France’s third-choice fly-half took the personal battle to Scotland’s first-choice 10 in a pulsating Top 14 encounter at La Defense Arena, but the latter had the last word as Racing 92 came from behind to beat Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle 39-36.
Finn Russell’s successful penalty on the hooter, his ninth from 10 kicks at goal on the night, finally decided a match that had been in the balance all night.
Eight minutes earlier, his inch-perfect miss-pass for Olivier Klemenczak to score his second try of the night looked to have won the game for the hosts. But opposite number Antoine Hastoy ran in a long-range try - his second - from the restart to level the scores.
Hastoy, one of 14 France players released from Les Bleus’ pre-tournament training camp at Capbreton, nailed four penalties, and two conversions, and scored two long-distance tries to send a clear message to Fabien Galthie that he’s not so easy to dismiss, even with Romain Ntamack, Matthieu Jalibert and Thomas Ramos in the international squad. But he will rue failing to convert either of his own tries from out wide.
Finn Russell, meanwhile, had kept Racing in touch with a near-perfect performance with the boot, and unfussily demonstrated exactly why Scotland coach Gregor Townsend suddenly rates him again, after saying in November he needed to rediscover his world-class form.
With O’Gara watching from the stands for the last time - his 10-week touchline ban for inappropriate comments to the FFR’s head of referees ends on Monday - La Rochelle scored three tries to Racing’s one in the first half to head back into the changing rooms with a 28-16 lead.
The visitors’ centre Jules Favre had opened the scoring before 10 minutes were on the clock, darting over from close range as La Rochelle went direct from a 5m lineout. Five minutes later, lock Remi Picquette followed Favre’s lead, bursting through Racing’s stretched defence after the Champions Cup winners had pounded at the line through a number of phases.
Donovan Taofifenua finished a flowing move in the corner to break Racing’s try duck on the night before Hastoy’s solo effort, picking up a loose ball on halfway and scoring in the corner, opened up the visitors’ lead again as the first half drew to a close.
Klemenczak - on as a replacement for the injured Juan Imhoff - raced in just three minutes into the second period to remind La Rochelle the job was far from done. As it turned out, it was a warning the visitors could have done with heeding.
Christophe Urios this week returned to management for the first time since leaving Bordeaux in November. He lost his first match as Clermont head coach, watching from the sidelines as his side went down 34-14 at Lyon. The defeat continues a first-match losing streak for Urios, who lost his first games at Oyonnax, Castres and Bordeaux.
Bayonne maintained their perfect home record this season, with a 37-9 win over Brive, condemning the visitors’ new boss Patrice Collazo to his first defeat since taking over at Amedee Domenech.
Castres ended a run of seven matches without a win against Bordeaux - and extended their unbeaten run at home to 29 matches with a much-needed 23-18 victory at Stade Pierre Fabre.
Two Facundo Isa tries helped Toulon to a 27-16 win over Pau at Stade Mayol. But the visitors will be disappointed they threw away several first-half chances that might have changed the result.
Bottom side Perpignan ended a run of nine defeats with a 31-24 win over Stade Francais at Stade Aime Giral - but they had to survive a nervy 13-minute period at the end of the match, after George Tilsley was sent off for stamping on Morgan Parra’s arm at a ruck.
On Sunday, a much-changed Toulouse - with several France internationals retained by Galthie for next weekend’s Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome - entertain defending champions Montpellier at Stade Ernest Wallon.