Darren Sweetnam made his La Rochelle debut off the bench in the final quarter to help Ronan O’Gara’s side draw level on points at the summit of the Top 14 with an emphatic 38-23 win over Lyon.
But the concession of two late tries robbed La Rochelle of the attacking bonus point which would have put them ahead of Toulouse at the top of the table.
Sweetnam, released by Munster just over two weeks ago to take up a three-month ‘medical joker’ contract with O’Gara’s side, replaced full-back Brice Dulin on the hour as La Rochelle romped to victory at their Stade Marcel Deflandre which in pre-Covid days was filled to its 16,000 capacity for several seasons.
The 27-year old, who is not registered for Europe, will hope for further game-time away to Brive next weekend as La Rochelle wrap up their preparations for their Heineken Champions Cup semi-final with Leinster on May 2. But there is a doubt about that game going ahead after a Covid outbreak in the Brive camp.
Overnight leaders and fellow Heineken Champions Cup semi-finalists Toulouse, who were understrength, suffered a 26-24 away derby loss to Castres, who had three players binned in a fiery encounter.
That presented La Rochelle with the chance to go top of the table and they were well on their way when they led 20-6 at the interval helped by tries from former Springbok Dillyn Leyds and former New Zealand U-20 out-half Ihaia West.
Further tries from centre Geoffrey Doumayron and flanker Kevin Gourdon made the game safe at 38-13, but the concession of two late tries cost La Rochelle the bonus point which would have given them outright leadership of the Top 14.
Meanwhile, former Munster and Ulster out-half Bill Johnston wasted little time in making a mark for his new club Ealing Trailfinders with the Tipperary native running in a try inside five minutes and then kicking seven conversions in a 64-17 mauling of Jersey Reds in the English Championship.
The 24-year was drafted in by the west London club as injury cover this week and made an instant impact as Ealing Trailfinders maintained their perfect start to the season with a sixth straight bonus point win keeping them on top.
Johnston even combined with older brother David for one of captain’s Rayn Smid’s hat-trick of tries and could line out opposite Owen Farrell next Sunday when they entertain Saracens.
Johnston, out-half when Ireland defeated New Zealand in the U-20 World Championship in 2016, made a dozen appearances for Munster before moving to Ulster two years ago.
He has played 18 matches for Ulster before going on loan to Ealing Trailfinders this week.