The twin distractions of the Top 14 play-offs and the announcement of the squad for the French national side’s tour of Australia has divided and concentrated the minds of rugby fans in l’hexagone this week. So, in the same week Philippe Saint-Andre mysteriously managed to omit Francois Trinh-Duc from the summer tour of a land Down Under, we look ahead to this weekend’s two play-off quarter finals.
Toulouse v Racing Metro
On Friday night, Toulouse, who finished the regular season in fourth place, entertain Racing Metro – who finished fifth. The match at Stade Ernest Wallon is set to feature nine players who have booked seats on the flight to Oz. Seven of them play for the home side. Another, Maxime Medard, is unavailable, after suffering a sprained ankle early in last week’s game against Grenoble. Vincent Clerc, Census Johnston and Romain Millo-Chluski are also, at the time of writing, uncertain to feature.
Otherwise, Guy Noves has a full squad to pick from – including the talismanic Thierry Dusautoir, who took part in his first game since picking up an injury in the last match of the Heineken Cup pool stages against Zebre in January.
Racing, meanwhile, are thanking their fans by laying on free buses down to Toulon for Friday’s match. Which is nice.
It’s the least they could do, after they gave up home advantage last week in abject style, losing 44-10 at Montpellier. Before they shipped five tries last week, they boasted the best defence in the Top 14. They went to the south coast of France on a high after five wins in a row. They headed back to Paris with their heads bowed and their flaws laid bare for all to see.
If there’s one side in the Top 14 you don’t want to know your vulnerable points it’s Toulouse. Guy Noves will have his always well-prepared side ready to prey on each and every weakness. Consecutively and concurrently.
Racing know this. They also know they have to be more focused and precise. Whether they will be focused and precise enough, though, is another question entirely. Toulouse by 10.
Clermont v Castres
On Saturday, Clermont, who boast the Top 14’s joint best attack this season, alongside top two Montpellier and Toulon, entertain a Castres side that needs to find a way to turnaround a dismal season away from home, in which they have won just one and drawn one in 13 matches.
But they have achieved their pre-season aim of finishing in the top six – just. Defeat at Bayonne last week meant they needed a hand from Toulon to hold on to the last play-off place… and the guaranteed berth in next season’s Rugby Champions Cup competition.
Their task now, however, is about as close to a mission impossible as it gets for any Top 14 side. They have to take their awful away form and turn it around to beat a side that has won its last 76 home games.
They are talking a good game. It’s a one-off match, they say. Anything can happen, they insist. They just have to make sure everything works, which it hasn’t in 13 games on the road this season.
But, Clermont’s home record speaks for itself. Even when they play badly – as they did against Perpignan last weekend – they still manage to pull a win out from somewhere. And they are expected to welcome back Naipolioni Nalaga, Lee Byrne and Fritz Lee from injury.
Which ever way you look at it, it doesn’t bode well for the defending champions. They did beat Clermont in the semi-finals of last season’s play-offs, but that was on neutral ground, not at the fortress that is Stade Marcel Michelin. Clermont by 6.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images