CASTRES, FRANCE – All eyes are on troubled Toulouse they head to Bayonne for the seventh weekend of the Top 14 season.
Coach Guy Noves was quick to point to the club’s long list of injuries to key players, following last Saturday’s defeat at Racing Metro – the club’s fourth in as many games.
There’s no denying that the infirmary has been full to bursting, with forwards Census Johnston, Vasil Kakovin, Gurthro Steenkamp, Schalk Ferreira, Gillian Galan, Louis Picamoles and Imanol Harinordoquy among those absent in recent weeks.
The pack members in Toulouse’s hurt locker would explain why their scrum collapsed like a bad flan in an oven when Racing’s pack turned up the heat.
But the excuses are beginning to wear thin among the Toulouse faithful, who are not used to losing so often – or so easily.
There’s no escaping the fact that the loss marked a new low for the former crown princes of French rugby, who are struggling – despite their huge wealth and the talent at their disposal – to cope with what can only be described as a new world order in the Top 14.
The last time they lost four on the bounce was in the 1975-76 season.
The good news for Toulouse is that Picamoles, along with Yakouba Camara, Galan and Luke McAlister have all returned to training this week – though Romain Millo-Chluski and Clement Poitrenaud have taken up a couple of places on the physio’s couch, while Yoann Huget and Yannick Nyanga have been given the week off.
The bad news is that the club is on the road again, for the fourth time in five weeks. Toulouse have not won away from home in the Top 14 since they beat Biarritz 16-6 in February, 10 matches ago. A few nerves will be quietly jangling as they are in serious danger of notching up a fifth loss in as many games. The last time that happened was in 1963-64.
Bayonne’s relatively young Top 14 guns have delighted neutrals so far this season with their slick, have-a-go style – but the side that jogs out on to the Stade Jean Dauger pitch on Friday evening is set to look a little different.
The club has not had a major shirt sponsor so far this season, following the fall-out with former president Alain Afflelou. But on Friday, according to reports, they will unveil a new kit, with a new name where “Afflelou” and, so far this season, “Bayonne”, used to be.
They will be quietly – and justifiably – confident that they can condemn Toulouse to that historic defeat number five and leapfrog their more illustrious opponents in the table.
History could also be made at the other end of the Top 14, as Montpellier head east along the south coast to Toulon. Fabien Galthie’s side have not won at Stade Mayol in four attempts, but they do have winning form away from home this season. They broke their duck at Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin after 14 previous attempts.
They will, however, be without Fulgence Ouedroago, François Trinh-Duc and Jim Nagusa, who are all being rested.
It has been quiet on the Toulon front this week, unusually so – especially following president Mourad Boudjellal’s headline-grabbing outbursts following the side’s defeat at home to Stade Francais seven days previously.
Freddie Michalak has revealed that he is to have surgery on the shoulder he injured in that game, and Virgile Bruni has replaced Yannick Nyanga in France’s provisional training squad for the November internationals – but that’s about it from the normally noisy corridors of power at Mayol.
So, history could be made, but – given the studied silence from Toulon – it will be some surprise, because it looks and sounds, for once, as if the Var side are quietly concentrating on their rugby. Which could spell bad news for the visitors. Especially as Marmuke Gorgodze, Ali Williams, Gerhard Vosloo and David Smith have been named in the home side’s squad.
Very different fortunes surround Brive and Bordeaux as they face each other at Stade Amedee Domenech. The hosts and week one Top 14 leaders come into the seventh week in 14th place and on the back of a 53-13 mauling at home against Toulon last Friday.
Fourth-placed Bordeaux, meanwhile, picked up their first away win of the season last weekend – a 26-29 squeaker at La Rochelle. And history is in their favour, as they have won three of the last four meetings between the two sides.
If Brive can keep their discipline – and that’s a big if for the baddest side in the Top 14 – they could edge this one. Just.
Grenoble have won three from three at home this season, and picked up two try-scoring bonus points in the process. That will put them in a perfect frame of mind to welcome Racing Metro to Stade des Alpes.
Racing are right to be wary, despite their fine start to the season. So far in this campaign the Franciliens have won three out of four matches against rival title contenders Montpellier, Clermont, Toulon and Toulouse.
This is a very different Racing to the one that hobbled through the first half of last season, before finally coming to life after Christmas. They’re still not pretty, but the Laurents (coaches Travers and Labit) have taught their charges how to win ugly. And in a league race, points matter.
Grenoble are flying at home. How their unstoppable force handles Racing’s immoveable defensive object will determine the outcome of this encounter.
On the whole, the odds favour the home side. Racing have six key players on the injury list, while new dad Maxime Machenaud is on paternity leave, and Brice Dulin and Bernard Le Roux will also be absent.
Season after season, Castres surprised the punters by qualifying for the play-offs. This season, they’re surprising the pundits by being in 12th place after six rounds, just one ahead of their hosts this weekend, Lyon – who just happen to be two for two at home.
Castres’ quiet man Jannie Bornman admitted to Rugby Wrap Up that the 2013 Top 14 champions’ poor start has put them under some pressure.
“All the supporters are disappointed but so are we,” the flanker said. “Everybody’s got used to Castres performing well, so this has brought us back down to earth a bit.”
And he said that Lyon at the Matmut Stadium – like all sides in the Top 14 – will pose a serious threat to Castres’ stuttering ambitions. “No team in this league is easy to beat at home,” he said.
“It’s definitely going to be a tough one. Lyon have a really good lineout and a strong defence. They don’t give away many penalties – so, especially there, they’re going to be a hard nut to crack.”
He conceded that Castres’ recent away record won’t help their cause, either. They have won just once in 17 regular-season matches away from Stade Pierre Antoine.
“We have to pick up our performances on the road because we haven’t been good away from home in recent years,” he said.
It’s not just Castres who have struggled to win away from home. The Top 14 is notorious for the disparity between home and away performances.
“It’s a mental thing,” Bornman explained. “Playing at home, with the crowd and supporters here, it’s a real boost that you don’t have away from home. The whole French league is like this. Sometimes, when you’re away from home, it almost seems you’ve lost before you get off the bus.”
With typical flanker understatement, he added: “It’s a bit annoying.”
The home side were dealt a possible blow on Thursday morning, when flanker and vice-captain Coenie Basson picked up an injury in training. Staff were due to assess the injury later in the day.
Only a die-hard La Rochelle fan would expect them to pick up anything at all from their trip to Stade Francais. The visitors have never won in the capital, and have shipped about 40 points on each of their three trips. It really doesn’t bode well.
Clermont coach Franck Azema has carefully played down the Top 14 leaders chances against Oyonnax at Stade Charles Mathon this weekend. He told the club’s website that the side from the plastics city are the most physical in the league
“They put a lot of intensity on all impacts, whether offensive or defensive. This is the area where they impose their domination.”
He’s probably lucky that his Clermont pack – who are no mean unit in their own right – are facing Oyonnax now. It was announced this week that the club has signed Tongan international hooker Paula Ngauamo as a medical joker for the injured Neil Clark.
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.