PARIS – Montpellier can continue to dream of making the Top 14 playoffs as they moved into sixth spot after making a 14-man Stade Francais pay in the final 10 minutes of a crucial 42-25 victory on Sunday.
Stade hooker Laurent Sempere was shown yellow in the 69th minute and the home side crossed for three converted tries to one to ensure a seventh win in eight games as they battle to be included in the end-of-season finals.
The result left Montpellier ahead of La Rochelle on points difference, but Stade Francais out of the reckoning.
Montpellier will next week play their final match of the season away at newly-crowned European Challenge Cup winners Clermont and will have to do as well as, if not better than, La Rochelle, who are at home to Bordeaux-Begles.
“It was a tough match, tense right to the end,” said Montpellier’s Kiwi coach Vern Cotter.
“It’s seven weekends we’ve played a final. It toughens you up. We’ve come away with five points, we can believe, we can get into the top six. We have our destiny in our hands.”
Stade Francais’ forwards coach Pieter de Villiers said the score “doesn’t reflect the match which was very tight for a long time”.
“We’ve gone through some tough times this season, with what’s happened off the pitch. But the squad has turned up to show some real team spirit in the last three games.”
The Parisians’ Sekou Macalou ensured a thrilling start, the flanker bursting from a second-minute line-out to intercept a botched Benoit Paillaugue pass and sprint clear for a try converted by Nicolas Sanchez.
Ex-All Black Aaron Cruden spurned an opportunity to pull back a penalty, the powerful Montpellier forward pack rumbling over from a well-worked maul off the line-out, Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis grounding the ball.
Paillaugue converted to draw the scores level and then knocked over the extras after Yvan Reilhac crossed for the home side’s second try following a clever one-handed offload by giant Fijian winger Nemani Nadolo.
Stade Francais hit back as Macalou stretched out for his second try, Sanchez converting.
Tempers threatened to boil over more than once, and Stade centre Waisea Nayacalevu was yellow carded on the half-hour for a reckless high tackle.
No 8 Louis Picamoles soon after joined Montpellier teammate Fulgence Ouedraogo on the sidelines after head knocks, as Stade came through Waisea’s 10 minutes in the bin unscathed.
Cruden broke the deadlock in the second half, on the receiving end of a smart inside pass from Reilhac, who ghosted through an absent Stade defence.
Paillaugue converted, but Sanchez pulled back a penalty before the Montpellier scrum-half was yellow carded in the 57th minute.
Sanchez booted a second long-range penalty to make it a one-point deficit.
It was Montpellier on the front foot, however, putting together a long sequence of drives that eventually saw Stade hooker Sempere sent to the bin.
The pressure told, Paillaugue burrowing his way over for a try he also converted.
Straight from the kick-off, Montpellier latched on to a loose ball and after two kicks ahead from Du Plessis and Gabriel Ngandebe, full-back Henry Immelman managed to touch down, Paillaugue again on target from the tee.
There was a late consolation try for Stade winger Lester Etien, but that was cancelled out when Montpellier’s replacement prop Mohammed Haouas sprinted clear from 35 metres for a memorable front rower’s try that handed the home side an invaluable bonus point.
In Saturday’s action Lyon sealed a Top 14 playoff berth when they beat La Rochelle 29-19. Leaders Toulouse and second-placed Clermont have both already qualified.
In the battle for promotion from ProD2, Brive ran out 40-20 winners over Vannes and will play Bayonne in the second division final on May 26 in Pau.AFP