CASTRES, FRANCE – The Top 14 takes a break after this weekend for the final two rounds of the group stages of the Heineken and Amlin Cups. While some sides will have one eye on qualifying for the knockout stages of the European competitions, they will be well advised not to take their eyes off their opponents in France’s domestic league.
Defending Heineken Cup champions Toulon, in particular, have several points to prove. They have lost two of their last three Top 14 games and last week missed out on the chance to keep the pressure on league leaders Clermont, when they failed to take advantage of slip ups by Castres and Toulouse.
The Var side are, at least, back at Stade Mayol this week, and have a strong squad lined up to entertain Grenoble – with Matt Giteau, Freddie Michalak, Jonny Wilkinson, Bakkies Botha, Michael Claassen, Carl Hayman, Ali Williams, Juan Smith, and the Armitage boys all named in the initial 25.
The Isere side have a not-so-secret weapon they can turn to. Geoffrey Messina spent three seasons with Toulon before heading to Stade des Alpes. Even he, however, is unlikely to be able to supply the inside information that will allow the visitors to unlock the hosts’ defence. After their humiliation last week at Racing Metro, this should be a walk in the Stade for the rouge et noir.
Toulouse and Clermont also have pressing Heineken Cup engagements looming – but first there’s the small matter of their encounter at Stade Ernest Wallon. All things being equal, this should be a thriller in the Midi-Pyrenees – but it could also easily turn into a dour midfield war of attrition.
Clermont are sweating on the recovery of several key players, including Julien Bonnaire and Alexandre Lapandry, while Jamie Cudmore, Fritz Lee, Julien Bardy and Aurélien Rougerie will spend this weekend on the physio’s couch. But Les Jaunards should have the services of Wesley Fofana, Naipolioni Nalaga, and Daniel Kotze, who were all rested last weekend.
Toulouse, meanwhile, could play new signing Akapusi Qera. The bullocking Fijian flanker signed from Gloucester last week as medical cover for Grégory Lamboley – though it’s more likely he’ll be held back until next week’s Heineken Cup clash against Saracens.
Castres prepare for next weekend’s visit of Leinster by entertaining Bordeaux at Stade Pierre Antoine. The defending Top 14 champions are well acquainted with the prowess of the Begles’ leading point-scorer. Pierre Barnard has racked up 175 points for Bordeaux since his move from Castres at the end of last season.
The champions’ record so far this season is very similar to their championship winning 2012/13 one. They are currently third with 42 points. At the same stage last season, they were fourth with 44. Like many sides in the Top 14, they are unbeaten at home, and have picked up attacking bonus points in eight home games.
It’s the start of a tough Top 14 run for the champions, who face Toulon, Stade Francais, Toulouse and Racing Metro after the Heineken Cup fortnight.
Nothing changes for basement club Biarritz, who are now 12 points behind 13th-placed Oyonnax in the league and staring ProD2 rugby in the face. They’re back on home soil, but face Stade Francais, who are riding a three-match-winning wave right now.
It would be a major surprise if the Basque Country side were to pull off a victory – even at Parc des Sports Aguilera – but this match marks the start of Biarritz’s centenary celebrations, and everyone other than Stade fans will be hoping they can enjoy a perfect start to their anniverary year.
Oyonnax left Clermont last weekend with their heads held high but without any points to take back to Stade Charles Mathon. This week, they welcome Racing Metro to their fortress, where they have only lost once in the Top 14. In front of a partisan crowd, their unleashed-hell approach to rugby will probably be too much for the misfiring Parisians, even after their home win over Toulon last time out.
Montpellier are just about hanging on to the final play-off place, despite a season that has encapsulated unstoppable brilliance and infuriating frustration in equal measure. They were the epitome of the former against Biarritz last weekend, a eight days after demonstrating the latter at Toulon. They’re on the road again this week, at Brive’s Stade Amédée Domenech. Given their dismal form away from home, they’re probably glad that the teams immediately below them – Grenoble, Racing Metro and Bordeaux face missions impossible on the road.
Eleventh faces 12th as Perpignan – until recently serious contenders for an end-of-season play-off place – entertain Bayonne. With Oyonnax favourites to win at home to Racing Metro, this is a must-win game for both sides as whoever loses at Stade Aime Giral is likely to drop into the Top 14’s second relegation spot.
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