Clermont, Toulon and Toulouse, all stripped of international talent ahead of the Six Nations, suffered morale-sapping defeats in the French Top 14 on Saturday.
Clermont paid a heavy price for the absence of six players on international duty as they slipped to a 9-18 loss at Bayonne, a defeat which also cost them top spot.
In a match played in torrential rain, the contest came down to a battle of the boot with Bayonne’s Argentine kicker Martin Bustos-Moyano proving more deadly than Clermont flyhalf Morgan Parra who missed three second-half penalties.
“We were too in disciplined to win this match,” said Parra. “I have to accept my share of the blame for missing those penalty kicks.”
The result meant that Stade Francais, also weakened by the absence of a host of French internationals in the run-up to next weekend’s Six Nations kick-off, finished the weekend in pole position thanks to their bonus point 32-6 win over champions Castres on Friday.
Clermont are two points behind Stade while European champions Toulon slipped further off the pace when they slumped to a 23-10 defeat at Brive to finish the weekend in an embarrassing seventh place and 10 points off the lead.
Toulouse were another heavyweight outfit to lose on Saturday, going down 5-25 against Racing Metro at the Stade de France to be in sixth place while Racing are eighth.
Toulon have just three players away with the French squad but they were still undone at Brive who raced into a 20-3 lead at the break and never looked back.
Guillaume Ribes scored Brive’s only try with Gaiten Germain kicking 18 points, outscoring Jonny Wilkinson after the English veteran managed just five points from a penalty and conversion of New Zealander Rudi Wolf’s 77th-minute try.
Toulouse president Rene Bouscatel had described the Top 14 as “devalued” in midweek after the domestic programme continued despite 30 players from the Top 14 being away with the French squad.
Tries from Irish flyhalf Jonathan Sexton, Welsh scrumhalf Mike Phillips and France wing Marc Andreu secured a fine victory and a bonus point for Racing, which would have only darkened Bouscatel’s mood.
Sexton denied it had been his best game for Racing since he joined from Leinster.
“I was allowed to play that way because the forwards made ground every time they had the ball,” said the 28-year-old.
“As regards the team performance, well we have won the big games this season, Toulon, Clermont and Montpellier, but lost to poorer sides.”
The defeat for Toulouse extended their poor run away from home in the Top 14, which has seen them fail to register a win on the road this season.
Sexton was the first to go over on Saturday as he took advantage of a dreadful attempted clearing kick by France international flyhalf Lionel Beauxis to score before converting for a 7-0 lead in the fifth minute.
Worse was to befall Toulouse in the 15th minute as Racing wing Andreu intercepted a Toulouse pass and unloaded to Sexton, who raced up the left wing and unselfishly grubber-kicked the ball into the Toulouse 22 for halfback partner Phillips to score a second try.
Sexton failed to convert but he added two penalties before the break to make it 18-0.
Toulouse showed little improvement after the break, and Racing ran in their third try in the 45th minute as the excellent Andreu went over after a superb move involving Sexton and Jamie Roberts, before the decisive break by Argentinean Juan Imhoff. Sexton converted for 25-0.
The visitors’ woes deepened soon afterwards as flank Joe Tekori was sin-binned for a late block on Sexton, who failed to land the resulting penalty.
Despite the one-man advantage for 10 minutes they were unable to add to their lead, and instead it was Toulouse who added the only score in the final 20 minutes, a last-minute try which Beauxis failed to convert.
Racing Metro 25-5 Toulouse
Bayonne 18-9 Clermont
Grenoble 25-19 Perpignan
Montpellier 28-23 Bordeaux-Begles
Biarritz v Oyonnax – Postponed due to waterlogged pitch
Brive 23-10 Toulon
Standings (under headings played, won, drawn, lost, points for, against, bonus points, points):
1 Stade Francois 17 12 0 5 345 275 4 52
2 Clermont 17 10 1 6 463 332 8 50
3 Castres 17 9 1 7 375 300 8 46
4 Grenoble 17 10 1 6 231 360 3 45
5 Montpellier 17 8 1 8 410 345 10 44
6 Toulouse 17 9 8 328 288 8 44
7 Toulon 17 8 1 8 396 298 6 42
8 Racing Metro 17 9 1 7 261 289 4 42
9 Brive 17 7 2 8 329 323 7 39
10 Bordeaux-Begles 17 7 0 10 385 399 9 37
11 Perpignan 17 7 0 10 331 365 8 36
12 Bayonne 17 7 0 10 270 283 6 34
13 Oyonnax 16 8 0 8 258 323 1 33
14 Biarritz 16 3 0 13 206 398 5 17