There was no shortage of rugby action to keep fans entertained over the weekend as Top 14 became the latest domestic league to restart after the coronavirus-induced break.
France’s top teams were able to kick a ball in frustration for the first time since the league was halted in April, with no champion declared for the 2019/20 campaign.
Meanwhile, the Guinness PRO14 finalists were decided in two nail-biting ties as reigning champions Leinster and Ulster progressed to the competition’s showpiece.
The race for the end of season honours in the Premiership also continued to provide plenty of thrills and spills as the top five teams all secured precious victories.
INTERNATIONALS ON SHOW IN FRANCE
Fresh from a lengthy break away from the field, it was no surprise to see plenty of international stars line up for their clubs as the Top 14 returned with a bang over the weekend.
Gregory Alldritt, one of the standout players of the 2020 Championship, was among those back in action as he helped his La Rochelle side overcome Toulon 29-15.
His international captain Charles Ollivon started the game on the bench for Toulon, while France scrum-half Baptiste Serin was orchestrating the visitors’ attack at Stade Marcel-Deflandre.
Italian legend Sergio Parisse also featured at No.8 for Toulon but despite his best efforts, former Maori All Blacks Ihaia West fly-half inspired La Rochelle to an impressive win.
Elsewhere, Scotland’s Finn Russell scored a try as a Racing 92 side including France centre Virimi Vakatawa opened their campaign with a hard-fought 27-23 victory at Lyon.
Castres also enjoyed a winning return after edging out Agen 26-22 while French stars Anthony Bouthier and Paul Willemse were on the losing side in Montpellier’s 26-23 defeat to Pau.
But the try of the weekend came on Sunday night from 13-man Toulouse as Thomas Ramos’ audacious flick set in motion a length-of-the-pitch move finished off by France teammate Antoine Dupont.
The incredible score was not quite enough in the end for Toulouse as they ended up losing 33-30 to Clermont – but it certainly will not be forgotten in a hurry.
LEINSTER MACHINE MARCHES ON
There’s not long to go until the 2019/20 Guinness PRO14 champion is decided – and we now know the two teams who will battle it out for glory in the silverware showpiece.
Defending champions Leinster will meet Ulster in an all-Irish final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin after both sides came through their last four contests by the skin of their teeth.
Leinster’s unbeaten run was stretched to 24 games in all competitions on Friday night as Leo Cullen’s men overcame interprovincial rivals Munster 13-3 in difficult conditions.
Johnny Sexton pulled the strings expertly for the hosts and Caelan Doris produced a man-of-the-match display as Leinster moved one step closer to a third PRO14 title on the spin.
Only Ulster now stand in the way of the blue army after Dan McFarland’s men produced a stunning late comeback on Saturday night to defeat Edinburgh 22-19.
Stuart McInally and Darcy Graham both scored tries for the hosts to put Scotland’s capital side 19-7 ahead before Ulster stole victory with Ian Madigan’s 80th-minute penalty.
TOP FOUR BATTLE HEATS UP
In England, the scriptwriters were working overtime as the race to finish in the top four of the Premiership at the end of the regular season produced another six dramatic encounters.
League leaders Exeter Chiefs and third-place Bristol Bears both secured impressive victories on Friday night against Northampton Saints and Worcester Warriors, respectively.
Wasps responded by defeating reigning champions Saracens 28-18 at Allianz Park after England captain Owen Farrell was sent off, with Jimmy Gopperth kicking 23 points for the visitors.
Former Wasps player and England international Elliot Daly had scored the opening try for Saracens, but they fell short despite Scotland’s Sean Maitland crossing for a second try.
Meanwhile, England winger Ruaridh McConnochie scored twice for Bath Rugby in a bonus-point success against Harlequins at The Stoop, where 2,700 supporters returned in a crowd pilot.
The action concluded with Manu Tuilagi returning to haunt Leicester Tigers with a try in Sale Sharks’ 40-31 win while Gloucester saw off London Irish 36-23 at Kingsholm.