CASTRES, FRANCE – Fly-half Jonny Sexton is heading back to Leinster when his contract with Top 14 bluebloods Racing Metro runs out at the end of the season, it has been announced.
The 29-year-old has put pen to paper on a four-year-contract that will keep him with the Dublin-based club until after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
News of his departure will only serve to heighten speculation in the French media about who will replace him – with rumours suggesting that Racing’s coaches Labit and Travers are planning another raid on their old club Castres.
They have already taken Marc Andreu, Antonie Claassen, Brice Dulin and Anton Peikrishvili – but sports newspaper L’Equipe is reporting that moneybags president Jackie Lorenzetti is prepared to offer Castres’ 30-year-old captain Remi Tales a €400,000-a-year deal to separate him from the club he joined in 2011.
But that’s all for the future. For now, Racing have to concentrate on the present – and their third encounter with serious title rivals in the opening four weeks. So far, the Colombes side have beaten fellow play-off favourites Montpellier and Toulon and lost at Bordeaux. This week, they’re on the road again, at Clermont.
And this time they will be without Sexton. The Irishman broke his jaw last week and will be absent for up to six weeks.
Marcel Michelin may not be quite the fortress it once was, but the hosts are bound to start as favourites. Not only do they have history on their side (two defeats in 80 games), they also have a point to prove following last Saturday’s defeat.
But, as first Castres in May and then Montpellier last week proved, maybe… just maybe… Clermont are there for the taking at the stadium formerly known as Fortress Marcel Michelin these days.
Montpellier, no doubt still on a high after that last-gasp win, kick off the Top 14 weekend against Castres at Stade Yves du Manoir, or – as the marketing men would have us call it – the Altrad Stadium.
This has all the hallmarks of a close encounter of the sphincter-clenching kind. After two defeats, the visitors finally got their season under way with a 30-6 mullering of Bayonne in front of a raucous home crowd last weekend, in which they also welcomed key players back to the starting line-up.
And Yves du Manoir is the only ground where they won on their travels last season.
But Montpellier have impressed in all three matches this season. They lost their opener at home to Racing Metro by just three points, despite playing the whole of the second half with just 14 men after hooker Charles Geli was red carded for punching. They came back from the dead to beat Grenoble a week later, and last week won at Clermont for the first time in their history.
They have even found a medical joker to replace prop David Attoub – the Pumas’ very own rock in a hard place Emiliano Coria.
The only fly in their ointment is that they will be without Geli, who was banned for three weeks following his red card. His suspension – curse the unreasonable demands of the TV companies – comes to an end the morning after the game against Castres.
Brive, who topped the table for a whole week after a four-try win over La Rochelle on the opening weekend, have failed to cross the whitewash since. In seasons gone by, it would have been easy to say that they would struggle to add to their try-scoring record against Guy Noves’ Toulouse on Saturday.
Not any more.
Stade Toulousain are close to unbeatable at home, even now, but despite the obvious talent in their ranks, they are not the force they once were in French rugby.
They come into the game without the services of teeny tiny Thomas Ramos, who has been banned for three weeks after picking up a red card for kicking out at Castres’ piledriver prop Mihaita Lazar. In fairness, it was probably a kindness that the referee sent him off…
Brive, meanwhile, despite a two-week fall from table-topping grace, are always difficult to beat at home. Don’t be too surprised to see this finish with a home win.
After their home heroics against Toulouse last week, it’s probably a shame that La Rochelle are back on the road. Especially as they’re at Grenoble in a real Top 14 east-meets-west encounter.
The Isere side finally picked up the win their early season performances deserved last weekend – and, although the Rochelais more than deserved their win, a side that has shipped 97 points in two away games so far this season will do well to head back home from the Alps to the Atlantic coast of France with even a defensive bonus point.
That said, Grenoble’s scrum could be a weak point, with Jono Owen and Dayna Edwards both out. If La Rochelle can exploit that, it could make for an interesting clash at Stade des Alpes.
Two other sides that picked up their first wins of the season last weekend, Lyon and Oyonnax, meet at the ProD2 champions’ Matmut Stadium.
The odds, like home advantage, have to favour the hosts. But it’s likely to be close. Very close.
Stade Francais, who came down to earth with an almighty bump at Oyonnax last week will be pleased to return to the happy hunting ground that is Stade Jean Bouin. They will be even happier to face a Bayonne side that looked pretty lost in defeat against Castres.
But they will be without flanker Raphaël Lakafia, who sprained his ankle in the second minute of last weekend’s defeat – but who hobbled through to halftime before being replaced.
They should have far too much strength and speed, however, for Patricio Noreiga’s Bayonne.
It’s not the impending loss of James O’Connor that’s dominating discussions in the boardroom at Toulon. It would seem that the Var side has plenty of cover on the wings.
Nor is it the continued absence of Leigh Halfpenny, or Marmuke Gorgodzilla. Or the on-international-duty South African contingent.
No, rumour, and south coast newspaper La Provence, has it that ex-Racing Metro man Juan Martin Hernandez, currently plying his trade with Argentina in The Rugby Championship and said to be keen to stay Plate-side until next year’s Rugby World Cup, is on Mourad Boudjellal’s radar.
Hernandez could step in at 10 for Freddie Michalak, who will be on France duty later in the year.
But that’s for the future. This weekend, Toulon wrap up the Top 14 fixture list with what promises to be high-scoring encounter against fellow try-hungry side Bordeaux.
After two home wins, Bordeaux left it late to scramble some dignity in defeat at Grenoble last week. Toulon at Mayol could be a stade too far, but don’t expect Raphael Ibanez’s side to go down without a fleet-footed fight – especially if one or both of their flying wingers Metuisela Talebula and / or Sofiane Guitoune get their hands on the ball in even just a little space.
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.