Top 14 Play-Off Semi-Finals Preview: Who Dares Predict… Probably Loses

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Top 14CASTRES, FRANCE – That’s it… All Top 14-related bets are officially off. All season, wins on the road have been more rare than hen’s teeth. Then, last week’s two post-season play-offs both result in away wins.

Recent history also dictates that at a side that played in the opening round of the play-offs will make it to the final – which means at least one of Racing Metro and Castres will head to Stade de France at the end of the month for the final.

But they face Toulon, who are looking to reach their third final in a row, and Montpellier, who strung together some remarkable results in the second half of the Top 14 season.

And home advantage doesn’t count. The semi-finals are on neutral territory in Lille.

That’s why all bets are off.

Scandal: Florian Fritz was injured in last week's Top 14 play-off between Toulouse and Racing Metro

Scandal: Florian Fritz was injured in last week’s Top 14 play-off between Toulouse and Racing Metro

Last Friday, Racing Metro headed to Stade Ernest Wallon and beat Toulouse in a match that is, sadly, more notable for a shocking incident in which Florian Fritz returned to the pitch 16 minutes after going off with a nasty head injury.

The IRB has, reportedly, asked the FFR to investigate how and why Fritz was allowed to play on, even if it was only for a few minutes, while apparently – obviously to millions watching on TV – concussed. Coach Guy Noves and the Toulouse medical staff have been widely criticised for their actions. And calls are mounting for some sort of sanction against the club.

It overshadowed Racing’s clinical 16-21 win at a ground where they haven’t won… erm… ever. But win they did, thanks to an overpowering performance from their pack and Jonny Sexton’s unerring boot.

He shoots: Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson v Racing's Jonny Sexton will be a key battle on Friday

He shoots: Toulon’s Jonny Wilkinson v Racing’s Jonny Sexton will be a key battle on Friday

Their reward is a trip to Lille’s 50,000-capacity Stade Pierre Mauroy to face Toulon. It’s a match that is likely to pit the right foot of Sexton against the left of Jonny Wilkinson. Not to mention the ego of Toulon’s ‘Daddy Warbucks’ Mourad Boudjellal against that of Racing’s ‘King Croesus’ Jacky Lorenzetti.

Toulon are working hard to find a way of becoming the first side since Toulouse in 1996 to do the European Cup / Top 14 double. All they have to do is beat Racing Metro in Lille this week, Saracens in Cardiff next week, and then either Montpellier or Castres the week after. Easy.

There’s no wonder the Var side’s training ground in Berg has been closed to visitors this week… And it’s no coincidence that Paul Stridgeon, former physical trainer of England and the British Lions, has been recruited to improve player recovery during this intense period at the end of a longer-than-long season.

A win on Friday would see Toulon reach their third Top 14 final in as many years. They have yet to win the Bouclier de Brennus. Will this one be the charm?

Not if Racing Metro have anything to do with it. After a frustratingly slow start, the side from Hauts-de-Seine charged up the table in the second half of the season. No one would fancy facing them at this time, in this mood and with this much to lose.

Racing Metro coaches Laurent Travers (left) and Laurent Labit

Racing Metro coaches Laurent Travers (left) and Laurent Labit

Racing went into the match against Toulouse as underdogs. They will go into the match against Toulon as underdogs. That will suit them – and particularly coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, who know a thing or two about winning the Top 14 – just fine.

The side Labit and Travers guided to the title last season, Castres, have already pulled off one Top 14 mission impossible. Last week, they did what no side has managed in 77 previous attempts dating back to November 2009 – they stopped Clermont winning at Stade Marcel Michelin.

With their shock 16-22 win, Castres brought Vern Cotter’s reign at Clermont to a sudden end.

Francois Trinh Duc - not going to Australia

Francois Trinh Duc – not going to Australia

On Saturday, Castres will face Montpellier at Lille – the one side they managed to beat on the road during the regular season. It will also pit the Herault side’s fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, who was overlooked for the French national side’s tour of Australia, against the Top 14 champions’ fly-half Remi Tales… who’s going to Oz. That clash at 10 will have pundits and armchair fans talking long into the night.

The two sides are old play-off adversaries. This is the fourth time they have met in as many seasons, but it is the first time they have faced each other on neutral territory in the last four.

Montpellier won by a single point at Stade Pierre Antoine en route to the final in 2010/11. Castres won the next two meetings. Their 2012 campaign ended a week later in Toulouse, but in 2013 they lifted the Brennus after an epic Top 14 final against Toulon.

The Herault side have the best offence in the Top 14. They scored 670 points, including 59 tries in 26 Top 14 regular season games. They have been most effective, however, in the cauldron that is their home ground, Yves du Manoir. This time, however, they’re in Lille.

Unlike Castres, Montpellier have had a week off. It means that they have been able to treat injuries to Fulgence Ouedraogo and Timoci Nagusa – and that means they are close to full strength coming in to Saturday’s game.

This fourth clash in four seasons will lead, inevitably, to a second… it will either be Castres’ second final in a row, or Montpellier’s second final.

Go on, then… Place your bets.

That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@ :RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.

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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!"

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