CASTRES, FRANCE – Halftime is over in the Top 14. The players are back on the pitch, oranges eaten; special sports hydration drinks drunk; minor injuries, bruises and little knocks treated; and rousing mid-match speeches ringing in their ears.
When the season kicked off back in August, Jonny Wilkinson scrambled a barely deserved 22-22 draw for Toulon at Montpellier on opening night.
The reverse fixture at Stade Mayol on Saturday is the second act of this weekend. It should be an easy call. Mourad Boudjellal’s expensively assembled legends of rugby should win. At a canter. Look at the facts: they haven’t lost at home all season; they have talent oozing out of every orifice; and the crowd – whipped into a hollering frenzy by Shouty Man – will be with them all the way.
And yet… Toulon have fallen a long way short of their stellar standards this season. They lost that Heineken Cup thriller in Cardiff in October, and have also lost to Grenoble, Castres, Oyonnax, Toulouse and Stade Francais in the Top 14. And Exeter were hardly played off the pitch in their recent back-to-back Heineken Cup matches. Whisper it quietly, but Montpellier could win this. If they bring their Triple A-Plus game. Yes, it’s a long shot, but stranger things have happened this season.
The honour of opening the second half of the season has been handed to Stade Francais, who entertain Grenoble at Stade Jean Bouin.
The hosts lost 19-16 at Stade des Alpes on the opening weekend of the Top 14 season, but recent form in Europe as well as in domestic competition – not to mention a near-perfect record at home – suggests the flamboyant Parisians may be on to a winner on Friday night. The best Grenoble can probably hope for is likely to be a defensive bonus point – assuming they can keep their discipline for the full 80 minutes… something that has proved tricky-to-the-point-of-impossible for them this season.
Brive welcome Racing Metro to Stade Amedee Domenech. Saturday’s visitors opened the season with a useful if hardly convincing 19-16 win in the reverse fixture. Back then, pundits suggested that Racing’s shiny new stars, including Lions Dan Lydiate, Jamie Roberts and Jonny Sexton, still needed a little time to bed in.
Now, however, armchair Top 14 experts are starting to lose patience with the ciel et bleu. Racing, who now come with added Mike Phillips, should be much higher up the league than eighth. And they may be right. But ask Toulon’s Mourad Boudjellal just how long it takes to build a team – even if you have your pick of big rugby names.
Either way, Racing need a result, which may prove more easily said than done as Brive have only lost once in the Top 14 at home this season. Against, oddly enough, bottom-of-the-table Biarritz.
After doing an Amlin Cup double over Worcester in the past fortnight, the Basque Country side return to domestic action to face the toughest job in the Top 14 – getting a result at Clermont’s fortress Marcel Michelin.
Ironically, Biarritz were the last visiting side to win here, waaaaaay back in November 2009, but it’s on the far side of unlikely that they’ll break Vern Cotter’s side’s winning home run this weekend. Bookmakers give them the square root of no chance – which seems a very reasonable bet.
Castres and Perpignan both need a win to consign last week’s Heineken Cup defeats to history. Unfortunately for one of them, they’re playing each other, which means one team will be disappointed. And that’s most likely to be Perpignan, as this weekend’s match is at the home of the defending Top 14 champions, Stade Pierre Antoine. The hosts haven’t lost at home since December 2012, though it took a nerves-of-steel penalty kick at the death from Rory Kockott to win the last game between the two sides here.
Oyonnax learned the hard way just how tough life in the Top 14 can be when they travelled to Bayonne for the opening game of the season. They were thumped 39-11 on warm August afternoon.
Not only will they be out for revenge on Saturday, but the result of this game could prove crucial at the end of the season. Both sides are level on 25 points, with only arcane league rules deciding that Oyonnax should occupy the second relegation spot. Whoever wins this game will move a small yet potentially decisive distance away from the danger zone. With their record at Stade Charles Mathon, it’s the hosts who have to start as favourites.
Toulouse’s impressive home run this season was brought to a shuddering halt when Connacht beat them in the Heineken Cup a fortnight ago. But revenge in that competition was a dish best served with a bonus-point victory in Galway a week later – and now they return to the Top 14 with a game at Ernest Wallon against Bordeaux.
It’s difficult to see Raphael Ibanez’s side even managing to pick up a defensive bonus point this weekend. Pierre Barnard might be able to keep their visitors in the hunt with the boot for a while, but Toulouse have too much firepower to lose this one.
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