The ninth and final round of Top 14 fixtures before the European break features two eye-catching encounters – with Toulon entertaining Clermont and Stade Francais travelling to Toulouse.
The 2013 European Cup finalists meet for the first time since May’s showpiece match at Nice’s new 35,000-capacity Allianz Riviera, rather than Toulon’s pokey old Stade Mayol, which can hold a mere 15,400.
Things have changed since then. Last week, Clermont confirmed that backs coach Franck Azema will move into the head coach’s hotseat when Vern Cotter leaves at the end of the season, which means the visitors can now cast off the veil of uncertainty that has shrouded their season so far.
The news may not quite have come early enough for Clermont to condemn Toulon to their second defeat in as many games, but this encounter – which is effectively on neutral territory – has all the makings of a tense affair.
The weekend kicks off – as ever – on Friday, as Biarritz, already nine points adrift at the bottom of the table, meet Perpignan at Parc des Sports Aguilera.
Not even the return after injury last week of Imanol Harinordiquy could prevent Biarritz losing on the road to Bayonne. It’s difficult to see them breaking their losing habit against Perpignan, who come into this game on the back of a 20-16 victory at home over Toulouse.
Speaking of Guy Noves’ side… they face top-of-the-table Stade Francais in a match that has the potential to be a season’s classic.
The host’s outstanding form at Ernest Wallon – where they have picked up bonus-point wins in each of their four outings – has almost, but not quite, successfully masked the fact that this is so far a pretty forgettable season for the 2011 and 2012 Top 14 champions, while Stade have apparently recovered from the travel-sickness that has plagued them for several years.
It’s a game Toulouse should win. After all, they have already destroyed likely play-off rivals Racing Metro and Castres at home. But it will go all the way.
Reigning Top 14 champions Castres beat Racing Metro at home last week, which should mean they will lose this week. They have yet to win two games in a row this season, and – like several other sides in the French top flight – haven’t picked up a win on the road.
Brive, meanwhile, haven’t lost at home this season, and last week duked out a 12-12 draw at Grenoble, while spending most of the match a man down after Thomas Sanchou saw red in an opening period that is probably best described as ‘eventful’.
Precedence and possibility indicate a home win, but Castres have played some breath-taking rugby at times this season. It’s only a matter of time before it all clicks. And it could click this week – which would be bad news for Brive.
Just in case anyone still doubted it, Oyonnax’s 25-22 victory over Toulon last Saturday proved that their wins over Clermont, Castres and Biarritz were no flukes. They are, however, another side without a win on the road. They’re away this weekend, at Montpellier, who are likely to bring them crashing back down to earth with a high-scoring bump.
The weekend’s fixture list also features the battle of the Top 14’s most disciplined side, Racing Metro, and its most unruly, Grenoble. Referees have had reason to wield a card in the direction of the hosts’ players just five times this season, but the visitors have had players carded 15 times in eight games.
The visitors will bring plenty of fight, but expect them to be found wanting against the ciel et bleu, who will not only out-discipline them, but Jonny Sexton will also punish every indiscretion.
Last week, 13th-placed Bayonne beat the only side below them in the Top 14, Biarritz. This week, they face Bordeaux, who are above them, in 12th, only on points difference. Raphael Ibanez’s hosts start as favourites to win, but this is another match that will probably go all the way to the wire.
Biarritz v Perpignan: Perpignan to win by 8
Toulon v Clermont : Toulon to win by 9
Brive v Castres: Castres to win by 7
Bordeaux v Bayonne: Bordeaux to win by 4
Montpellier v Oyonnax: Montpellier to win by 12
Racing Metro v Grenoble: Racing Metro to win by 13
Toulouse v Stade Francais: Toulouse to win by 5
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images