Top 14 Play-Off Preview: Who Dares Bet Against Clermont?

Thierry Dusautoir returned for Toulouse in the Top 14 game against Grenoble last weekend
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Francois Trinh Duc - not going to Australia
Francois Trinh Duc – not going to Australia

CASTRES, FRANCE – The twin distractions of the Top 14 play-offs and the announcement of the squad for the French national side’s tour of Australia has divided and concentrated the minds of rugby fans in l’hexagone this week.

So, the day after France coach Philippe Saint-Andre mysteriously managed to completely omit in-form fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc from the summer tour of a land Down Under, we look ahead to this weekend’s two play-off quarter finals.

On Friday night, Toulouse, who finished the regular season in fourth place, entertain Racing Metro – who finished fifth. Less than 24 hours later, Clermont, who were third at the end of the 26th round of matches last week, play host to Castres – who clung on to sixth despite losing to Bayonne.

Seriously, PSA has preferred Freddie Michalak, who barely started a game for Toulon for much of the season, and Castres’ captain Remi Tales at fly-half.

Thierry Dusautoir returned for Toulouse in the Top 14 game against Grenoble last weekend
Thierry Dusautoir returned for Toulouse in the Top 14 game against Grenoble last weekend

Still, Friday night’s match at Stade Ernest Wallon is set to feature nine players who have booked seats on the flight to Oz. Seven of them play for the home side. Another, Maxime Medard, is unavailable, after suffering a sprained ankle early in last week’s game against Grenoble. Vincent Clerc, Census Johnston and Romain Millo-Chluski are also, at the time of writing, uncertain to feature.

Otherwise, Guy Noves has a full squad to pick from – including the talismanic Thierry Dusautoir, who took part in his first game since picking up an injury in the last match of the Heineken Cup pool stages against Zebre in January.

Dusautoir, with about 50 minutes of rugby behind him in five months is touring Australia, unlike Trinh-Duc. So is Montpellier’s influential Fulgence Ouedraogo, who has played about as much rugby in Dusautoir

Racing will need Jonny Sexton at his best in the Top 14 play-off against Toulouse
Racing will need Jonny Sexton at his best in the Top 14 play-off against Toulouse

Racing, meanwhile, are thanking their fans by laying on free buses down to Toulon for Friday’s match. Which is nice.

It’s the least they could do, after they gave up home advantage last week in abject style, losing 44-10 at Montpellier. Before they shipped five tries last week, they boasted the best defence in the Top 14. They went to the south coast of France on a high after five wins in a row. They headed back to Paris with their heads bowed and their flaws laid bare for all to see.

For the record, Trinh-Duc scored one of those tries, AND kicked a further 19 points – but it still wasn’t enough to make PSA think again. Really. And PSA says he has no problem with the Montpellier man.

If there’s one side in the Top 14 you don’t want to know your vulnerable points it’s Toulouse. Coach Guy Noves will have his always well-prepared side ready to prey on each and every weakness. Consecutively and concurrently.

Racing know this. They also know they can’t afford to bicker among themselves, as Jonny Sexton and Juandre Kruger did in full-on shouty style at Montpellier.

They know they have to be more focused and precise. Whether they will be focused and precise enough is another question entirely.

Morgan Parra will want to erase the memory of last season's defeat in the Top 14 semi final against Castres with a win on Saturday
Morgan Parra will want to erase the memory of last season’s defeat in the Top 14 semi final against Castres with a win on Saturday

On Saturday, Clermont, who boast the Top 14’s joint best attack this season, alongside top two Montpellier and Toulon, entertain a Castres side that needs to find a way to turnaround a dismal season away from home, in which they have won just one and drawn one in 13 matches.

But they have achieved their pre-season aim of finishing in the top six – just. Defeat at Bayonne last week meant they needed a helping hand from Toulon to hold on to the last play-off place… and the berth in next season’s Rugby Champions Cup competition.

Their task now, however, is about as close to a mission impossible as any Top 14 side gets. They have to take their awful away form and turn it around to beat a side that has won its last 76 home games.

They are, of course, talking a good game. It’s a one-off match, they say. Anything can happen, they insist. They just have to make sure everything works, which it hasn’t in 13 Top 14 games on the road this season.

Castres' Remi Lamerat is on the plane to Australia... unlike Francois Trinh-Duc
Castres’ Remi Lamerat is on the plane to Australia… unlike Francois Trinh-Duc

But, Clermont’s home record speaks for itself. Even when they play badly – as they did against Perpignan last weekend – they still manage to pull a win out from somewhere. And they are expected to welcome back Naipolioni Nalaga, Lee Byrne and Fritz Lee from injury.

Which ever way you look at it, it doesn’t bode well for the defending champions. They did beat Clermont in the semi-finals of last season’s play-offs, but that was on neutral ground, not at the fortress that is Stade Marcel Michelin.

If they do lose, at least their trio of French internationals – Remi Tales, Remi Lamerat and Brice Dulin – will have an extra week to rest ahead of the flight to Australia… Unlike Francois Trinh-Duc, who will be playing next weekend for Montpellier, against the winner of Clermont v Castres.

Of course, if they do pull off the impossible, a showdown between Trinh-Duc and Tales will have French rugby pundits talking long into the night…

For the record, here’s the French squad of 31 to tour Australia this summer. Note the absence of Francois Trinh-Duc.

Forwards
Thomas DOMINGO – ASM Clermont Auvergne, Alexandre MENINI – RC Toulon, Guilhem GUIRADO – USA Perpignan Roussillon, Benjamin KAYSER – ASM Clermont Auvergne, Christopher TOLOFUA – Stade Toulousain, Vincent DEBATY – ASM Clermont Auvergne, Nicolas MAS – Montpellier HRC, Rabah SLIMANI – Stade Français Paris, Alexandre FLANQUART – Stade Français Paris, Bernard LE ROUX – Racing Métro 92, Yoann MAESTRI – Stade Toulousain, Sébastien VAHAAMAHINA – USA Perpignan Roussillon, Antoine BURBAN – Stade Français Paris, Damien CHOULY – ASM Clermont Auvergne, Thierry DUSAUTOIR – Stade Toulousain (Cap), Yannick NYANGA – Stade Toulousain, Fulgence OUEDRAOGO – Montpellier HRC, Louis PICAMOLES – Stade Toulousain

Backs
Maxime MACHENAUD – Racing Métro 92, Morgan PARRA – ASM Clermont Auvergne, Frédéric MICHALAK – RC Toulon, Rémi TALES – Castres Olympique, Mathieu BASTAREAUD – RC Toulon, Gaël FICKOU – Stade Toulousain, Wesley FOFANA – ASM Clermont Auvergne, Rémi LAMERAT – Castres Olympique, Yoann HUGET – Stade Toulousain, Felix LE BOURHIS – Union Bordeaux Bègles Rugby, Maxime MEDARD – Stade Toulousain, Hugo BONNEVAL – Stade Français Paris, Brice DULIN – Castres Olympique

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About James Harrington 196 Articles
James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"