CASTRES, FRANCE – Rumours that Richie McCaw would see out his career in France’s Top 14 after the 2015 Rugby World Cup would appear to be exaggerated.
Earlier this week, the rugby press collectively wet itself over speculation that the All Black to rule them all could be heading to Pau, in the southwest of the country. The ambitious club is sitting prettily at the top of the ProD2, 17 points clear of nearest rivals Perpignan. Barring a supernova or similar natural disaster, Section Paloise – as they’re known on Sundays – will be playing Top 14 rugby next season.
They have been busy in the recruitment market already, snatching McCaw’s New Zealand colleague Conrad Smith from under the noses of a number of other interested parties.
They have also signed Munster duo Paddy Butler and Sean Dougall, while Toulon’s David Smith and Irish talisman Paul O’Connell have also been linked with a move to the shadow of the Pyrenees at one time or other – but McCaw has this week dropped the biggest hint yet that his last competitive rugby match will be in an All Black jersey at the World Cup.
“I am not looking overseas and nothing has changed there,” he said. “I don’t want to make any big announcements now because I don’t think that would be right going into a season and I want to enjoy that.
But, he added any future announcements, “won’t be about going overseas or anything like that”.
So, with the last image anyone sees of Richie McCaw on a rugby pitch more than likely to include the Webb Ellis Trophy, and the make-up of next season’s Top 14 still not entirely certain, let’s look at more pressing matters.
The Top 14 returns after a two-week break for another one-week special to fill the void left by the brief break in the RBS Six Nations – with two games in particular catching the eye, namely Bordeaux v Toulon and Racing Metro v Clermont.
But the rugby weekend in France actually kicks off on Thursday, with the clash between fellow Top 14 strugglers La Rochelle and Brive. This is a must-win game for the hosts, who are currently 13th in the league – but a bonus-point victory could see them overtake their opponents in the standings.
A home win would also heap the pressure on relegation rivals Lyon, Bayonne and Castres.
La Rochelle will at least be able to count on the services of internationals Uini Atonio and Loann Goujon, who are back from France duty – though they will be without Jason Eaton, who – despite signing a contract extension is unavailable as he’s serving a suspension for picking up too many yellow cards.
Expect the hosts to come out on top, despite the strong performance of Brive against Grenoble last time out. But of the two sides, the visitors are the most likely to pick up a bonus point. Expect this one to be close – and to include more than its fair share of sin-binnings, as neither side has been particularly well disciplined this season.
The two best attacks in the Top 14 meet on Saturday afternoon at Stade Jacques Chaban-Delmas, when sixth-placed Bordeaux entertain third-placed Toulon. This could go one of two ways. It could be a free-flowing thrill-fest, or the two sides could cancel each other out. The latter is unlikely as Bordeaux rely on the ability to score more points than their opponents to win. Their defence is only the ninth-best in the league, so there could well be some big numbers on the board by the time the referee decides that enough is enough.
Both Bayonne and Stade Francais need a win – but for very different reasons. The hosts are hovering just outside the relegation zone, so will be desperate to keep their heads above water, while the visitors just about held on to top spot in the league despite losing their perfect home record against Oyonnax last time out. They will be determined to rediscover winning ways at the expense of the side from the Basque Country.
Bayonne, meanwhile, will want to make the most of home advantage – but they have lost twice at Stade Jean Dauger this season. History suggests they should win, though history is regularly being rewritten in this Top 14 campaign.
Grenoble and Montpellier face off in the imposing Stade des Alpes in what promises to be a brutal battle between two ambitious sides just outside play-off places. Despite their well-documented problems, Montpellier are still very much in the mix – and World Cup-winning coach Jake White has engineered something of a turnaround, if not in fortune then at least in morale.
Grenoble are stronger in attack; they boast the most dangerous finisher in the Top 14 this season in Ali Ratini, and Jonathan Wisniewski is rated the top fly-half in the league. But their defence is among the worst in the league. If Montpellier, who have won close encounters here twice in the past two seasons, can make the most of their chances, it could be a difficult day at the office for Bernard Jackman’s men. Still, a home win seems the most likely.
The Top 14’s basement side Castres finally and belatedly hit the panic button during the two-week Six Nations break. They called in Argentine coach and former club favourite Mauricio Reggiardo to try – in the time he has left – to drag them out of the doldrums.
Reggiardo was a member of the Tarn side’s 1-2-3 club for 10 years, and has come in to coach his former side alongside team manager Matthias Rolland and backs coach David Darricarrère. No mention has been made, officially at least, about forwards coach Serge Milhas – who now appears to have no role at the club.
Reggiardo’s first match at Castres pits him against the man who will take the reins at the club next season – Christophe Urios, who is currently in charge at Oyonnax. The odds are not in Reggiardo’s favour. His side has not won away from home all season and they have not beaten Oyonnax at Stade Charles Mathon since the hosts were promoted to the Top 14.
Castres cause has not been helped by an injury to Richie Gray, that could see him miss the rest of the season – though they are likely to welcome back French trio Rory Kockott, Remi Tales and Remi Lamerat.
Kockott, in particular, will have a point to prove as he has not been named in the French squad for the next Six Nations match against Wales.
A home win, again, seems likely. But, if the visitors can at least head home with a bonus point, it won’t be an entirely wasted journey. Almost entirely wasted. But not quite entirely wasted.
Toulouse fought their way back into the top six last time out with a win at Castres. They will want to build on that with a home win over Lyon this weekend. They will especially want to rebuild the fortress of Stade Ernest Wallon after a few shocks there this season. Which is bad news for relegation-threatened Lyon.
Jonny Sexton is a Racing certainty to feature in the Top 14 match of the weekend, after missing the past few months while on a mandatory 12-week stand-down for concussion before putting in a man-of-the-match performance on his playing return for Ireland against France last weekend.
The Leinster-bound Sexton could not have chosen a much more difficult return to Top 14 action in Racing Metro colours. A week after that brutal French examination in Dublin, he is set to face Clermont at Stade Yves du Manoir. Fellow internationals Eddy Ben Arous, Wenceslas Lauret, and Brice Dulin are also in Racing’s squad – though the injured Teddy Thomas has been excluded, along with Bernard La Roux and Jamie Roberts.
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