Just six points separate top-of-the-table Toulouse and ninth-placed Castres in a Top 14 season that, as it enters its second third, defies belief, expectation and logic.
So it’s probably safe to say that the table will look a little different at the end of the weekend than it does right now.
Mourad Boudjellal’s expensively assembled Toulon have lost their last three games on the road, including that game of two – literal and figurative – halves at Toulouse last week. Even so, they’re still third, but they’re probably pleased that they’re at home to Bordeaux, who lost at Perpignan last week, and currently sit 11th in the Top 14 table.
Even though they will be without the injured Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Michael Claassens, this one has all the hallmarks of a morale-boosting big win for the rouge et noir.
Almost every follower of the Top 14 knows all about Clermont’s incredible 66-match unbeaten run at home that stretches all the way back to November 2009.
Fewer people, however, may be aware that the same side that boasts this astonishing record also holds another one – and it’s rather less impressive. They have failed to win at Castres Olympique for 37 years.
Given the number of players missing for the side currently sitting in second in the Top 14 – Morgan Parra is banned, while Loic Jacquet, Mike Delany, Alexandre Lapandry, Thomas Domingo, Davit Zirakashvili and Elvis Vermeulen are all doubtful – they will be hard-pushed to end their losing streak at Stade Pierre Antoine.
One man, however, will be keen to impress. Scrum-half Thierry Lacrampe returns to Castres for the first time since joining Clermont at the end of last season. He probably wouldn’t have started had Parra been available – and can expect a warm welcome from the old faithful.
Toulouse owe their lofty position at the head of the league to their home record this season. They have picked up bonus-point wins in all but one of their games at Ernest Wallon, but they need to start picking up a win or two on their travels.
But this week they’re at Brive, who are unbeaten at home this season and came within 15 minutes of shocking Clermont at Marcel Michelin last weekend. They will certainly give Toulouse a run for their money.
Despite spending some serious money on some serious talent, Racing Metro are eighth in the Top 14. There’s a long way to go – and the league is very close, but they’re currently out of the end-of-season play-off places.
That said, you would probably have to bank on them to win at Biarritz. Their fans were probably hoping that their impressive-looking Amlin Cup victory over Oyonnax a fortnight ago would – finally – kickstart their season. But Castres had other ideas and thumped the Basque side 39-0 when the Top 14 resumed last weekend.
Oyonnax’s hell-unleashed style of rugby has been found wanting in recent weeks and they have slipped into the Top 14’s relegation zone. So it’s probably not the best time for them to welcome a resurgent Perpignan.
But they are still incredibly tough to beat at home. This will be a close one, but when Sunday comes the club from the little plastics city in the shadow of the Jura mountains could well have another prestigious scalp to hang up on the wall at Stade Charles Mathon – alongside those of Toulon, Clermont, Castres and Biarritz.
It seems surprising to say it, but fourth-placed Montpellier are another side desperately seeking a victory. They have lost their last two games, and Ulster completely shattered the myth of Stade Yves du Manoir in the Heineken Cup two weeks ago, which means Fabien Galthie has a little bit of mid-season team DIY to do.
Unfortunately, opponents Grenoble are heavy hitters and could, if the mood takes them, break down any temporary or not-quite-set fixes that the coach may have put in place. The hosts have a point or two to prove, however, so expect them to come out fast and hard. If they can score early, this could turn into a bloodbath.
After last Saturday’s error-strewn Paris derby against Racing Metro at Stade de France, Stade Francais are back at Stade Jean Bouin, which should suit them well against a Bayonne side that, despite last week’s Martin Bustos-Moyano-inspired victory over Montpellier, aren’t being helped by the distraction of the ongoing Mike Phillips situation. The longer that goes on, the more difficult their season is going to get… and they can’t afford any long-term distractions, given their precarious position in the lower reaches of the table.
Toulon v Bordeaux: Toulon by 15
Castres v Clermont: Castres by 9
Brive v Toulouse:Toulouse by 6
Biarritz v Racing Metro: Racing Metro by 12
Oyonnax v Perpignan: Oyonnax by 4
Montpellier v Grenoble: Montpellier by 14
Stade Francais v Bayonne: Stade Francais by 10
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images