Belleau torments La Rochelle again; Toulouse go top
TOP 14 WRAP: Anthony Belleau once again proved La Rochelle's tormentor in chief as he guided Toulon to a 26-20 victory on Saturday as Toulouse thumped Agen 30-10 to top the French league.
La Rochelle finished atop the regular season standings last season, only to be knocked out in the play-off semi-finals by Toulon thanks to a last-gasp Belleau drop-goal.
This time around, Belleau looked a cool head in an entertaining match, notching up 14 points with his trusty right boot and proving a vital pivot between the pack and a lively backline.
La Rochelle didn't touch the ball in the opening three minutes, which culminated in a try for Toulon full-back Hugo Bonneval after skipper Mathieu Bastareaud bounced off a couple of tackles, Belleau converting.
Australian veteran Brock James knocked over two penalties either side of one from Belleau to bring La Rochelle back into the match.
Spurning a second attempt at the posts, Toulon smelled blood and Belleau kicked for the corner. A perfect driving maul was set from the line-out, but was blatantly hauled down by France international Uini Atonio.
Referee Romain Poite was left no choice but to issue a yellow card for the New Zealand-born prop and award a penalty try.
Belleau turned the screw with his second penalty to make it 20-6 at half-time to the home side.
A third Belleau penalty opened the scoring in the second period, but the visitors hit back with tries from ex-All Black No.8 Victor Vito, voted the best player in the league last season, and then James, who skipped over from close range.
James converted both tries to drag La Rochelle to within three points and a nerve-racking final 10 minutes.
A needless high tackle gifted Belleau a fourth penalty to stretch the lead.
And then Fijian winger Josua Tuisova came up with a great piece of defensive work to win a penalty as All Black lock Jason Eaton clung on to the ball when tackled to the floor.
That offered Toulon the vital breathing space they needed, the forwards using all their experience to run down the clock for an important away victory.
"What we can take from that, for example, is our defence," said Toulon forwards coach Fabrice Landreau.
"Our ability to defend our line, that and our attitude, it's incredible."
Toulouse went to the Top 14 summit, for a few hours at least, after Gael Fickou's try on the stroke of half-time broke Agen's stubborn resistance.
It had been 6-3 until that point but once the France centre gave the four-time European champions breathing space, they didn't look back.
A penalty try and 11 points from the boot of Thomas Ramos ensured they were safely home before a late try from prop Kamaliele Tufele proved scant consolation for the promoted visitors.
Toulouse finished with a flourish as South African wing Cheslin Kolbe dotted down a minute from time but they couldn't force the attacking bonus point.
Going top took Toulouse full circle following last season's abject campaign that saw them finish 12th and miss out on European Champions Cup qualification for the first time.
Stade Francais, the 2015 champions, climbed out of the relegation zone with a morale-boosting 25-23 win at Pau thanks to tries from Marvin O'Connor, Waisea Nayacalevu and Sekou Macalou.
"It's always a performance to go away and win - it's a tough league," said Stade's coach Olivier Azam.
"The players wanted to show the home defeats (to Toulon and Lyon) were just a bad start. It's a morale booster."
All Pau's points came from New Zealand internationals, with World Cup winning fly-half Colin Slade and prop Jamie Mackintosh crossing the whitewash while full-back Tom Taylor kicked 13 points.
Bordeaux-Begles went joint second with Montpellier and La Rochelle with a five-try 39-9 romp at Oyonnax, who were reduced to 14 men early in the second half when trailing only 13-9 as Maxime Veau was dismissed.
Table (played, won, drawn, lost, points for, points against, bonus points, total points):
Lyon 6 5 0 1 168 103 2 22
Toulouse 6 4 1 1 167 108 2 20
Montpellier 5 4 0 1 167 109 3 19
Toulon 6 4 0 2 142 129 2 18
La Rochelle 6 4 0 2 191 118 2 18
Bordeaux 6 4 0 2 181 143 2 18
Racing92 6 3 0 3 132 106 4 16
Pau 6 3 0 3 134 130 2 14
Clermont 5 3 0 2 151 126 1 13
Stade Français 6 2 0 4 118 174 1 9
Castres 5 1 0 4 96 125 3 7
Oyonnax 6 1 1 4 75 191 0 6
Agen 6 1 0 5 91 149 2 6
Brive 5 0 0 5 55 157 1 1