The Top 14 returns this weekend, after two weeks of Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cup rugby.
Toulouse have been unstoppable at home this season. They have picked up bonus-point wins every time they have played on their own turf – and have conceded no more than 10 points in a single match.
But this week they face a Toulon side still hurting from their Heineken Cup mugging in Cardiff. Home advantage will probably still count for something, but it’s likely to be a lot closer than the previous games this season at Ernest Wallon.
Racing Metro, meanwhile, host Stade Francais. Such is the scale of the clash that it has been moved to Stade de France, which pretty much cancels out home advantage.
This one is probably too close to call, but Stade would seem to be the better bet as Racing look to be trying too hard… and, remember, they’re away from the safety of Yves du Manoir.
It’s 13th v 2nd as Bayonne entertain Montpellier, a game which is more difficult to call than league positions suggest. Montpellier have won only once on the road this season – back in early September when they won a squeaker at Bordeaux. And Ulster made Fabien Galthie’s side look very ordinary last week.
Worse, Bayonne have beaten Perpignan, Biarritz, Oyonnax and Amlin Cup Pool 4 rivals Grenoble at Jean Dauger. Even star-studded Racing Metro only just scraped a win there.
There can be no doubt Montpellier have the class to win. It just depends on which version turns up. The one that blew away Toulouse and Clermont or the one that could barely string a telling move together against Ulster.
Perpignan pushed Gloucester all the way at Kingsholm in the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup, and blew Edinburgh apart in a devastating second-half spell at Aime Giral last Saturday.
They entertain lowly Bordeaux, who have yet to win on the road this season. This has all the hallmarks of a home victory.
A trip to Castres will probably be bad news for bottom-of-the-table Biarritz, even though they beat Oyonnax 26-6 in the Amlin Cup last weekend to pick up their first win in any competition since August. The hosts have not lost at Pierre Antoine since December. It’s unlikely that will change this weekend.
Meanwhile, a trip to Grenoble is no one’s idea of an easy day’s work. But that’s what Oyonnax face after two tough weeks of Amlin Cup action. Chances are they’ll head back home battered, bruised and beaten… but maybe, just maybe, with a bonus point.
There is one near-certainty in this week’s set of Top 14 matches. Clermont will beat Brive at Stade Marcel Michelin. Vern Cotter’s side have not lost at home since November 2009, an astonishing 65 matches ago. Even without Morgan Parra, who is serving the second game of his four-match ban for punching, they will be too strong for the visitors this weekend.
Bayonne v Montpellier: Bayonne by 7
Toulouse v Toulon: Toulouse by 5
Castres v Biarritz: Castres by 14
Clermont v Brive: Clermont by 20
Grenoble v Oyonnax: Grenoble by 7
Perpignan v Bordeaux: Perpignan by 12
Racing Metro v Stade Francais: Stade by 9
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images