CASTRES, FRANCE – Thirty Top 14 players have spent part of this week at a French training camp, as coach Philippe Saint-Andre begins to plot his way through the three November internationals against Fiji, Australia and Argentina.
It is inevitable that the absence of key players will have affected the training plans of club coaches. So while the likes of new South African-accented Bleu Rory Kockott expressed his pride at pulling on the famous jersey, his bosses back at struggling Castres may well have been wishing for more time on the training ground with him – as well as Racing Metro-bound captain Remi Tales and centre Remi Lamerat… not to mention talismanic lock Rodrigo Capo Ortega, who is with the Uruguay team trying to qualify for next year’s Rugby World Cup.
News that Tales had rejected a contract extension at the Tarn side in favour of a reunion with former Castres coaches Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit at Racing Metro came as an added blow to the 2013 Top 14 champions earlier this week, after they slipped to the foot of the table.
Tales will feel at home at Colombes as he teams up with fellow Castres old boys Marc Andreu, Antonie Claassen, Brice Dulin and Anton Peikrishvili. But likely World Cup commitments means he probably will not make his debut for the Franciliens until mid-December 2015.
Racing have also been linked with a certain Dan Carter in recent days. The rumour prompted Toulon boss Mourad Boudjellal to warn that the New Zealander was more likely to join an English Premiership club because, he said, the Top 14 salary cap meant that no French club could afford him.
The Var side, meanwhile, reportedly have Bayonne number 8 Charles Ollivon and Toulouse flyer Maxime Medard in their sights.
But there are more pressing matters even than the November internationals, the future of PSA, the hustling, bustling Top 14 player marketplace and the Rugby World Cup – and they start with the eighth round of the season.
Basement club Castres welcome fourth-placed 20-try Grenoble to Stade Pierre Antoine. The hosts have been the definition of a Top 14 Jekyll and Hyde side this season. They remain undefeated at their claustrophobic home ground, but have been well beaten in four of their five defeats away from its confines.
Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble will provide the sternest test so far of the hosts’ mettle at home. Even without Peter Kimlin, who will be out for several weeks after picking up a knee injury, the Isere side will be a tough proposition. They welcome back locks Ross Skeate and Ben Hand, and prop Richard Choirat, so expect their pack to target the Castrians’ struggling scrum.
Toulouse’s pack is another that looks to be a concern going into the weekend. The club’s long injury list and Corey Flynn’s red card has forced under-pressure coach Guy Noves to draft in 19-year-old hooker Julien Marchand and 21-year-old prop Dorian Aldegheri to the squad for crucial home match against Stade Francais.
The Parisians, 10 places further up the Top 14 table than their hosts, have already beaten Toulon and Castres on the road. A third away win is not beyond the realms of possibility – and that would leave Noves’ side without a victory in six consecutive matches.
If there is ever a good time to play Toulon outside of a World Cup year, this week is probably it. Eight of the Var side’s players have been training with France, and although six are named in the 25-strong provisional squad for Saturday’s match, scrum-half Sebastian Tillous-Borde and Virgil Bruni are not expected to make the trip to Oyonnax. Another five, meanwhile, are filling up the physio’s room, and three are on international duty in The Rugby Championship.
But Rugby Wrap Up favourites Oyonnax have problems of their own. A long injury list means that they are likely to field the same side as the one that lost to Clermont at home last weekend, though scrum-half Fabien Cibray could return after recovering from a rib injury.
So, maybe it’s not such a good time to face Toulon. Let’s face it, even with all their absentees, the Var side is almost impossibly strong.
The most entertaining match of the weekend could turn out to be Clermont’s trip to Bordeaux, where something has to give. Clermont have won all three of their on-the-road matches this season. Meanwhile, the Begles are so far unbeaten at home – and have dispatched Montpellier and Racing Metro along the way.
The hosts’ leaky defence could be their undoing against the implacable Auvergnaise. They can’t throw quite as much caution to the wind as they usually do…
All is not entirely well in the kingdom of Clermont, however. Wesley Fofana was sent home from the French training camp with a hamstring injury. Coach Franck Azema was not slow in coming forward to accuse the international fitness coaches of “amateurism”.
Pushing Bordeaux v Clermont all the way in the likely entertainment stakes this weekend is Bayonne v Montpellier. Just two places currently separate the two sides in the Top 14, and their season stats are about as close. This one could well go either way, though Bayonne do have home advantage.
La Rochelle and Lyon know each other well, having both won promotion from the ProD2 last season. The visitors have enjoyed a better start to life in the Top 14, and won here in the second-flight last term. That said, the Rochelais have beaten the 2012 and 2013 Top 14 champions at Stade Marcel Deflandre so far. This one will be tight.
Racing Metro put their perfect home record to the test against Top 14 bad boys Brive. The Franciliens should win – but they have other concerns on their mind. Although they are fifth, they are already nine points adrift of leaders Clermont. Anything less than a bonus-point win is probably not good enough.
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.