After two games over the holiday period, the Top 14 takes a break after this weekend for the final two rounds of the group stages of the Heineken and Amlin Cups. While some sides will have one eye on qualifying for the knockout stages of the European competitions, they will be well advised not to take their eyes of their opponents in France’s domestic league.
Heineken Cup champions Toulon, in particular, have several points to prove. A big win over Montpellier at Stade Mayol before Christmas has done little to hide the fact that they have lost two of their last three Top 14 games. Last week, they lost 14-3 at Racing Metro, and missed the chance to keep the pressure on league leaders Clermont as they failed to take advantage of slip ups by Castres and Toulouse. They are, at least, back at Stade Mayol this week, and have a strong squad lined up to entertain Grenoble.
The Isere side’s Christmas programme included a last-gasp win over Castres at home and a have a 20-6 defeat at Stade de France. But, this weekend, they have not-so-secret weapon they may be able to use. Geoffrey Messina spent three seasons with Toulon before heading to Stade des Alpes. Even he, however, is unlikely to be able to supply the inside information that will allow the visitors to unlock the hosts’ defence. After their humiliation last week at Racing Metro, this should be a walk in the Stade for the rouge et noir.
Toulouse and Clermont also have pressing Heineken Cup engagements looming – but first there’s the small matter of their encounter at Stade Ernest Wallon. All things being equal, this should be a thriller in the Midi-Pyrenees – but it could also easily turn into a dour midfield war of attrition.
Clermont – who last weekend beat Oyonnax to rack up their 70th straight home win – are sweating on the recovery of key players Julien Bonnaire and Alexandre Lapandry, while Jamie Cudmore, Fritz Lee, Julien Bardy and Aurélien Rougerie will spend this weekend on the physio’s couch. But Les Jaunards should have the services of Wesley Fofana, Naipolioni Nalaga, and Daniel Kotze, who were all rested last weekend.
Toulouse, meanwhile, could play new signing Akapusi Qera. The bullocking Fijian flanker signed from Gloucester last week as medical cover for Grégory Lamboley – though it’s more likely he’ll be held back until next week’s Heineken Cup clash against Saracens. Guy Noves’ side have a perfect home record in the Top 14, which conveniently offsets their perfectly awful record away from Ernest Wallon. Bordeaux pushed them close before Christmas, but it’s a safe bet they’ll be ready for the Clermont challenge.
Castres prepare for next weekend’s visit of Leinster by entertaining Bordeaux at Stade Pierre Antoine. The defending Top 14 champions are well acquainted with the prowess of the Begles’ leading point-scorer. Pierre Barnard has racked up 175 points for Bordeaux since his move from Castres at the end of last season. The champions’ record so far this season is very similar to their championship winning 2012/13 one. They are currently third with 42 points. At the same stage last season, they were fourth with 44. Like many sides in the Top 14, they are unbeaten at home, and have picked up attacking bonus points in eight home games.
It’s the start of a tough Top 14 run for the champions, who face Toulon, Stade Francais, Toulouse and Racing Metro after the Heineken Cup fortnight, so a big win this weekend is vital if they are to maintain their play-off challenge.
Nothing changes for basement club Biarritz, who are now 12 points behind 13th-placed Oyonnax in the league and staring ProD2 rugby in the face. They’re back on home soil this Saturday, but face Stade Francais, who are riding a three-match-winning wave right now. It would be a major surprise if the Basque Country side were to pull off a victory – even at Parc des Sports Aguilera – but this match marks the start of Biarritz’s centenary celebrations, and everyone other than Stade fans will be hoping they can enjoy a perfect start to their anniversary year.
After beating Bayonne before Christmas to move out of the relegation zone, Oyonnax left Clermont last weekend with their heads held high but without any points to take back to Stade Charles Mathon. As a result they slipped back into 13th in the Top 14. This week, they welcome Racing Metro to their fortress, where they have only lost once this season. In front of a partisan crowd, their unleashed-hell approach to rugby will probably be too much for the misfiring Parisians, even after their home win over Toulon last time out.
Montpellier are just about hanging on to the final play-off place, despite a season that has encapsulated unstoppable brilliance and infuriating frustration in equal measure. They were the epitome of the former against Biarritz last weekend, and eight days later a perfect demonstration of the latter at Toulon. They’re on the road again this week, at Brive’s Stade Amédée Domenech. Given their dismal form away from home, they’re probably glad that the teams immediately below them – Grenoble, Racing Metro and Bordeaux – face missions impossible on the road.
Eleventh faces twelfth as Perpignan – until recently serious contenders for an end-of-season play-off place – entertain Bayonne. With Oyonnax favourites to win at home to Racing Metro, this is a must-win game for both sides as whoever loses at Stade Aime Giral is likely to drop into the Top 14’s second relegation spot. It’s a welcome return to home soil for the Catalan side, who were on the road over Christmas, and picked up just one point out of a possible 10, with a five-try 37-13 thumping at Castres and a 19-12 defeat at Stade Francais to their name. Brive fared a little better. Until Jonny Sexton levelled the scores late on, they were on course for a home win over Racing Metro, then pushed Bordeaux all the way in a five-try thriller on the road.
Castres v Bordeaux: Castres by 14
Toulon v Grenoble: Toulon by 20
Biarritz v Stade Francais: Stade by 9
Oyonnax v Racing Metro: Oyonnax by 5
Perpignan v Bayonne: Perpignan by 15
Brive v Montpellier: Brive by 6
Toulouse v Clermont: Toulouse by 4
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images