Last season, Castres squeaked into the playoffs in sixth and then won the title. But after this weekend, the reigning champions are making more noise.
With a 16-12 win away to Bordeaux-Begles, another team scratching for a playoff berth, Castres tighten their grip on a place in the Top 14 postseason.
"It was the perfect coup," said Christophe Urios, the Castres coach. "We did what we had planned."
In later games, three other teams chasing playoff spots all won at home against sides struggling in the bottom four.
Pitiful Pau & Perpignan
The winners racked up some impressive numbers.
Lyon scored six tries as they brushed aside bottom club Perpignan 47-9. La Rochelle scored 10 tries as they pulverized Pau 71-21. Stade Francais collected two red cards but still edged Agen 25-22.
"It's a feeling of total shame," said Pau manager Simon Mannix. "I didn't feel like it was coming this week, we knew La Rochelle were on a difficult five-match losing streak."
The results kept Lyon in third, three points ahead of Castres but six behind second-placed Clermont who travel to leaders Toulouse for a table-top showdown on Sunday.
The next four teams are separated by two points.
Racing 92, who play Sunday, are fifth, a point ahead of Bordeaux with La Rochelle and Stade snapping at their heels.
In the early game, Castres suggested they are again finding form at the perfect time. The victory on Saturday was their eighth in nine matches and lifted them to third with four games left.
Bordeaux, meanwhile, suffered their first home league defeat of the season. They have only won twice away.
They have four games left, three away and one at home, against Toulouse.
"We can still win an away match, but after today it's going to be tough to make the playoffs," defense coach Joe Worsley said.
Bordeaux led 6-3 after a drab first half. In the 43rd minute, Castres fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta sent fullback Geoffrey Palis in for a try with a diagonal crossfield kick.
Bordeaux briefly retook the lead when Baptiste Serin kicked his third penalty but hooker Marc-Antoine Rallier scored the second and last try of the game following a lineout in the 53rd minute.
"It was an arm wrestle," said Bordeaux flanker Mahamadou Diaby. "The first team that scored a try was going to win."
Stretchers At Stade
In Paris, the home team lost two players to red cards and two more to worrying injuries.
Flanker Sekou Macalou, after 31 minutes, and center Jonathan Danty, after 48 minutes, saw red for the same offense -- leading with an elbow as they tried to fend off a tackler.
In the 57th minute, Stade backs Kylan Hamdaoui and Tony Ensor collided as they raced to catch a dropping ball, bashing heads. After a long delay for treatment, both men were carried off strapped to stretchers.
Stade responded by scoring the next 10 points.
Gael Fickou finished off a slick attack with a try under the posts. Nicolas Sanchez converted and then kicked a drop goal.
Agen could only breach the heroic home defense with the last play of the game to secure a bonus point.
Toulouse Take First Spot
Leaders Toulouse touched down the 10th try of the game with less than three minutes left on Sunday to edge second-placed Clermont 47-44 and clinch a place in the Top 14 playoffs.
The victory gave Toulouse an eight-point lead over Clermont in the race for top seeding. More importantly, it put them 23 points ahead of seventh-placed La Rochelle with four rounds to play.
"It's the hallmark of Toulouse to never give up," said co-coach Regis Sonnes.
"It's important to have character when the big matches are coming thick and fast. We were a little nervous all week and that was seen early in the game."
The earlier game was also a nail-biter as Racing 92 squeezed by Montpellier, 26-25. The result sent Racing back to fourth in the table.
Clermont Have A Full Plate Ahead
Toulouse can focus on a European semi-final away to Leicester next weekend while Clermont might worry that they could lose their first-round playoff bye to Lyon, who are seven points behind.
Toulouse kicker Thomas Ramos did not miss all afternoon and the final difference was that Ramos kicked one more penalty than Clermont's Greig Laidlaw.
The home team had the lead in the 48th minute after Cheslin Kolbe turned a slip to his advantage. The winger started left, but his feet flew out from beneath him.
As the surprised Clermont defenders watched, Kolbe jumped up, cut back against the grain and skipped past five flailing tacklers to score.
Clermont responded at once. After a lineout, Tim Nanai-Williams caught the advancing home defense flatfooted with a chipped kick. Hulking Fijian flanker Peceli Yato ran on to catch the ball as the Toulouse backs kept a respectful distance.
Jerome Kaino received a yellow card for blocking the run of Wesley Fofana who, it turned out, was the wrong man.
Scot Richie Gray bulled over to give the home team a 10-point lead with 20 minutes to play. Nine minutes later, they trailed by 11. Damian Penaud finished a slick 12-pass move by touching down in the corner.
The winger completed his hat-trick when he pounced on a Toulouse fumble and raced more than half the length of the field to touch down.
Clermont's third try in seven minutes came at a price.
Toulouse again hit back with 14 men after flanker Joe Tekori was yellow-carded. Romain Ntamack sprinted around the Clermont flank to touch down in the corner. Ramos converted from the touchline and Toulouse trailed by four.
Toulouse pressed and with less than four minutes to play, Guitoune darted between two tacklers and squirmed over to put Toulouse back ahead.
Ramos converted to take his tally for the match to 22 points.
Toulouse secured the ball from the restart and clung on to win a thrilling match.
Machenaud Stars for Racing
Earlier on Sunday, Maxime Machenaud kicked 16 points and Racing scored two vital tries while Montpellier were reduced to 14.
Montpellier scored two first-half tries after Benoit Paillaugue penalties came back off the post. The scrum-half himself scored the first, before center Jan Serfontein scored the second in the corner.
After Georgian prop Levan Chilachava was yellow-carded for hands in a ruck, Racing flanker Baptiste Chouzenoux crashed over deep into time added on.
Paillaugue put Montpellier ahead again when he burrowed over from close to the line.
With five minutes to play, after an offside Jacques du Plessis saw yellow, Henry Chavancy muscled his way over for a try that Machenaud converted for the crucial one-point lead.