Amid all the hype surrounding the Top 14’s “New Deal” it’s easy to forget that there’s one more week of this season to play.
The match of the weekend is the battle between second-placed Montpellier and Racing Metro, who lie fourth. Two points separate the teams – and, with a bye through to the play-off semi-finals at stake, this promises to go to the wire.
Racing have been the most potent team of the second half of the season, having picked up eight wins out of the 12 matches since the turn of the year. But the second half of Montpellier’s season has been almost as good. They have moved smoothly from sixth to second in the last 12 games. One more win for either side could see them move into one of the Top 14’s two automatic semi-final slots.
Clermont, however, could upset both the Montpellier and Racing applecarts. They come into their last game of the season – at home to Perpignan – on the back of that shocking performance in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Saracens at Twickenham.
It’s probably time to really pity poor Perpignan. They are hanging tough, just outside the second relegation spot on points difference only, but their last game is at fortress Marcel Michelin against a Clermont side that’s likely to be out for blood.
The only possible piece of good news for the Catalan side is that Clermont forwards Julien Bonnaire, Fritz Lee and Damien Chouly, and backs Aurélien Rougerie and Lee Byrne are all doubts, while Daniel Kotze will definitely miss the game.
It was always going to be a tough run-in for Perpignan, who faced Toulon last time out. It will be a difficult time for the fans, who will have one eye on this game, and the other on the Top 14 matches involving Oyonnax and Bayonne.
Oyonnax are at Brive. Bayonne are at home to Castres. It’s not beyond expectation that – in both cases – a single point would be enough to ensure both sides are playing Top 14 rugby next season.
But Oyonnax aren’t a side likely to settle for a single point. They’ll want to end what has already been a remarkable season on a winning high. Brive, meanwhile, have nothing but home pride to play for. It could be enough for Oyonnax’s never-say-die attitude to make a difference.
The result of Bayonne’s encounter with fifth-placed Castres may well have ramifications for both sides. Defeat for the hosts would leave them sweating on the result of the Clermont/Perpignan game, while the visitors’ play-off hopes could rest on the final score. The defending Top 14 champions have struggled on the road all season. They have just one win and one draw to their name away from Pierre Antoine this campaign – which is why they still need points to make sure of a play-off place. Especially with Toulouse and Stade Francais breathing down their necks.
The good news for Castres is that Stade face Toulon at Nice’s Allianz Riviera. The Var side may have a Heineken Cup final to look forward to after last weekend’s tense encounter against Munster in Marseille, but this weekend there’s the small matter of ensuring an automatic Top 14 play-off semi-final spot to consider, too.
Toulon can finish the season with a maximum 78 points. That’s 11 points less than they managed last season and, in that campaign, would have been enough to see them finish fourth. This season, it would see them finish the regular season at the top of the pile.
Defeat could see them overtaken by Montpellier and Clermont, and miss out on either of the two automatic byes to the play-off semi-finals. They will not want that to happen. It probably won’t.
Thierry Dusautoir’s possible return is the big news coming out of Toulouse this week. It’s good news for Guy Noves, as his side entertain Grenoble. A home win is the most likely, as Toulouse do not often lose at Ernest Wallon.
Which just leaves the only game where almost nothing is at stake – Bordeaux v Biarritz. The hosts could sneak into seventh place – and a play-off for a European Cup slot, but they need to run riot and hope that Toulon leave bits of Stade all over the Allianz Riviera.
Toulon v Stade Francais: Toulon by 12
Brive v Oyonnax: Oyonnax by 2
Bayonne v Castres: Bayonne by 3
Toulouse v Grenoble: Toulouse by 12
Clermont v Perpignan: Clermont by 14
Montpellier v Racing Metro: Montpellier by 5
Bordeaux v Biarritz: Bordeaux by 9
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images