CASTRES, FRANCE – After the insanity that has been the past two weeks of Heineken Cup and Amlin Cup rugby, pundits and players alike are probably breathing a sigh of relief on their return to the relative certainties of their domestic competitions.
Most of them, anyway, in the case of Top 14 clubs. Well, some of them, at least. Certainty – or as close as the French top flight has been able to get to it this season – will be thrown out of the window in at least two matches as home advantage, so often so vital in this league, will count for next to nothing. Probably.
Toulouse have been both an unstoppable force and an immovable object at home this season. They have picked up bonus-point wins in each of their five Top 14 games on their turf – and have conceded no more than 10 points in a single match. Racing Metro currently hold this season’s points record in Toulouse.
But this week they face a wounded Toulon side, still hurting from their Heineken Cup mugging in Cardiff. Mourad Boudjellal’s galacticos were beaten by a street-smart side from the Valleys that played with a sheer bloody-minded they-shall-not-pass determination from the first whistle to the last.
And Toulouse will be without the mercurial Luke McAlister, who picked up an injury that will keep him on the sidelines for up to three months. Home advantage will probably still count for something, but it’s likely to be a lot closer than this season’s previous games at Ernest Wallon.
Racing Metro, meanwhile, host their great Parisian rivals 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.
Racing have had the more difficult European fortnight – with Heineken Cup matches against Clermont and Scarlets – though Stade suffered a major Amlin Cup scare at Pool Five minnows Cavalietri Prato last weekend. This one is too close to too close to call, but if, in these austere times, you’re lucky enough to have a little mad money, Stade would seem to be – possibly – the better bet. Racing just look to be trying too hard… and, remember, they’re away from the safety of Yves du Manoir.
Then there’s Bayonne v Montpellier. Nearly bottom against almost top. It should be easy to call, right? Wrong. Montpellier have won only once on the road in the Top 14 this season – way back in early September when they won a squeaker at Bordeaux. And Ulster made Fabien Galthie’s side look very ordinary last week, even though they were at home.
Worse, Bayonne are tough to beat at Stade Jean Dauger… just ask Perpignan, Biarritz, Oyonnax and Amlin Cup Pool Four rivals Grenoble. Even star-studded Racing only just scraped a win there.
There can be no doubt Montpellier have the class to win. It just depends on which version of the Herault side turns up. The one that blew away Toulouse and Clermont in the Top 14 or the one that could barely string a move together against Ulster in the Heineken Cup.
Perpignan are riding the crest of a James Hook-generated wave right now. They pushed Gloucester all the way at Kingsholm in the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup, and blew apart Edinburgh – whose full name for a week was a hubris-riven Edinburgh-Conquerors-of-Munster – in a devastating second-half spell at Stade Aime Giral last Saturday.
They entertain Bordeaux, who have yet to win on the road this season. Unless something goes horribly wrong, this has all the hallmarks of a home victory.
Like Bordeaux, Castres have lost all their matches away from home in this campaign. Unlike Bordeaux, they’re at home – where they have won all their matches.
It should be bad news for Biarritz, who are so far adrift at the bottom of the Top 14 that they’re in danger of creating a separate league just for themselves. Then again, the Basque side beat Oyonnax 26-6 in the Amlin Cup last weekend to pick up their first win in any competition since August.
That result will probably make no difference at the weekend, but it will give pundits something to talk about in the hours and minutes leading up to the encounter at Stade Pierre Antoine, where Castres haven’t lost since December 2012.
It is possible that Oyonnax could face a more difficult return to domestic action after a tough couple of weeks of European competition. But a trip to Grenoble is no one’s idea of an easy day’s work. 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, almost certainly, beat Brive at Stade Marcel Michelin.
Just a reminder – Vern Cotter’s side have not lost at home since November 2009, an astonishing 65 matches ago. And Brive haven’t won there for a decade.
That said, the hosts’ strength in depth is being put to the test. Morgan Parra is serving the second of his four-match ban for punching, while Alexandre Lapandry, Loic Jacquet, Lee Byrne, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Wesley Fofana are reportedly all out and Brock James is a doubt.
Even so, 65 is 99 percent certain to be 66 by the time the referee blows the final whistle on Saturday. Definitely. Maybe.
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