CASTRES, FRANCE – It’s hard to believe but, after this weekend’s matches and Top 14 Preview, we will be have reached the halfway point of the 2013/2014 French season.
It’s a particularly difficult set of fixtures to call, even in a season that has so far pretty successfully defied pundits’ predictions. But, the power of home advantage in the Top 14 this season cannot be overstated – and this week seven home wins out of seven looks most likely.
The top four sides all face tricky road trips. The top two, Toulon and Clermont, are at Stade Francais and Perpignan respectively. Meanwhile, third-place Toulouse head to Oyonnax – where only Stade have won this season. Montpellier, who dropped to fourth following last week’s defeat at home to Castres this week face Racing Metro.
With their roster of rugby legends (and, this week, Toulon have signed Wales and Lions’ lock Ian Evans for next season), Top 14 leaders Toulon really should sweep all before them but they have been a long way from their best since that Heineken Cup defeat at Cardiff in October. Last week’s victory over Perpignan at Stade Mayol was easier than the 15-9 scoreline suggested, but it was hardly a command performance to inspire confidence ahead of what promises to be a tough day at Stade Jean Bouin.
Fellow big-spenders Stade Francais are unbeaten at their still shiny new-look 20,000-seat stadium, having moved back in at the start of the season. They also have a point to prove after last weekend’s 45-23 loss at Bordeaux. Expect a close encounter of the tension-fuelled kind.
The Top 14 weekend kicks off on Friday night with another tough-to-call encounter as seventh-placed Perpignan entertain second-placed Clermont at Stade Aime Giral. The visitors owe their lofty position to their incredible perfect record at home (you know the one), but will be looking for only their second win on the road this season. Not that it’s easy to win at Perpignan. Stade managed it – just – on the second weekend of the season, but Castres, Grenoble, Montpellier, Toulouse and Bordeaux have all tried and failed.
Toulouse’s task is, arguably, even more difficult than Clermont’s. They have yet to win away from Stade Ernest Wallon this season – and they’re at Grenoble, who have yet to lose at home. Both sides boast packs the size of a larger-than-average Alp, so this is set to be particularly brutal encounter. Home advantage counts for so much in the Top 14, particularly this season, so Grenoble should be four points better off when referee Romain Poite blows the final whistle.
You’d expect 10th versus fourth to be a reasonably simple call – but when the team in 10th happens to be the star-studded-yet-unpredictable Racing Metro and the team in fourth is the occasionally brilliant-yet-frustratingly mercurial Montpellier, normal predicting services go out the window. Both sides lost last weekend. Racing were blown away by an inspired Clermont at Marcel Michelin, while Fabien Galthie’s Montpellier were beaten by a Geoffrey Palis-inspired Castres at home. Neither side’s current form inspires much in the way of confidence, so it’s no surprise that more than one Top 14 pundit has run to the relative safety of ‘home advantage’, while adding an almost predictable ‘too close to call’ caveat.
The side most likely to benefit from the top four’s difficult weekend is fifth-placed Castres. They’re at ‘fortress’ Pierre Antoine. They are on a high after picking up their first win on the road last week, which meant they shot up the table from 10th to fifth, and they face 12th-placed Bayonne – a side they beat 31-10 at home last season, thanks to tries from Brice Dulin, Romain Martial and Rodrigo Capo Ortega.
Like several other teams this season, Bayonne have lost all their matches on the road this season, and have been on the wrong end of a few big scores – notably 55-0 at Clermont and 40-3 at Toulouse. It would be a surprise if they managed even to pick up a defensive bonus point against the defending Top 14 champions in the claustrophobic confines of their intimate and intimidating little ground.
The two remaining games in the Top 14 feature clubs at the wrong end of the table. Despite two wins in their last two games, Biarritz are still firmly rooted to the bottom of the league, five points behind nearest rivals Oyonnax. The Basque Country side entertain Bordeaux, who are 10 points and three places above them – but those two wins have done morale at Parc des Sports Aguilera no harm whatsoever. Don’t be too surprised if they make it three victories in a row.
The side most likely to be concerned by another Biarritz win is most likely to be neighbours Bayonne. While they have the unenviable task of facing Castres at home, Oyonnax are back on home soil, where they face ninth-placed Brive. The side from the plastic city have already beaten Clermont, Biarritz, Toulon, Castres and Perpignan at Stade Charles Mathon this season. Expect them to leapfrog Bayonne in the Top 14 by adding the scalp of Brive this weekend.
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