Top 14 Preview and Predictions: Round 21


There’s no Six Nations this week… and that means that the Cold War between the FFR and the Top 14 clubs heats up again, as players who have been away on international duty are sent back to their clubs, with a note from Philippe Saint-Andre asking that they be excused from games.

Toulon’s Daddy Warbucks, Mourad Boudjellal, for one, wasn’t impressed when Mathieu Bastareaud handed him Saint-Andre’s missive. He told France’s RMC Sport channel: “The Fed, rather than keep the players and compensate clubs, prefers to send players back to their clubs because it costs them nothing.

Other Top 14 clubs have been less vocal in demonstrating their irritation. They simply ignored the request. Montpellier have selected prop Nicolas Mas to start against Stade Francais on Saturday, while Stade are starting with the recalled Rabah Slimani and have picked both Pascal Pape and Jules Plisson as replacements.

This is a game Montpellier have to win. Last week’s defeat at Clermont, where they were up against 14 men for the better part of an hour, saw them drop from second to fifth in the Top 14.

There’ll be a bumper crowd at Bordeaux’s Stade Jacques Chaban-Delmas, where – at the time of writing – 30,000 tickets have been snapped up for the visit of Top 14 leaders Clermont. Vern Cotter described the match as “a real test on the road”.

He’s not kidding. The Girondons are a tough nut to crack at home. They walloped Racing Metro last weekend and are just four points outside the play-off places, with a game in hand over the teams ahead of them. Clermont may be four points clear at the top of the table, but this is not a forgone conclusion.

Clermont will be without the services of Morgan Parra, who has been suspended for two weeks after being sent off for headbutting Montpellier’s Rene Ranger last weekend. The suspension also means he will not be available for Scotland v France on March 8. Wesley Fofana, meanwhile, is injured.

Brive v Grenoble is another tough one to call. Brive lost a dour match at Perpignan last weekend, while Grenoble were on the receiving end of a late mugging from a Top 14 basement side Biarritz, who picked up just their third win of the season at the previously impregnable Stade Lesdiguieres.

The pressure is steadily mounting on Racing Métro coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers. It’s probably why they have named internationals Dimitri Szarzewski, Dan Lydiate, Maxime Marchenaud, Mike Phillips and Marc Andreu in their squad to face Castres at Colombes.

Castres’ bosses David Darricarrere and Serge Milhas have also picked from a full deck. Brice Dulin, Antonie Claassen, Brice Mach, Yannick Forestier, the released Ibrahim Diarra, and new Bleu Remi Lamerat are in the 25 – as are Richie Gray and Max Evans. The result of this one depends on which of Racing’s shaky form or Castres’ poor away record this season improves most.

Toulon were lucky to win at Bayonne last weekend. Oyonnax were unlucky to lose at Stade Francais. It may be too late for the side from the plastics city to save their season – even though they have two games in hand – but don’t expect Christophe Urios’s side to go down without a fight.

Perpignan ended a long losing streak with a win at Stade Aimé Giral last weekend. It was hardly convincing, however, and Ernest Wallon is hardly the best place to go if you’re trying to start a late-season winning streak.

And, with a play-off place up for grabs, Guy Noves is sure to pick the best squad he can. Louis Picamoles will definitely be available, after being unceremoniously dumped by Philippe Saint-Andre for his petulant outburst at being sin-binned at the Millennium Stadium last weekend – but Yannick Nyanga has joined the increasingly lengthy Toulousain injury list.

The Top 14 spills into Sunday for the second week in a row. The final match of the weekend is the Basque Country derby between Biarritz and Bayonne at Parc des Sports Aguilera. Neither side will need much encouragement for this game. It’s likely to be brutal, tense, and close.

Montpellier v Stade Francais: Montpellier by 8
Bordeaux v Clermont: Bordeaux by 6
Brive v Grenoble: Brive by 10
Racing Metro v Castres: Castres by 8
Toulon v Oyonnax: Toulon by 10
Toulouse v Perpignan: Toulouse by 16
Biarritz v Bayonne: Biarritz by 4

By James Harrington (@blackmountained)

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images