CASTRES, FRANCE – The ninth round of the Top 14, and the last before the shiny new European Rugby Champions and Challenges Cups kick off, has thrown up two monster games – and is set to see Leigh Halfpenny make his long-awaited Toulon debut.
The Welsh fullback has been named in Toulon’s 24-man squad to face Toulouse at Stade Ernest Wallon on Sunday night, alongside Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha and Juan Martin Hernandez Lobbe, who have all returned to club duty after the Rugby Championship.
The fixture had appeared to have lost a little of its glister after Toulouse went five matches without a win. But the hosts finally lost that losing feeling with an ugly win-at-any-price victory over Stade Francais last week to reignite a little interest ahead of the European break.
A win this week over Toulon would really kick-start Toulouse’s season. And it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. The Var side’s record at Ernest Wallon is not great. Their last win in the Rose City – a dour 6-3 boreathon – was in 2010, and they have only won twice in 14 attempts.
Last week’s win really did cost Toulouse, though. The brick outhouse of a number 8 that is Gillian Galan joined the rouge-et-noir’s lengthy injury list – though the manner in which Imanol Harinordiquy rolled back the years delighted the crowd to the extent that they rose to give him a standing ovation when he was substituted late in the second half – and even brought the flicker of a smile to the lips of manager Guy Noves.
He’s likely to be even happier – to the point of jumping about in delight when he thinks no one’s watching – at the possible return of RSJ-prop Census Johnston.
But, the strength of Toulon’s squad indicates they have little intention of heading back to the south coast with anything less than a win. It all depends on how much celebrating they did when they picked up just about every award going at the Ligue National de Rugby’s gong-giving Nuit de Rugby ceremony earlier this week.
Sixth faces third in the Paris derby 24 hours earlier, as Stade Francais entertain Racing Metro at Stade Jean Bouin. It’s a match that has gained a new dimension in recent seasons, thanks to the influx of money and big-name players the two sides have enjoyed.
After the fireworks against Brive in Colombes last week – when Racing scored seven out of the game’s 11 tries – the visitors will be confident of winning on the road for the first time since the opening weekend’s sphincter-clencher at Montpellier.
Few away teams win at Jean Bouin, however. Sixteen have tried and failed since the last time the full-time bell tolled there with the Stadistes on the losing side. Ironically, their opponents that day were Racing.
The big news out of Paris this week, however, has been the uncertain future of South African fly-half Morne Steyn at Stade Francais. The French press has been full of speculation that he would be released from the last two years of his three-year contract after making just 15 starts for the team, even as he returned to Paris on Monday after being on Rugby Championship duty.
Not even a terse statement from his management company, insisting that no meetings have taken place between club and player or his representatives, and that he expects to fulfil his contract has stopped the rumours.
At least one unnamed Top 14 club is said to be watching the situation with interest.
Grenoble could not have wished for a better game to consign last week’s seven-try 51-10 thumping at Castres to the history bin than the visit of Brive to Stade des Alpes. The visitors have yet to win on the road since they returned to the Top 14 in 2013, while Bernard Jackman’s hosts are four for four at home this season.
Clermont come into their home game against La Rochelle on the back of some good players news. Brock James and Benson Stanley have both extended their contracts with the Jaunards. At least it will cushion the blow that Fritz Lee, Nick Abendanon and Wesley Fofana remain doubtful for the encounter at Stade Marcel Michelin.
The Top 14’s second-placed side – and the one with the best defensive record in the league this season will start as huge favourites against the Rochelais – but like Grenoble, Clermont have the ghost of last week’s huge defeat to exorcise.
Of the 10 tries Clermont have conceded this season, six came last week as Bordeaux condemned them to a 51-21 defeat in front of a delighted Stade Chaban-Delmas crowd.
The Clermontois, however, should have far too much firepower for La Rochelle to cope with.
The two sides that broke 50 points in their matches last week, Bordeaux and Castres, meet at Chaban-Delmas. On paper, fifth-placed Bordeaux should win. They haven’t lost at home this season, Castres haven’t won away since a tight victory over Montpellier last December; they ran in six tries against the best defence in the Top 14, while Castres have conceded 21 tries in eight matches; and the visitors have only won twice at Bordeaux in 17 attempts.
Lyon don’t have the best record against Bayonne – but their form at home this season suggests they will get the better of the Basque country side this time. Bayonne come into the game on the back of a second home defeat this season, and need to pick up points away from home to make up the shortfall. But they’ll have their work cut out this week.
Oyonnax are in a similar situation to Bayonne. They have lost their last two at home, and this week face a difficult away day – at Montpellier. Oyonnax have lost their last three at the stadium formerly known as Yves du Manoir but now called Altrad – and have only won once in 16 away matches since winning promotion to the Top 14 in 2013.
Sadly, It’s unlikely the Rugby Wrap Up favourites from the shadow of the Jura mountains are going to change their stars this week.
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.