The eyes of many a French rugby fan will focus on the Stade de France this weekend as the national side faces South Africa, but there’s also plenty of domestic action in store as the Top 14 returns after a two-week break.
Biarritz signed off on the first third of the season earlier this month by grinding out a 9-6 victory over Racing Metro. The last thing they needed, as they rode a tiny wave of success, was a fortnight off. Worse, they’re on the road this week – at Brive – who are unbeaten at home so far.
Racing Metro, however, were probably grateful for the break. The Parisian side had lost three of their last four outings. They have the unenviable job of travelling to Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin, a venue that genuinely deserves the epithet ‘Fortress’. The home side have not lost here since November 2009. Even without Thomas Domingo, Damien Chouly, Morgan Parra and Wesley Forfana – who are all on France duty – it has become almost inconceivable that they will lose at home.
Clermont are not the only side missing key players this week. Toulouse boss Guy Noves has also lost six of his first-choice players to the national side for Oyonnax’s visit. Despite a number of pundit-defying performances this season, Oyonnax are currently 13th in the Top 14, and in need of points. They may not pick up a win this week, but a bonus point would keep them hanging on the coat tails of Bordeax and Bayonne, who are sitting just above them on points difference.
Following a big dump of snow in their region this week, Grenoble are probably grateful for a trip to the relative warmth of Bayonne in south-west France. They will be looking for their third win on the road this season… and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they will get it. Bayonne have blown hot and cold all season, and the fallout from the sacking of Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips has been a headline-grabbing distraction they would have been much happier to avoid.
Top 14 leaders Toulon entertain Perpignan at Stade Mayol. Bernard Laporte will be able to select a mightily powerful side to face a USAP outfit noticeably weaker for the absence of James Hook. It’s probably safe to expect a home win – and a pretty sizeable one at that.
Second-placed Montpellier welcome 10th-placed Castres to Yves du Manoir in a clash that could turn into a classic Top 14 clash of attack and counter-attack. The visitors will miss the attacking threat of Remi Tales and Brice Dulin, but have worthy stand-ins in the likes of Geoffrey Palis and Daniel Kirkpatrick. If all goes well, this will be close.
Sleeping giants Stade Francais have well and truly woken up this season, and sit in fifth just one point behind leaders Toulon. Their hosts this week are 11th-placed Bordeaux – which suggests that this should be a comfortable away win, but in a league in which just five points separate the top 10, and nine points 13 of the 14 teams, anything is possible.
Brive v Biarritz: Brive to win by 7
Clermont v Racing Metro: Clermont to win by 9
Toulouse v Oyonnax: Toulouse to win by 6
Montpellier v Castres: Montpellier to win by 8
Toulon v Perpignan: Toulon to win by 15
Bayonne v Grenoble: Grenoble to win by 3
Bordeaux v Stade Francais: Stade Francais to win by 7
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)