BORDEAUX – Springbok livewire Cheslin Kolbe helped stoke Toulouse’s hopes of a first Top 14 title since 2012 with a well-taken try in a 20-6 victory over La Rochelle in the league’s end-of-season semi-finals on Saturday.
Toulouse, the 19-time league winners who accrued a record 98 points when finishing top of the Top 14 in the regular season, will now play the winner of Sunday’s second semi-final, which pitches Lyon against Clermont, at the Stade de France on June 15.
Kolbe scored one of Toulouse’s three tries, Sofiane Guitoune and Sebastien Bezy also crossing, while La Rochelle could only respond with two Ihaia West penalties.
“It was rough,” acknowledged Toulouse coach Ugo Mola. “But both teams played rugby and it shows that you can get into the final by playing rugby.
“We won the battle of the rucks, and were able to score three tries. It’s been an incredible season.”
Toulouse totally dominated the opening 15 minutes and their reward duly came thanks to France centre Guitoune.
Free-running Kolbe, starting at fullback rather than wing, kicked things off, demonstrating all the attacking skills that have marked his incredible season in the Top 14.
The forwards took it on as Kolbe went to ground and Thomas Ramos went blind, Guitoune crossing smartly for the opening try.
Ramos converted, but missed a penalty shortly after, before La Rochelle’s Maori All Black flyhalf West pulled back three points.
Toulouse should have moved further ahead after a Ramos interception, but his try-scoring pass to halfback partner Antoine Dupont was ruled forward.
Instead West kicked his second penalty after Ramos again failed with an effort of his own to bring La Rochelle to within one point.
Toulouse opted for an attacking five-metre scrum over the posts on the stroke of halftime, but Dupont’s rushed feed was hooked against the head and La Rochelle went in to halftime just 7-6 down.
In front of a sell-out 42 000-strong crowd in Bordeaux, large parts of which whistled under-pressure France national coach Jacques Brunel when he was shown on the big screen, Toulouse scored their second try with 20 minutes to go.
Bezy, who replaced Ramos with Dupont moving to 10, darted from close range over after a series of pick-and-go drives from Toulouse.
Bezy missed the conversion as both coaches emptied their benches.
Kolbe then crossed for Toulouse’s third try, evading a handful of defenders down the touchline before twisting out of contact in the last, desperate tackle to dot down.
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Bezy, who had the Toulouse backs buzzing after his arrival on the paddock, again missed the extras to leave it 17-6 and with La Rochelle, beaten by Clermont in this season’s European Challenge Cup final, all to do in the final 10 minutes.
“We knew that if we upped our game a bit we’d put them in difficulty,” said Bezy.
As chants of “We’re in the final!” rang out from Toulouse fans, it was game-changer Bezy who hit a late penalty to put La Rochelle out of their misery.