The final three weeks of this tumultuous Top 14 season promise more nail-biting tension, shocks and surprises than a horror film screening in a vat full of electric eels.
Even at the start of the season, defending Top 14 champions Castres knew they had a tough run-in. And, with their place in the play-offs a long way from secure, trips to Clermont and Bayonne, and a home encounter against current leaders Montpellier, suddenly look even more difficult.
In fact, Clermont v Castres kicks off the Top 14 weekend on Friday night. The hosts have now won 75 on the trot at Stade Marcel Michelin. But the Clermont ogre has been a little off colour in recent weeks. Last week’s victory over Leicester Tigers in the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup was a long way from convincing; and their last Top 14 match at home against Toulon was a nip-tuck affair of the tightest order.
They will not give up that record easily. And, despite a tough run-in of their own – Clermont’s future includes a trip to Racing Metro and a final-day match against a Perpignan side fighting for Top 14 survival – the Montferrand side have so much strength in depth that it’s frightening. It might be close – and Castres may well head back to the Tarn with what could prove to be a vital defensive bonus point – but a home win has to be favourite for the first of the weekend’s seven games.
Arguably the most tension-fuelled game of the Top 14 weekend will be at Stade Aime Giral, where Perpignan entertain Oyonnax. While other Top 14 sides not involved in European competition were enjoying a week off, the side from the plastics city gave themselves a little breathing space in the race for survival with a thoroughly deserved 26-12 victory over play-off chasing Bordeaux.
The Catalans have won just two out of the last seven, while Oyonnax belatedly started picking up points on the road, with defensive bonus points at Castres and Stade Francais before their first away win at Biarritz last month.
It will be tight, but the visitors have the taste for the Top 14 now. After they ran a penalty from their own 22 after the hooter had gone last week in a bid to pick up a try-scoring bonus point, only the hardest of hearts would bet against them doing the job at a subdued Aime Giral.
It wasn’t very long ago that everyone was talking about Grenoble being Top 14 play-off contenders.
But it appears they have run out of puff. Now, they’re eight points away from the play-off zone, and the play-off dream is almost over. While nerves won’t be jangling in the Isere club just yet, doomsayers will happily point out that only six points separates them from the second relegation slot – with a home match against Top 14 leaders Montpellier kicking off a run-in that features the visit of current relegation favourites Bayonne and a last-day trip to Toulouse.
Before the European break, Montpellier were on something of a roll, winning three on the trot. But it would be a genuine shock if they pulled down the fortress at Stade des Alpes.
Bayonne are in deep, deep trouble. They’re in 13th place, two points behind Perpignan – and they have a pretty nasty next three weeks. This weekend they’re at home to Stade Francais. Next week they’re at Grenoble, and their last match of the season is against defending Top 14 champions Castres.
Stade need points. They’re level on 58 points with Bordeaux and Toulouse, but find themselves out of the play-off places thanks to the arcane maths of the Top 14. They have to win at Jean Dauger, especially as both the Begles and Toulouse are at home. This will be brutal, but expect to see Bayonne in deep, deep trouble by the end of Saturday.
Bordeaux could have moved into the play-off places proper last week, but were outplayed, outfought and outthought by an Oyonnax side who had more to lose, but who played as if they didn’t know it.
They could have a new role as unwilling king-makers however, as they face a Jonny Wilkinson-less Toulon this weekend at Stade Chaban Delmas, and Stade Francais next Saturday in Paris before what should be a final-day walk in the park at home to Biarritz. It would be a shame not to see try-machine Metuisela Talebula in the end-of season play-offs, but it’s a distinct possibility given their run-in.
Racing Metro have somehow dragged themselves into contention for the play-offs with a late charge. They will be strong favourites to consolidate their place with a big home win over Top 14 basement side Biarritz.
After their big defeat in the Heineken Cup quarter final at Munster last Saturday, Toulouse will be happy to be back in the safe and welcoming confines of Ernest Wallon. But there’s still work to be done for Guy Noves’ men as they entertain Brive, knowing anything less than a win will severely dent their hopes.
Clermont v Castres: Clermont by 5
Bordeaux v Toulon: Bordeaux by 9
Bayonne v Stade Francais: Stade Francais by 4
Grenoble v Montpellier: Grenoble by 10
Perpignan v Oyonnax: Oyonnax by 4
Racing Metro v Biarritz: Racing Metro by 15
Toulouse v Brive: Toulouse by 15
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images