CASTRES, FRANCE – Eighteen regular Top 14 season weekends down, eight to go – and the play-off slots are currently occupied by, in order: Clermont, Toulon, Stade Francais, Racing Metro, Toulouse and Bordeaux.
Breathing down Bordeaux necks are Grenoble and Oyonnax – followed by Montpellier who, despite their troubles earlier in the season, are ninth, just one win away from the top six. Which leaves Bayonne, Brive, La Rochelle, Lyon and Castres fighting for Top 14 survival.
This weekend, sixth-place Bordeaux could bolster their play-off hopes with victory at home over third-place Stade Francais; fifth-place Toulouse will lose ground if they slip up at Oyonnax, in eighth; while Grenoble’s play-off ambitions face a stern test at Racing Metro. Then there’s the basement clash between 14th-placed Castres and 13th-placed Lyon.
Raphael Ibanez must have some mysterious hold over France coach Philippe Saint-Andre because no matter what he does at Bordeaux, no matter how well his side play, his players are – with the late exception of Sofiane Guitoune – completely overlooked.
Winger Guitoune is in France’s squad of 30 for next weekend’s Six Nations trip to Italy – but there’s no room for fly-half Pierre Bernard; or Lionel Beauxis – another out-half and former Top 14 “Revelation”, who has enjoyed a something of a renaissance since joining Bordeaux from Toulouse. Instead, Saint-Andre has retained Camille Lopez despite his poor performance last week, and brought in Jules Plisson alongside Remi Tales – who is currently, mysteriously, employed as a utility back.
Ironically, Lopez made his international debut a matter of weeks after leaving Bordeaux for the now-relegated Perpignan, while Guitoune was an inspired snatch from the Catalan side at the end of last season.
Despite Morgan Parra’s injury, there’s no place for Yann Lesgourgues either, the Bordelaise white-hot-ballbearing-through-runny-butter-quick scrum-half and once heir-apparent to Dimitri Yachvili’s crown at Biarritz. Saint-Andre has held on to bench-warmer-in-chief Sebastien Tillous-Borde and recalled Rory Kockott.
All of which means that Ibanez has enjoyed a clear-run at the Top 14, without having to worry about losing sections of his hugely talented and exciting squad at inopportune and awkward moments, such as the November internationals or the Six Nations.
The match, however, promises to be a battle between one of the men Saint-Andre ignored – Bernard – and one he didn’t – Stade’s Plisson, who returns to the French fold after a period in the wilderness.
Gonzalo Quesada’s Parisiens could be missing Sergio Parisse, who picked up a knock in Italy’s epic Six Nations victory over Scotland last weekend.
Regardless of who is there and who is not, the match at Stade Chaban Delmas promises to be a real thriller.
Racing Metro’s home match against Grenoble has been moved from the Franciliens’ usual home of Stade Yves du Manoir in Colombes to Le Havre’s 25,000-seat Stade Océane.
The port city in Haute-Normandie, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is not a traditional rugby centre. Stade Océane is more usually used for soccer matches – but it has hosted rugby matches before, including a European Challenge Cup match between Stade Francais and Grenoble, and two international matches: French Barbarians v Japan in 2012 and France v Tonga in 2013.
This is its first Top 14 clash. And it’s some game. Racing need to consolidate fourth place to ensure at least a home tie in the ‘barrage’ stage of the end-of-season play-offs, while Grenoble – who have struggled in the final quarter of the past two seasons – need to prove that, this time, their play-off challenge won’t whimper out and fade away as the season draws to a close.
A sevens match between the French side and a guest VII will take place at halftime.
There have been rumours swirling around the French media that Grenoble have been trying to tempt Ireland captain Paul O’Connell to join them after the World Cup. But Grenoble coach Bernard Jackman, a long-time friend of the talismanic O’Connell, has poured ice-cold Alpine water on the speculation – which probably only came about because of Jackman’s broadcasting commitments in Ireland during the Six Nations.
Toulouse have managed to claw their way back into play-off contention despite their own off-field – and, indeed, on-field ones – but will not look forward to a trip to the near-frozen Stade Charles Mathon.
Oyonnax is not a place any side likes to visit at this time of year. It’s bitterly cold. The wind howls and the ground can be as hard as iron – until it has been churned up by two teams, when it turns into a sucking, energy-sapping quagmire. It’s a place bleak midwinters were made for.
Even now, when France is starting to warm up, it can be a cold and lonely place for visiting sides.
To make matters worse, Oyonnax are punching way above their weight this season. They’re eighth – just four points behind their guests on Friday night.
Toulouse coach Guy Noves has already said he will rest internationals Yoann Huget, Yoann Maestri and Thierry Dusautoir – though blunderbuss number 8 Louis Picamoles is set to return after injury.
With trips to Racing, Brive and Stade Francais to come, and a final-day home match against Clermont, Montpellier could easily still be dragged into the relegation mire.
So, Montpellier’s fixture this week – at home to 12th-placed La Rochelle – is doubly important. Jake White’s side need a full five points to keep pace with the top six and ease those illogical niggling relegation worries whispering their bitter fear into the ears of nervy fans.
News out of the Altrad Stadium this week has been mixed. The bad news is that Rene Ranger is set to rejoin Super Rugby side the Blues at the start of the 2016 season, after agreeing an early release from his contract with the Top 14 side.
Citing “family reasons” for his decision, Ranger said he would return to the club where he scored 25 tries in 65 Super Rugby matches before heading to France “a better rugby player”.
“I am mentally stronger and I’ve learned a lot that I can bring back into the Blues environment,” he said.
He added: “Family comes first … I want to be able to help my mum more.”
The good news from the Herault, however, is that Francois Trinh-Duc may feature against La Rochelle on Saturday. The fly-half has been out of action since fracturing his right tibia in October.
Coach White told French sports newspaper L’Equipe: “It is not a question of whether he will play or not. When he’s ready, he will play. Ready physically, but also psychologically … The only thing that matters now is his mind.”
At the bad business end of the Top 14, basement side Castres entertain Lyon, the team one place and four points above them in the table. Both sides have – at the same time – nothing and almost everything to lose, particularly the home side, who would lose precious ground on the rest of the league if they were to fall to a third domestic home defeat this season.
If it’s tough for Castres and Lyon, this week it’s arguably even worse for fellow strugglers Bayonne and Brive.
Bayonne – who, despite their predicament at the wrong end of the Top 14, have announced the signing of New Zealand fly-half Tom Taylor to compliment the recent capture of Mathew Tait – are away at Clermont.
In the play-offs last season, Castres may have broken a winning streak that stretched back to November 2009, and Montpellier may have won there when things were still good in the early part of this campaign, but Stade Marcel Michelin is still the place visiting teams go to die. Clermont have suffered just two losses there in 90-odd matches. It’s beyond the realms of unlikely that it will be three losses by the time the referee blows the final whistle this weekend.
Brive, meanwhile, are at Toulon. Enough said.
Except for the fact that Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal – who’s no stranger to controversy – this week offered the services of team manager Bernard Laporte to France coach Philippe Saint-Andre.
He told a press conference that he believed a Saint-Andre-Laporte partnership would work wonders for the beleaguered French national side.
As for Toulon? He said: “We would cope during this period. Bernard has solid structures in place and he can count on first class assistants.”
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