The business end of the European club rugby season is upon us and in France the final round of Top 14 matches takes place this weekend, ahead of a highly anticipated series of playoff matches. The gruelling French season, organised by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), began on August 17th and will come to a climax on June 1st with the playoff final staged at the Stade de France. Wages may be high on the continent but the players have a short off season and a brutal work load of a possible 29 Top 14 matches.
After 25 rounds, this year’s Heineken Cup finalists Clermont Auvergne and RC Toulon occupy the top two places and both have already secured a place in the playoff semi-finals. It was only on April 20th that Clermont leapfrogged the Mediterranean giants into first, after beating Toulouse 39-17 at their home ground, the Parc Des Sports Marcel Michelin. This extended their winning run at home to a French record equalling 59 matches. Toulon, who rested key players in run the up to last Sunday’s Heineken Cup semi- final win over Saracens, lost away at FC Grenoble on the same day and relinquished top spot.
The two league contests between the sides this season have been pulsating affairs. Clermont sealed a 24-21 home win over Bernard Laporte’s men in November, courtesy of a Brock James penalty with the final kick of the game. In the return fixture, played in front of nearly 40,000 fans at Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome a few weeks ago, Jonny Wilkinson had an opportunity to seal a perfect payback victory but the 33 year old missed a penalty in the dying moments and the honours were shared, following a 26-26 draw. Clermont were undoubtedly happier with the result, as they had rested several key players for the match including Captain Aurélien Rougerie, Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines, Lee Byrne and Sitiveni Sivivatu.
Both teams will be at home on the final weekend – Clermont taken on Bordeaux and Toulon face Agen.
The Top 14 playoff format is different to the Aviva Premiership and RaboDirect Pro 12 competitions as the top six sides, as opposed to four, have a chance of winning the championship. The teams that finish 3rd and 4th play host to the 6th and 5th sides respectively in the quarter final match ups and the winners face the top two seeds in the semi-finals. Toulouse, Castres, Racing Metro and Montpellier have already secured their quarter final play off places and the match ups will be finalised after round 26.
Toulouse, who won a record 19th French Championship last season, are guaranteed one of the home quarter final slots and are favourites to finish third. Castres lie fourth in the table but intriguingly face Racing Metro, currently fifth, in Paris on Saturday and therefore the sides could swap places at roughly 5pm local time. Either way they are likely to face each other again the following weekend in one of the quarter finals.
Montpellier, coached by ex-France captain Fabien Galthié, are at home to 7th placed Perpignan and are certain to travel away in their quarter final. But the underdog tag suits them well, as in 2011 the newly promoted side finished sixth in the league and made it all the way to the Top 14 final, eventually losing to Toulouse.
At the bottom of the table there is very little to play for as Agen and Mont-de-Marsan are already relegated to the Pro D2. Next season they will be replaced by Oyonnax, who have ex Bristol and Toulon flanker Joe El Abd in their squad, and either Brive, La Rochelle, Pau or Aurillac, depending on the outcome of the Pro D2 playoffs. Brive, the 1997 European Cup champions, will be looking for a return to the Top 14 at the first time of asking after being relegated, along with Lyon, last season.
What odds of another Clermont vs Toulon final and even one of the sides winning a historic double? It is worth bearing in mind that the top two sides have not both made it through to the Top 14 final since 2008, when Clermont finished first in the league standings but lost to second placed Toulouse in French club rugby’s showpiece event. And doubles are rare – London Wasps were the last side to win domestic and Heineken Cup titles in the same season, back in 2004.
Journée 26 fixtures (Saturday May 4th 2013):
Toulouse v Grenoble
Biarritz v Stade Français
Clermont v Bordeaux-Bègles
Mont-de-Marsan v Bayonne
Montpellier v Perpignan
Racing Métro v Castres
Toulon v Agen
Written by Alastair Pickering – @FollowRugbySite (www.follow-rugby.com)