CASTRES, FRANCE – Sunday is a big day in the Top 14. Very big. So big, in fact, that they’re calling it Boxing Day on France’s subscription broadcaster Canal+. While not, in a festive calendar sense, strictly accurate, it does mean that Top 14 rugby fans can gorge themselves comatose on nine uninterrupted hours of televised rugby.
It all kicks off with Stade Francais v Perpignan at Stade Jean Bouin. The visitors have lost their last four Top 14 matches, including last week’s 37-13 on-the-road mullering at the hands of defending Top 14 champions Castres. Nor did the European break do them any favours, with two defeats on the bounce against Leicester. Stade, meanwhile have won their last two domestic matches, and one Amlin Cup encounter with London Irish. This one has all the hallmarks of a big home win.
Pity poor Oyonnax. Last week, they dragged themselves out of the bottom two of the Top 14, with a gritty 9-6 win over arch-relegation rivals Bayonne. This week, they are likely to find themselves back in trouble – unless, that is, they are the ones destined to overturn a four-year-plus, 70-match winning streak. That’s right. They’re the lambs to the slaughter at Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin. Nasty.
Ninth-placed Bordeaux, meanwhile, welcome 10th-placed Brive to Stade Chaban-Delmas. One point separates the two sides in the league, so expect a close-fought affair. It’s likely to turn into a battle of the boot between the hosts’ Pierre Barnard and the visitors’ Gaetan Germain. Expect Barnard to come out on top.
Castres Olympique take a five-match unbeaten run in the Top 14 to Grenoble. This encounter is unlikely to be a pretty affair – and not just because the weather in the mountains in south-east France has been on the far side of ugly in recent days. Both sides pride themselves on the strength of their packs, which means a match for the purists is in store. Expect the penalty count to be high, the error-count to be through the roof … and the final score to be close.
Montpellier have one big score to settle and one even bigger point to prove as they welcome Top 14 basement club Biarritz to Stade Yves du Manoir. Fabien Galthie’s side were the first of just three teams this season to lose to the Basque Country outfit when they met for the first time back in August. They also come into the game on the back of an epic defeat against Toulon at Stade Mayol last week. Chances are, then, they will welcome a return to the relative safety of home soil to welcome Biarritz, whose future looks most likely to involve ProD2 action next season.
They could yet be joined by fellow Basque Country side Bayonne, who entertain Toulouse at Stade Jean Dauger. The hosts – who have only lost once at home this season – could enjoy at least a brief stay of execution as their opponents haven’t won on the road in the Top 14 since May. A result here, ahead of early January’s trip to Perpignan and the final two rounds of European action may just be what the team doctor ordered to turn Bayonne’s season around.
Top 14’s Boxing Day ends with a battle of the big spenders, as misfiring Racing Metro play host to the league’s galacticos Toulon. Racing scraped a draw last weekend at Brive, even as Toulon were making a temporary mess of Montpellier’s pretensions of a place in the end-of-season play-offs – and the Var side demolished the ciel-et-bleu earlier in the season at Stade Mayol. Even given the fact that home advantage counts for so much in the Top 14, it’s hard to see the home side on current form picking up a win. A defensive bonus point is about the best they could probably hope for.
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