CASTRES, FRANCE – It’s a little-known fact* that Top 14 pundits, writers and bloggers are contractually obliged to mention Clermont’s astonishing home record – no defeats in 66 games since November 2009 – every week that Vern Cotter’s side play at Stade Marcel Michelin. If we don’t, our pundits’ card is taken away by some very serious and very big men in blue trousers and yellow shirts.
But there’s a slightly less well-known record about Clermont – and it’s one they would prefer you not to know. It’s this: They have not won at Castres for 37 years. That’s one Ryan Reynolds or Reese Witherspoon ago. Or, if you’re a pureblood rugby fan, one Bruce Reihana.
For scrum-half Thierry Lacrampe, this match will have special significance. He will be assured of a warm welcome on his first appearance at Stade Pierre Antoine following his move from Castres to Clermont at the end of last season.
But for Morgan Parra’s continuing suspension the slippery number nine may not have started Friday night’s game – and with the Clermont physios’ couch groaning under the combined weight of Loic Jacquet, Mike Delany, Alexandre Lapandry, Thomas Domingo, Davit Zirakashvili and Elvis Vermeulen, their dismal record at CO’s claustrophobic ground seems likely to continue for one more year.
Castres encounter with Clermont at 9pm French time on Friday is, unusually, the second match of the Top 14’s 11th round. The weekend kicks off two hours earlier at Toulon, who welcome Bordeaux to Stade Mayol. Mourad Boudjellal’s galacticos have hit something of a rough patch, losing their last three on the road. They have even looked less-than invincible at home.
So, they’re probably pleased that they’re at home to Bordeaux, who lost at Perpignan last week, and currently sit 11th in the Top 14 table. This one has all the hallmarks of a big reputation-restoring win for the rouge et noir, even though they will be without the injured Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Michael Claassens.
Toulouse owe their lofty position at the head of the league to their home record this season. They have picked up bonus-point wins in all but one of their games at Ernest Wallon, but – with just six points separating the leaders from Castres in ninth – they really need to start picking up a win or two on their travels.
Brive, who are unbeaten at home this season, are probably not the first team Guy Noves will have thought of as he scoured for fixture list looking for easy away wins – certainly not after they came within 15 minutes of shocking Clermont at Marcel Michelin last weekend. They will give Toulouse a run for their money, and could well pick up four crucial points for a win.
So it’s very possible that the table will look very different at the top by Sunday morning.
Building a team takes time – even from a roster of incredibly talented players – and patience, but it’s probably safe to say that Racing Metro’s season so far hasn’t gone quite as coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers had anticipated. Despite spending some serious money on some serious talent, they are eighth in the Top 14. There’s a long way to go – and the league is very close, but they’re currently out of the end-of-season play-off places.
You would however bank on them to win at Biarritz, whose woes this season just get worse. Their fans were probably hoping that their impressive-looking Amlin Cup victory over Oyonnax a fortnight ago would – finally – kickstart their season. But Castres had other ideas and thumped the Basque side 39-0 when the Top 14 resumed last weekend.
Oyonnax’s hell-unleashed style of rugby has been found wanting in recent weeks. They lost their last two Top 14 games, and have struggled in the Amlin Cup. So it’s probably not the best time for them to welcome a resurgent Perpignan, who have been marshalled by a certain James Hook who, if he’s not in the form of his life, isn’t far from it. He’ll certainly be giving Wales coach Warren Gatland a few sleepless nights over whether – and where and when – to play him in this month’s international matches.
But Oyonnax are incredibly tough to beat at home. This will be a close one, but when Sunday comes the club from the little plastics city in the shadow of the Jura mountains could well have another prestigious scalp to hang up on the wall at Stade Charles Mathon – alongside those of Toulon, Clermont, Castres and Biarritz.
It seems surprising, but Montpellier are another side desperately seeking victory. They have lost their last two games, and Ulster completely shattered the myth of Stade Yves du Manoir in the Heineken Cup two weeks ago. It’s probably safe to say that Fabien Galthie has a little bit of mid-season team DIY to do.
Unfortunately, opponents Grenoble are heavy hitters and could, if the mood takes them, break down any temporary or not-quite-set fixes that Galthie may have put in place. The host’s have a point or two to prove, however, so expect them to come out fast. If they can score early, this could turn into a bloodbath. If they don’t, it will be a tense Saturday evening in the south of France.
Stade Francais, too have a point to prove – namely, after last Saturday’s error-strewn Paris derby against Racing Metro at Stade de France, that they can hold on to the ball long enough to mount a concerted attack. They’re back at Stade Jean Bouin this week, which should suit them well against a Bayonne side that, despite last week’s Martin Bustos-Moyano-inspired victory over Montpellier, has once again made the headlines for all the wrong (read, Mike Phillips-related) reasons.
*it’s not a fact
Comments? Questions? Thoughts? We love to read ’em. Please also look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @: RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, DJ Eberle, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Cody Kuxmann and Declan Yeats, respectively.