Defending Top 14 champions Toulouse defeated Bordeaux-Begles, who missed the chance to return to the top of the table on Sunday.

Lyon beat Toulon on Saturday to unseat Bordeaux at the summit, and a 22-14 away reverse the following day - inspired by Thomas Ramos - kept the visitors in second.

Ramos scored a try, dispatched two conversions and also a penalty to supply half of Toulouse's points as they climbed to sixth.

There was a dramatic finish at the bottom of the table, meanwhile, as Agen climbed from 14th place thanks to a 23-22 win at Bayonne.

Jamie-Jerry Taulagi bundled his way over in the 78th minute, and Leo Berdeu held his nerve to add the crucial extras in a narrow success.

Saracens were handed a resounding 41-14 defeat by Harlequins in the absence of several key players as they returned to Premiership action for the first time since their automatic relegation was confirmed.

With seven players at an England training camp ahead of the Six Nations and Billy Vunipola out with a broken arm, Saracens – who will spend next season in the Championship after breaching salary cap regulations – succumbed to a chastening loss as the rain lashed down at Twickenham Stoop.

Quins welcomed captain Chris Robshaw back into the line-up and took the lead inside two minutes, Alex Dombrandt putting the disappointment of being overlooked by Eddie Jones aside by winning a turnover and setting up Danny Care to touch down.

Cadan Murley finished off a sweeping move in the right corner in the 11th minute and had a second try after a stunning dummy from Marcus Smith helped make it 19-0.

Alex Lozowski reduced the arrears before half-time but Gabriel Ibitoye and Paul Lasike crossed within 10 minutes of the restart to establish a 24-point cushion for Quins.

Manu Vunipola added the extras after teeing up Dom Morris for a Sarries try out wide, but Martin Landajo raced clear after intercepting the ball to round-off a bonus-point triumph that moved Quins level with fifth-placed Bristol.

Lyon quickly put their European Champions Cup disappointment behind them to return to the Top 14 summit with a comfortable home victory over Toulon on Saturday.

The domestic league leaders failed to advance through their European pool after losing to Leinster and Northampton Saints across the previous two weekends.

But a Top 14 title charge is very much on thanks to their 11th win of the campaign, a 27-12 success as Toulon were held try-less.

Xavier Mignot crossed for Lyon's opener after eight minutes, but Anthony Belleau kicked four first-half penalties to keep Toulon in the match with a narrow half-time lead.

But after Rudi Wulf and then Toby Arnold added further Lyon tries, victory never looked in serious doubt.

Meanwhile, La Rochelle defeated Montpellier 35-30 thanks to a hat-trick from Arthur Retiere in a 15-minute spell either side of half-time.

Retiere crossed in the 32nd, 36th and 46th minutes to put La Rochelle in complete control, their lead 32-11 inside the final half-hour.

But they had to withstand a tense finish after Johan Goosen, Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg and Nemani Nadolo all crossed while Geoffrey Doumayrou was sent off.

Racing 92 had no difficulties as they crushed Castres on the road, Marc-Antoine Rallier's 48th-minute dismissal ending all hopes of a home fightback in a 27-0 reverse.

Brive defeated Pau 33-26 in far more dramatic circumstances, though, as Thomas Laranjeira produced a stunning match-winning turn.

The full-back scored 28 of his side's 33 points, including two tries in the closing stages to down shell-shocked Pau, who had led from the 26th minute until the 77th.

In Saturday's late game, Stade Francais made a strong start but succumbed to a 29-19 loss at Clermont Auvergne.

Bordeaux-Begles have the chance to move back above Lyon and return to the top of the standings when they play away to holders Toulouse on Sunday.

An incredible finish to Saturday's Pro14 game saw Rhyno Smith's late double lift Cheetahs to a stunning 31-30 win at rivals Southern Kings.

The two South African sides clashed at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and, for much of the contest, the struggling Kings looked certain to claim their first derby win.

Bader Pretorius, who also kicked three conversions and three penalties, Stefan Ungerer and JT Jackson crossed for the home side.

Kings' lead was a handsome 30-17 with just six minutes remaining, but a remarkable late show from Rhyno Smith proved their undoing – the Cheetahs star crossing in the 76th and 81st minutes.

Replacement scrum-half Ruan Pienaar still had to keep his cool with the conversions, but his second successful kick clinched an improbable victory.

Sale Sharks survived a second-half fightback from Exeter Chiefs to secure a hard-earned 22-19 victory over the Premiership leaders.

Having headed into Saturday's encounter on the south coast without a defeat in all competitions since November, Exeter found themselves trailing 22-5 at the interval after a blistering first-half display from the visitors.

With Tom O'Flaherty sent to the sin bin early on Exeter, Sale ran in three tries in the first half – Chris Ashton, Daniel du Preez and Byron McGuigan getting on the scoresheet.

Rob du Preez added a further seven points, though Phil Dollman's try had handed the Chiefs some hope and Exeter gained 14 points in the space of seven minutes to set up a grandstand finale.

But Sale held firm, clinching a victory that lifted them into third, four points behind Exeter.

Elsewhere, Wasps ran in three tries in the second half to come from behind and edge out Worcester Warriors 30-26, with Dan Robson's late try proving decisive in a bonus-point win.

Wasps are eighth, level on points with the Warriors and three shy of Bath, who just got the better of Leicester Tigers – Tom Homer's double ultimately securing a 13-10 victory.

Meanwhile, Bristol Bears snapped a three-match losing streak with a convincing 34-16 triumph over west country rivals Gloucester, who slipped into fourth.

Callum Sheedy kicked 19 of the Bears' points, converting five penalties in the first half, with Bristol going over three times after the break.

Dave Porecki's last-gasp try prevented 14-man Northampton Saints from going top of the Premiership as London Irish secured a thrilling 20-16 win at Franklin's Gardens.

The visitors were 16-8 down heading into the final eight minutes but tries from Franco van der Merwe and Porecki got the job done for Irish after Api Ratuniyarawa had seen red.

Ollie Hassell-Collins' early try gave the underdogs the lead, but the Saints – who lost England centre Piers Francis to injury in the first half – led at the break after Cobus Reinach dotted down and James Grayson added eight points with the boot.

Ratuniyarawa's second-half dismissal for a high clearance at a ruck proved pivotal, even if another Grayson penalty did initially give Northampton further breathing space. 

Having seen Reinbach, who confirmed this month he would leave Saints at the end of the season, make a stunning try-saving tackle, the hosts' resolve was broken when Van der Merwe pierced the line.

Irish continued to press and got their reward at the death, Porecki pouncing to earn their first win since November after an attempted clearance was charged down. 

South Africa have promoted Jacques Nienaber to replace Rassie Erasmus as head coach following their Rugby World Cup triumph.

Erasmus reverted back to his position of director of rugby after the Springboks lifted the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan last November and will now oversee his former assistant Nienaber.

Nienaber was named as Erasmus' successor on Friday in a South Africa statement that said the new coaching set-up is "heavily accented on continuity".

Mzwandile Stick retains his position as assistant coach, with Felix Jones now a European-based coaching consultant.

Deon Davids is the new forwards coach, while Bulls scrums coach Daan Human takes up the same role with the world champions and will also stay on with the Super Rugby franchise.

Davids replaces Matt Proudfoot, who joined England's coaching staff this month.

Nienaber described his delight at landing the top job.

"This is a massive honour and responsibility, but I think I have a good understanding of what it entails, especially in this new structure," the 47-year-old said.

"I've worked with Rassie in a coaching capacity for nearly two decades now and we have a very good idea of how each of us thinks, and as I'll still be reporting to him, our working relationship won't be changing.

"It's a big step up for me in terms of carrying the day-to-day leadership role and there'll be other adjustments, but in many ways, it will also be business as usual.

"We've built up a good culture over the past two years and we'll simply be looking to extend that."

Erasmus stated: "Jacques is highly experienced and has worked with the Springboks on three separate occasions now so knows exactly what the job is about.

"Jacques will be responsible for the Test match preparation and day-to-day team operations but, as the director of rugby, I will be with the team for the majority of the time and in the coaches' box with Jacques at matches."

South Africa have promoted Jacques Nienaber to replace Rassie Erasmus as South Africa head coach following their Rugby World Cup triumph.

Former Australia head coach Michael Cheika has switched codes to take on a short-term advisory role with Sydney Roosters.

Cheika resigned as Wallabies boss after a Rugby World Cup quarter-final defeat to England last October.

The 52-year-old has been linked with Top 14 giants Montpellier, but for now he will work with the NRL champions' coaches and pass on his attacking skills expertise to the players.

Roosters head coach Trent Robinson told Sydney's Daily Telegraph: "He is helping push myself and the assistant coaches to improve and challenging our ideas and helping push us again in 2020.

"He is also a really skilful attacking style of coach as well. We are taking anything we can learn from his style of coaching and his attacking mindset.

"Cheiks loves the footy environment. He is a rugby union coach but he grew up in the Eastern Suburbs and he just loves footy, whether it’s union or league."

Cheika, a longtime friend of Robinson's, said: "Trent asked me to do some very specific stuff with a couple of the coaches and specific areas.

"He has got me on a few projects. I've loved it. I was really honoured that they thought I could contribute. I want to make sure the stuff I’m doing is contributing the way Trent wants me to.

"I've really enjoyed being involved with the lads. The coaches are fine men and the players are good lads."

 

Worcester Warriors lock Michael Fatialofa has been moved out of intensive care and is making "good progress" after suffering a spinal contusion.

The 27-year-old New Zealander sustained a serious neck injury in the Premiership defeat to Saracens at Allianz Park on January 4.

Fatialofa underwent surgery to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord caused by bruising and swelling.

Worcester revealed on Thursday that the former Hurricanes forward has been moved from intensive care to the Major Trauma Unit at St Mary's Hospital in London.

A club statement said: "Michael's condition remains serious but he is making good progress and he is showing encouraging signs of improvement.

"The hope is that he will soon be transferred to the internationally acclaimed spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire to continue his rehabilitation."

The Warriors have set up a special email account – This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. – so that Michael and his wife, Tatiana, can receive messages of support.

Nigel Wray has taken full responsibility for the "heartache" he has caused after Premiership Rugby published a full report of Saracens' "egregious" and "reckless" breaches of salary-cap regulations.

The European and English champions were docked 35 Premiership points and fined £5.36million in November for exceeding the ceiling for payments to players in each of the last three seasons to the tune of around £2.1m over that period.

There was worse to come for the London club when it was announced last weekend they would be relegated from the top flight at the end of the season after being unable to prove they have complied with salary-cap regulations for the current campaign.

Premiership Rugby on Thursday made public how an independent disciplinary panel came to a decision to punish Saracens for the breaches in the last three seasons in a report that does not include the current campaign.

A summary of the panel's verdict stated that Sarries had "continuously and recklessly failed to comply with its obligations to cooperate with the SCM (salary cap manager)."

Sarries argued co-investments club owner Wray, who quit at the start of this month, entered into with players should not be count towards salaries but he has now accepted taking an "ill-considered approach." 

Wray said in a statement: "I am really sorry for the heartache that I have caused you [supporters] due to my ill-considered approach to matters relating to salary cap compliance. My intention with co-investments was always to support players beyond their playing careers.

"I recognise that the actions of the club were described by the panel as 'reckless' primarily due to my failure to consult with PRL's salary cap manager prior to entering into any agreements and then disclosing the transactions to him. I take full responsibility for this. We should have been far better. 

"Equally important is the panel's determination that neither the club nor myself deliberately attempted to breach the cap."

Wray revealed that property co-investments with players, a payment by a former player to himself and a club director, and the purchase of 30 per cent of a player's image rights by himself and two other directors were among the "one-off transactions" the panel considered to be undeclared salary.

Agent fees and appearances at MBN Events, owned by Wray's daughter Lucy, were also classed as undeclared salary.

Darren Childs, chief executive of Premiership Rugby, said upon the release of the report: "We are pleased to be able to finally publish the full judgment on Saracens' breaches of the salary cap in the last three seasons.

"Now that everyone can see the details, the decision will show that Premiership Rugby has taken firm action to enforce the regulations and our management of the salary cap has been endorsed by the panel."

Finn Russell will not feature in Scotland's Six Nations opener against Ireland after being sent home for disciplinary reasons.

Scottish Rugby announced on Thursday that Racing 92 fly-half Russell has been released from Gregor Townsend's squad for a breach of team protocol.

Scotland will have to do without Russell at the Aviva Stadium a week on Saturday and it remains to be seen if he will play any part in the tournament.

A Scotland team spokesperson said: “Stand-off Finn Russell will play no further part in preparations for Scotland's Six Nations opener against Ireland, having been disciplined for a breach of team protocol during the week's camp in Edinburgh.

"He has returned to his club."

Russell last year revealed he had a disagreement with head coach Townsend after a dramatic 38-38 draw with England at Twickenham.

"I actually had an argument with Gregor [at half-time]," Russell told ITV after the game.

"I said to him, 'You're telling us to kick and when we kick, they just run it back and cut us open, and when we run it, they're just hitting us behind the gain line and winning the ball back'.

"Second half, we just came out with nothing to lose, played our rugby, kicked out of our half and scored some great tries. We played good Scottish rugby."

The 27-year-old played at Glasgow Warriors from 2012 to 2018 before landing his move to France.

Stuart Hogg has revealed he approached Gregor Townsend to ask if he could take over as Scotland captain after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Hogg was named as skipper last week when Scotland head coach Townsend announced his Six Nations squad.

The Exeter Chiefs full-back takes over from Stuart McInally for the tournament, which starts on February 1.

Hogg took it upon himself to put his hand up for the captaincy following the disappointment of Scotland's failure to reach the quarter-finals on the biggest stage of all in Japan.

"I came back after the World Cup and had a conversation with Gregor," the British and Irish Lion told BBC Radio 5 Live.

"I asked about his thoughts on leadership going forward and said I'd like to be captain; I'd like to have the opportunity to lead this team and take us forward.

"I want to make a difference. The captains that have been before me have done terrific jobs, but I want to put my mark on it."

Scotland won only once in the Six Nations last year and Hogg knows that is unacceptable as they prepare to face Ireland at the Aviva Stadium on the opening weekend.

Hogg added at the launch of the tournament on Wednesday: "Ireland have lost one home game in the championship in the last five years so that just shows you how difficult it is to win away from home – Dublin, Twickenham, Cardiff, Paris, Rome.

"Even our record at Murrayfield over the last few years, you have to be at your very best to win away, you have to stay in the fight, you can't give the opposition easy points.

"You can't let the crowd get more energised, the home crowd will bring more noise, more energy and the home team feeds off that – and we need to be better, we know that.

"We start with an away game this year and even though it's a tough challenge, it's the best preparation for us to see where we are, see if we have learned over the last few years."

Saracens have given Premiership Rugby the go-ahead to publish the full report into how the champions of England and Europe committed repeated breaches of league salary cap rules.

The London club's new chairman, Neil Golding, said on Wednesday that Saracens are "keen" for the details to be made public, in order to bring "context and clarity" to the situation.

Premiership Rugby welcomed what it said was an about-turn from Sarries and confirmed publication will go ahead, saying it will "begin preparations" for Lord Dyson's report to see the light of day.

Golding was adamant Saracens had no objection to the report's release, but Premiership Rugby insisted the club's lawyers had previously expressed resistance "in the strongest terms".

Demotion to the Championship at the end of the current season is the grim fate that awaits Saracens, who were first hit by a 35-point deduction and £5.36million fine, later compounded by last week's swingeing second punishment.

Golding's assertion conflicted with comments from Premiership Rugby chief executive Darren Childs, who on Tuesday said Saracens' lawyers wanted the judgement to remain confidential.

In a statement released on Wednesday, Saracens chairman Golding said: "With regards to the publication of the disciplinary panel’s full report, I am surprised by the suggestion that Saracens are objecting to the publication of the report.

"Since my appointment on 9 January, I have spent considerable time in discussions with PRL and nobody has asked me what my position is on the matter.

"To confirm, we are keen for the report to be published in full and I made PRL aware of this earlier today. It will provide much needed context and clarity."

Golding's remarks led to a swift response from Premiership Rugby, which said in its own statement: "Premiership Rugby welcomes Saracens' decision to withdraw its previous objection to publication of Lord Dyson's decision.

"These objections were stated in the strongest terms and in writing on behalf of the club by its lawyers.

"We believe that publication of the decision in respect of Saracens' past breaches of the salary cap is an important step towards upholding trust in our enforcement of the regulations and the disciplinary process.

"We will now begin preparations for release of the decision. Further details will be provided in the coming days."

Golding's latest comments included the confirmation that Saracens swallowed the bitter pill of relegation rather than allow their books to be raked over in a "full investigatory audit".

"It would be fair to say that other PRL stakeholders were sceptical about our compliance with such an audit," Golding said.

"We carefully considered the option of a full investigatory audit. However, that inevitably would have involved a long period of more financial and emotional strain and this in turn meant this was not a viable option for us.

"We therefore agreed with PRL on relegation in the hope that we could draw a line under the mistakes made by Saracens with respect to compliance with the regulations and concentrate on putting our new robust procedures in place."

England captain Owen Farrell has declared "nothing is set in stone" when it comes to his Saracens future.

After last week's dramatic announcement from Premiership Rugby that Saracens will be demoted to the Championship next season, the focus has switched to what that will mean for the club's elite players.

Years of breaching the Premiership salary cap has come back to bite Saracens, the current champions of England and Europe.

Farrell was one of seven Saracens players named in a 34-man England squad on Monday and there will be clear-the-air discussions during the team's training camp.

Rival clubs have been angered by Saracens' over-spending and England will move quickly to defuse any tensions that may exist within coach Eddie Jones' group.

Asked whether he would stay with Saracens beyond this season, Farrell said: "There's obviously ongoing chats. We have an idea of what our plan would be for the lads that are coming into camp.

"We've had a sit-down, but obviously nothing is set in stone so [I am] not in a position to talk about it, but we feel clear enough at this moment in time to get on with what's in front of us and get excited about getting to England."

Farrell was asked for his view on the punishment meted out to his club side, and told ITV Sport: "It's disappointing obviously, but as a club we've accepted the punishment and I back the club to come back from this."

England's squad were set to gather on Wednesday and Farrell, as the team's leader, will likely have a key role in making sure there are no disruptive divisions between the players given the need for unity.

Asked whether there might be issues between the Saracens contingent and players from other clubs, Farrell said: "I don't know. The best thing about this squad over the past year or so [is] we've got better at being up-front with each other.

"We've got better at being open and better at being honest, and if that's the case we'll get it out there and we'll sort it out and be able to move on.

"It'd be wrong of us not to say anything so we'll see what comes of it when we do mention it."

Farrell left no doubt he is relishing the chance to focus on England matters over the coming weeks.

After the run to the Rugby World Cup final, England will bid to dethrone Wales as Six Nations champions.

"It's massively exciting," Farrell said.

"The group that we've got is obviously a lot of people that've been together for a while now, but with some people that are hopefully going to add a lot to it.

"We want to push, we want to get better, we want to improve, and we want to see where we can take it.

"We've got to work hard and that'll be what we do now when we meet up."

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