CASTRES, FRANCE – Top 14 players, coaches, and pundits – not to mention bloggers and their long-suffering readers – will soon be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief as Sunday, September 8, marks the end of a ridiculous three-games-will-(just)-fit-in-nine-days-(maybe) run.
In fact, there’s the better part of a whole week until the next set of games, which kick off on Friday, September 13 – which is almost but not quite enough time for everyone to take a bit of a blow before it starts all over again.
And we’ll need it. The Top 14 season so far has been – not to put too fine a point on it – utterly bonkers. Grenoble beating Toulon; Oyonnax getting the better of Clermont; the boot of Bordeaux’s Pierre Barnard beating Toulouse; Biarritz actually winning a game. None of these could, would or indeed should have been predicted. But they have all come to pass in the opening four matches of the campaign.
So, what about the fifth round of matches?
Toulouse will be buzzing after that clinical job well done against Racing Metro on Wednesday. But they have failed to perform away from home this season – they were mugged by Bordeaux on the opening weekend, and ran out of steam against Clermont last Saturday. So they’re probably thankful that their latest roadtrip takes them to the south coast and Montpellier. The Herault side have won their last two, but their continuing defensive frailties will worry coach Fabien Galthie. Toulouse have the firepower to tear them apart… especially if they decide to stop playing after 60 minutes. After their last result, it’s hard to see Toulouse heading home with anything less than four points.
Another team yet to record an away win this season are defending Top 14 champions Castres Olympique. They have come so near twice, losing 26-23 at Perpignan and 21-20 at Bordeaux. At home they’ve been unstoppable and it must surely be only a matter of time before they turn those so-near, so-far away defeats into victories. Maybe the first one will be on Sunday against the league’s red or dead new boys Oyonnax. The hosts have won both their home games to date – against Clermont and Biarritz – but something has to give… and if Castres play to their potential, it will be on Sunday.
Speaking of Biarritz, they won’t be looking forward to welcoming Toulon to Parc des Sports d’Aguilera – especially the Toulon side that left small, quivering bits of Brive all over Stade Mayol on Wednesday. And without Jonny Wilkinson to boot. Unless the Basque side’s legendary president Serge Blanco has found a way to clone Dimitri Yachvili so that he can play in all 15 positions at the same time, this is likely to turn into a bloodbath.
Wednesday’s other big-scorers, Clermont, face an altogether more difficult task, against Stade Francais at Jean-Bouin. The Parisian side will be out to prove a point after plunging from the top of the table on Wednesday when they came up against Castres at Pierre Antoine – but Clermont should have too much nous to louse this one up.
The same should apply to Racing Metro, who are back on familiar terra firma at Yves Manoir after their quaky midweek performance against Toulouse. It probably won’t be pretty, but in a game likely to be decided in a battle of the boot between Jonny Sexton and James Hook, home advantage is likely to count for something.
Grenoble have always been tough to beat at home. They should face few problems against a Bordeaux side that – once the kicking threat of Barnard has been nullified – haven’t so far posed much of an attacking threat.
Brive, meanwhile, badly need a morale-boosting win and will be hoping that ‘bad’ Bayonne turn up on Sunday for their Top 14 encounter. The odds are in Brive’s favour. ‘Good’ Bayonne tend to stay safely behind the walls of Stade Jean Dauger. A home win, then. But it won’t be by much.
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