Hidden away behind all the Six Nations hype in France, one story that has been simmering gently in the background for a while is slowly coming to a boil – the neverending story of Rory Kockott and his move from Top 14 champions Castres to Toulon.
On Wednesday, French newspaper La Provence reported that, following talks with his current club, the scrum-half had turned his back on the lucrative move to the Cote D’Azur, despite signing a pre-contract in October. So far, there has been no official confirmation one way or the other.
It’s not particularly helpful when it comes to this weekend’s Top 14 matches, which sees the defending champions entertain lowly Oyonnax, and Toulon face even lowlier Biarritz – but it’s an intriguing sideshow, nevertheless.
The first Top 14 match of the weekend comes from Stade Andre Moga, where Rafael Ibanez’s Bordeaux are at home to Grenoble. Before the break, the visitors had won three on the bounce and four of their last five, including victories at home over Toulouse and Castres, and that astonishing smash-and-grab win at Toulon.
Bordeaux will be pleased to be back on home soil. They have been on the road for four of the past five weeks, winning just twice in that time. They’ll have used the week off to recover from their travels. This one will be close, but the Begles are a tough nut to crack at home – even for a side with no fear, such as Grenoble.
The Top 14 match of the weekend is likely to be the one on Saturday afternoon, as second entertains first. Punditry is futile because the home side are Clermont. That means Marcel Michelin. And Clermont have won their last seventy-odd games at Marcel Michelin, a winning streak dating back to November 2009.
Then again, if any side can end that astonishing run, it’s this Stade Francais side, who have been irresistable at times this season. They have an ideal replacement for Jules Plisson, who’s on French duty, in a certain Morne Steyn – though they may miss Sergio Parisse’s dynamism at the back of the scrum.
Bayonne are at home to Brive. They will be looking to give themselves a crucial cushion over Oyonnax, who currently occupy the Top 14’s second relegation spot. And there’s little reason to doubt they can do it. Despite languishing in 12th place, they are tough to beat at home, as Clermont found to their cost last time out.
Brive, too, come into the game on the back of a big win – at home to Toulon. But, this time, they are away from the safe confines of Stade Amedee Domenech. Expect a relatively comfortable home win.
Oyonnax take their fragile away record to defending Top 14 champions Castres, who will be looking to rebuild their Pierre Antoine fortress, following their first defeat at home in more than a year against Leinster in the Heineken Cup. The Tarn side followed that loss with a Top 14 mullering at Stade Francais.
This match is probably their easiest in the Top 14 until mid-March. After Oyonnax, they face a trip to Toulon, before entertaining Toulouse. Then, they’re on the road again, when they head to Racing Metro. If they are to maintain their play-off challenge, they have to leave the side from the plastic city in deep, deep trouble.
Perpignan entertain Racing Metro at Stade Aime Giral. A few weeks ago, the Parisian side were in deep trouble, but their 25-5 thumping of Toulouse last time out, coupled with other results going their way means they are a mere two points off the play-off places, and just a win away from third.
That said, they come into this game without Lions Dan Lydiate, Mike Phillips, Jonny Sexton and Jamie Roberts, or French internationals Dimitri Szarzewski and Maxime Marchenaud. It’s probably a good time to face Racing, then, who were just starting to threaten – finally – to turn their disappointing season around.
It’s also probably a good time to face Toulouse, who are also missing several key players through a combination of injury and international call-ups.
Montpellier should consider themselves lucky, then. They face a side without Yoann Huget, Gael Fickou, Louis Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga, Yoann Maestri, or Jean-Marc Doussain, while Thierry Dusautoir, Luke McAlister and Florian Fritz are still on the injury list.
Maxime Medard, however, has been released from the French squad – which is good news for Guy Noves as he juggles his squad, which has been stretched by international call-ups and injuries. But if there’s one thing Guy Noves knows to do, it’s how to get the most from his resources. Even a patched-up and strung-together Toulouse will probably be too strong at fortress Ernest Wallon for the Herault side.
Toulon will want to rediscover that winning feeling when they entertain the Top 14’s basement side Biarritz at Stade Mayol. The Var side really should win just about every match going, but come into this game on the back of four Top 14 defeats in their last five games.
But a Biarritz win? Unlikely. Very, very unlikely.
Bordeaux v Grenoble: Bordeaux by 5
Clermont v Stade Francais: Clermont by 9
Bayonne v Brive: Bayonne by 15
Castres v Oyonnax: Castres by 10
Perpignan v Racing Metro: Perpignan by 8
Toulon v Biarritz: Toulon by 15
Toulouse v Montpellier: Toulouse by 5
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images