Champions Stade Francais scored a dramatic late try in an 18-17 win over Toulouse in France’s Top 14 on Sunday after Ma’a Nonu’s Toulon had beaten Conrad Smith’s Pau earlier in the day.
The defeat denied Toulouse a chance to go clear at the summit of the Top 14, although they left Paris with a losing bonus point that leaves them locked in a three-way tie on 38 points at the top of the table with Racing 92 and Clermont.
Stade Francais’ New Zealand-born fullback Paul Williams was the man of the moment after touching down in the 78th minute in what was a stunning turnaround.
Hugo Bonneval had brought the Parisians back into the running with a fine try in the 63rd minute on a blustery night in the capital.
However, Toulouse are likely to be kicking themselves after going ahead through Alexis Palisson in the fourth minute. Sebastien Bezy scored four penalties in all for the visitors, but Jules Plisson’s two penalties and a conversion helped secure an unlikely victory for Stade Francais, who have struggled to repeat the form that saw them win the Top 14 last season.
“I would be lying if I said I was not relieved and extremely satisfied to win that match,” Stade Francais coach Gonzalo Quesada said.
Title contenders Toulon recovered from last week’s chastening defeat at Toulouse with a nervy 21-17 victory at home to Pau.
Australia winger James O’Connor scored tries in both halves, with Georgia lock Konstantin Mikautadze also crossing for Toulon, while fullback Tom Taylor added a pair of penalties. However, the three-time reigning European Rugby Champions Cup champions were forced to stave off a late Pau comeback inspired by Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks pair Smith and Colin Slade, as the visitors scored 14 unanswered points only to fall just short.
With three pivotal European Rugby Champions Cup games, two against Bath and a home tie with Wasps, to come later this month, it was a welcome win that pushed Toulon back up to fourth as Pau claimed a losing bonus point.
“We are going to try to be positive and remember the win, but we are certainly not happy with parts of our performance,” Toulon head coach Bernard Laporte said.
“Two years ago, that is a game we would have lost. We won and that is the most important thing. We have an important month of January, starting [on] Sunday against Bath. It is up to us to deliver,” he added.
Toulon — routed 31-8 at Toulouse last time out — fell behind early as flyhalf Slade sent over a third-minute penalty for Pau, who entered the weekend in 11th place and dropped below Stade Francais to 12th.
However, Taylor — another former New Zealand international — responded moments later with a penalty of his own to level at 3-3.
Toulon struggled initially to make much of an impact against a dogged Pau defense, but the hosts broke through on 25 minutes as Australian flyhalf Quade Cooper released O’Connor out wide to go over for the opening try.
Taylor increased the home side’s lead with another penalty after Julien Jacquot was sin-binned, but Toulon also went down to 14 just before the break as Cooper was yellow-carded.
O’Connor had a hand in Toulon’s second try on 50 minutes, as his offload allowed Mikautadze to touch down, before the Australian added another try five minutes later, only for Taylor to again miss the conversion.
However, Smith gave Pau hope as the center evaded three Toulon players, including long-time All Black teammate Nonu, to score his first try for his new club, with Slade converting.
Smith and Nonu played 62 games together for New Zealand before moving to France after last year’s World Cup triumph, so it was their first head-to-head in the Top 14.
The visitors ensured it was a nerve-wracking final few minutes as they were awarded a penalty try when Toulon, forced to see out the final 10 minutes a man down, with Anthony Etrillard in the sin bin, collapsed a scrum.
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