Top 14: Round 23 Preview and Predictions

Two matches stand out in this weekend’s Top 14 programme – the Paris derby between Stade Francais and Racing Metro, and Toulouse’s trip to Toulon.

With the end of the Top 14 season nigh, and European action looming for the likes of Clermont, Toulon, Toulouse, Stade Francais and Brive, this week’s matches take on extra importance.

There are more than bragging rights at stake in the Paris derby at Stade Jean Bouin. Stade could severely damage Racing’s hopes of a place in the end-of-season play-offs.

The big-spending visitors are sweating on the fitness of hooker Dimitri Szarzewski, flanker Jacques Cronje and centre Jamie Roberts – and no wonder. Time is fast running out and they are currently seventh in the table, one point outside the play-off places. And with Europe off their radar, they will want to throw everything they have at the Top 14.

Stade have just two points more, and are currently fifth. Just three matches remain after this week’s Top 14 programme.

But – and it’s a big but – at this stage in the season, points in the bag are more valuable than points in potentia. Stade have home advantage. They haven’t lost at home all season. They’re surely not about to start now, not against their rivals from Colombes. Defeat won’t kill off Racing’s hopes of the play-offs, but it will make things much more tense, especially with matches against Clermont and Montpellier to come in their run-in.

The two big pieces of news out of Toulon this week are:

1) The worst-kept secret in town about Jonny Wilkinson’s widely expected impending retirement at the end of the season

2) Bernard Laporte will challenge his 16-week suspension, after it was extended by three weeks when he appealed against the initially imposed 13-week suspension for comments made after the defeat by Grenoble at Stade Mayol

Neither of which are particularly enlightening when considering the more immediate question of the visit of Toulouse on Saturday, other than as a possibly partially distracting sidenote to the game.

All is pretty quiet – as it usually is – on the Toulouse front. The only question is, at this stage in the season, with a Heineken Cup trip to Munster looming on their horizon, how much is left in the visitors’ locker… especially after last week’s astonishing match at Stade Francais?

The weekend’s rugby kicks off on Friday night as two more Top 14 teams with Europe on their minds meet at Stade Amedee Domenech. Brive, who head to Bath for an Amlin Cup clash next weekend entertain Clermont, a week ahead of their Heineken Cup match against Leicester at Marcel Michelin.

The hosts’ Top 14 play-off hopes were all-but destroyed in last weekend’s 38-6 defeat at defending champions Castres. Worse for the Brivistes, two of their key players, Damien Neveu and Dominiko Waqaniburotu, have been suspended for two weeks after picking up red cards during the bad-tempered encounter at Stade Pierre Antoine.

Clermont, meanwhile, are on a high after last weekend’s hard-fought victory over Toulon at home – their 74th win in a row at Marcel Michelin. And they welcome back hooker Benjamin Kayser and centre Wesley Fofana after injury. But Brive don’t lose many at home – just once this season, and that was against Biarritz. Even a weakened Brive won’t be easy to beat in the hostile surroundings of Amedee Domenech, and Clermont may well have one eye on next week’s Heineken Cup match.

Top 14 champions Castres head to Biarritz without two influential forwards. Like the two Brive players prop Yannick Forestier also saw red in last week’s game at Stade Pierre Antoine, while man mountain Karena Wihongi tore a hamstring early in the same game and will could be out for the rest of the season.

The Tarn side, however, will have the pick of the rest of their internationals – who have been promised a holiday during the following European week. That means Brice Dulin, Antonie Claassen, Remi Tales, Richie Gray, Max Evans and Brice Mach could all play.

The pressure is off Biarritz now. They have no chance of surviving the drop. Which could make them a more dangerous animal now than when they had even the slimmest of hopes. Castres are fourth in the table, but a shock defeat at the home of the Top 14’s basement club would leave them looking nervously over their shoulders.

Bordeaux would do their play-off hopes no harm at all with a victory at home against Perpignan. Until last week’s win over Biarritz at Aime Giral, the Catalans’ season – which had started reasonably well – was going from bad to worse via awful. They need to keep picking up points, and their best chance of doing that is courtesy of the boot of James Hook. Don’t expect much in the way of adventure from the visitors as they aim to at least keep in touch with their hosts.

Grenoble’s play-off hopes are as good as dead in the groundwater that lies just beneath the surface of Stade des Alpes. They should recognise similar conditions at Oyonnax’s Stade Charles Mathon, where the stormy winter hasn’t been kind to the soil either.

Fourteen players are set to leave the Isere side at the end of the season. More pressingly, Peter Kimlin – who’s not among the 14 – and Vincent Campo and Blair Stewart – who are – are injured. This could be the break that the forever-perky Oyonnax side need as they fight tooth and nail not to become the second side relegated from the Top 14. Sadly, even a win this weekend will probably be too little too late…

… Unless, that is Montpellier can do them a big – if expected favour. They’re at home to 12th-placed Bayonne, who are five points ahead of the side from the plastics city. Fabien Galthie’s team welcome back Nicolas Mas from injury and, with a play-off berth in their grasp, they’ll be out to claim all the points they can.

And a big home win at Yves du Manoir would do Oyonnax’s cause no harm whatsoever.

Brive v Clermont: Clermont by 4
Stade Francais v Racing Metro: Stade by 5
Biarritz v Castres: Castres by 10
Bordeaux v Perpignan: Bordeaux by 10
Oyonnax v Grenoble: Oyonnax by 4
Montpellier v Bayonne: Montpellier by 15
Toulon v Toulouse: Toulon by 10

By James Harrington

Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images