking to close a three-point gap on the play-off places.

Lyon will be playing their first match at the Stade Gerland, the former home of the city's football club, but were missing playmaker Frederic Michalak through injury.