French Top 14 dogfight set for thrilling climax
Montpellier's players celebrate after scoring a try during their French Top 14 rugby union match against Bayonne, at Yves du Manoir stadium in Montpellier, on March 29, 2014 - by Sylvain Thomas
The 2013/14 season has undoubtedly been one of the most topsy-turvy in history for the French elite division, widely regarded as one of the hardest in world rugby.
After another nerve-racking weekend of action, it was Montpellier, who enjoy only the eighth best defence of the 14 teams, who took over as league leaders, for the first time this season, after a 43-27 victory over Bayonne.
As an indication of how the bonus-point system affects standings, fifth-placed Racing-Metro actually have the best record in the league, but have amassed only four bonus points as opposed to Montpellier's 12.
Similarly, eighth-placed Stade Francais have the same won 13, drawn one and lost nine record as Montpellier, Toulon and Clermont, but like their Parisian rivals, also only have four bonus points.
That means that eight clubs realistically remain in the race for a place in the top six, with the top two guaranteed a semi-final place along with the winners of play-offs between the next best four teams.
The run-in also coincides with European Cup quarter-final action for Toulouse, Clermont and Toulon, with Stade Francais and Brive also still involved in the Challenge Cup.
Bayonne's defeat on Saturday pushed them closer to joining Basque neighbours Biarritz in being relegated to the ProD2, especially after Oyonnax's shock win over Grenoble, Perpignan also hovering just above the relegation zone.
Toulouse sit in seventh after a 32-28 loss to Toulon guided by former player Frederic Michalak, and face the daunting task of travelling to Munster in the European Cup next weekend.
After that Guy Noves' Toulouse have a run-in most teams would take, hosting Brive, travelling to Oyonnax and then entertaining Grenoble.
Clermont (3rd on 65 points), Racing-Metro (5th, 60) and Bordeaux (6th, 58) also have two home matches in their final three games.
However, Montpellier (1st, 66), Toulon (2nd, 65), Castres (4th, 62) and Stade Francais (8th, 58) all have to twice travel away.
In that light, the Clermont-Castres and Bordeaux-Toulon clashes in the next round of matches on April 12 could prove decisive.
"It's better to be top than elsewhere, but we will be back at work on Monday. Nothing has been won yet," Montpellier coach Fabien Galthie said after seeing his team go top after running in six tries against Bayonne.
Flanker Alexandre Bias admitted that Montpellier's objective for the season had been "to finish high up the table".
"We'll quietly rest up and prepare for the Grenoble match," he said. "Even if Clermont lost (on Friday), they're there, we conceded 40 points when we played them away, we know they're a good team, Toulon also.
"We'll do our little thing and judge everything at the end of the season. Certainly, our goal is to be among the top four."