Top 14 Preview: Pressure..? What Pressure?

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CASTRES, FRANCE – Heading into the final four weeks of this Top 14 campaign, only one thing is certain. Next season, the Simon Mannix-led Pau – or Section Paloise to give them their Sunday name – will join France’s top-flight for the first time in nine years, having dominated the second-tier ProD2 all season.

Who's that Mannix? Expect to read more about the Pau coach next season

Who’s that Mannix? Expect to read more about the Pau coach next season

By this time last season, Biarritz were already relegated and were playing just for pride – though the fate of Perpignan was not confirmed until the final 10 minutes of the final weekend of the regular campaign.

This season, the drop is a clear and present danger for four Top 14 teams – Lyon, Bayonne, Castres and Brive. Another three – La Rochelle and long-time play-off challengers Bordeaux and Grenoble – could find themselves dragged into the relegation dogfight if results go against them.

Flip the coin, however, and Bordeaux and Grenoble could be right back in the play-off mix courtesy of a win this weekend.

It will not be easy. Both sides are away this week – and neither has a record on the road that they would care to shout about from the rooftops. A cruel twist of fixture-scheduling fate has sent them to two clubs who have a great deal to lose – Bordeaux are at Top 14 basement club Lyon, while Grenoble head to 13th-placed Bayonne.

Raphael Ibanez’s side have been in freefall since speculation over the charismatic young coach’s future reached fever pitch. Now, however, reports in France suggest he has applied for Philippe Saint-Andre’s job – with the blessing of club president Laurent Marti. Maybe that will give the club some stability, along with the desire to “do it for Raph”.

Raph justice: Can Ibanez engineer a win for Bordeaux?

Raph justice: Can Ibanez engineer a win for Bordeaux?

Ibanez’s most immediate concern is to reverse that four-match Top 14 losing streak which has seen Bordeaux slip out of the running for the play-offs. With matches against play-off rivals Oyonnax and Toulouse as well as relegation-threatened Bayonne to come, they need a win this weekend to fire-up their stuttering, spluttering play-off challenge.

Lyon’s need is even more desperate. They are sitting on a seven-match losing streak stretching back to the beginning of January. Then, they were 10th in the Top 14. Now, they are bottom, seven points adrift of Bayonne in the second relegation spot.

Their run-in features three home matches – as well as Bayonne, they are due to entertain La Rochelle and Grenoble at the Matmut Stadium – and face a trip to Oyonnax.

Defeat this weekend would mean that the big-spending Rhône-Alpes side would be all-but mathematically back in the ProD2 after just one season. Their great escape must start here.

Grenoble head to Bayonne – where they have not won in four attempts, but with the lure of the play-offs still burning, if not quite as brightly as it once was. The Isere side’s defence is a big problem away from home, so they will rely on their powerful attack to pick up a third win on the road, to add to their victories at Toulouse and Stade Francais.

La Rochelle – among the favourites to bounce straight back down to the ProD2 at the start of the season – have strung together a six-match unbeaten run to edge away from the drop zone having beaten Clermont, Brive and Oyonnax at home, and Bordeaux on the road. They are currently 10th, on 46 points, four more than 13th-placed Bayonne.

This week, their challenge is to continue that run against European Rugby Champions Cup finalists, defending Top 14 champions and current Top 14 leaders Toulon.

The hosts are masters around the fringes, and their maul is a thing of malevolent powerhouse beauty. This is their best weapon against the all-round game of Toulon. Keep it close. Keep it tight. And pray the referee doesn’t reach into his pocket for his cards… which has happened fairly regularly.

As usual, Toulon have featured heavily in the rugby news out of France this week. The Champions Cup final against Clermont kept newshounds busy for a day or so, before player news took over.

Toulon, or not Toulon? Quade Cooper's future still has not been decided

Toulon, or not Toulon? Quade Cooper’s future still has not been decided

According to his manager, Quade Cooper is “deciphering” new Wallabies eligibility rules and will make a decision on whether to sign a two-year deal with the Var side in the next fortnight, following fevered speculation that he had – or at least was about to – put pen to paper earlier in the week.

Meanwhile, rumours that Ireland talisman Paul O’Connell had signed up for a pension payday with the club are exaggerated. The club said in a statement: “Rugby Club Toulon, accustomed to all sorts of rumours about future potential recruits, holds still to deny what some see as information – namely the signing of the second-row Paul O’Connell.

Rugby Club Toulon cautions that Paul O’Connell has not signed a contract with Toulon Rugby Club, and alleged contacts between the player and the Red and Black are pure speculation.”

There you are, then. In the meantime, there’s the small matter of hanging on to the Top 14’s top spot at hard-place Stade Marcel Deflandre this weekend to think about before next Sunday’s big day out at Twickenham.

Castres moved out of the Top 14 relegation zone with a harder-than-it-should-have-been 22-20 win over Bordeaux last time out. This week, they are at home to the other team with London dreams next weekend – Clermont.

The visitors have not won at Stade Pierre Antoine in almost 40 years. And, with the Champions Cup final next week, coach Franck Azema has a conundrum on his hands. How many players should he rest this week? Clermont lost at home to Oyonnax in the Top 14 week between the Champions Cup quarter and semi-finals. How many players can he spare ahead of next weekend’s big match?

His backroom sums are made all the more difficult when Clermont’s Top 14 run-in is taken into consideration. The Jaunards, currently second in the table, face trips to play-off-chasing Grenoble and Montpellier – and a home match against none other than Toulon.

Castres, too, face a trip to Toulon – the week after the Champions Cup final – as well as a final-day journey to Racing Metro. Having dragged themselves off the bottom of the table with a four-match winning streak, their survival hopes rest mostly on the results of their two remaining home games: this one against Clermont, and the visit of fellow drop-fearing side Brive.

Toulouse welcome backrow Gillian Galan, prop Vasil Kakovin, and centre Yann David back to the squad for their trip to third-placed Stade Francais in the match that kicks off the Top 14 weekend. But it is not all good news. Clement Poitrenaud, Gael Fickou and Romain Millo-Chluski are all taking up spots in the club infirmary.

But the big news out of Stade Ernest Wallon has focused on forwards coach William Servat. His current contract runs out in June and his future at the club has been unclear for a while. It was reported this week that he had rejected a new deal. On Wednesday, he told a press conference that he did not know whether he would still be on the staff next season.

The Servat situation has been a distraction for Toulouse at the wrong time in this topsy-turvy season. Despite a dismal run early on, and the surprise Champions Cup exit to Bath, they are still in fifth place – and just a win away from a home tie in the “barrage” match.

King Julien: Arias is one of the Top 14's leading try scorers

King Julien: Arias is one of the Top 14’s leading try scorers

A Toulouse win at Jean Bouin is far from impossible. Toulouse have one of the best away records in the Top 14 this season. And recent history has the two sides level-pegging, with a win, a loss and a draw in the past three seasons.

Gonzalo Quesada’s Stade have not been in this position for some time. But this is not the same Stade that choked at the death last season. Nor is it the Stade that limped to 10th in the 2012/13 campaign. In Waisale Nayacalevu and Julien Arias, they have two of the Top 14’s top five try-scorers, while Jules Plisson is among the leading kickers.

It is unlikely they will choke this time. But this week’s encounter with Toulouse could go either way. And with both sides facing some more tough matches in their remaining weeks of the Top 14, they need a result here.

Expect to see the name Gaetan Germain front and centre in any review of the weekend’s match between Brive and Montpellier. The Zebras have tripped up at home to the Hérault side twice in the past decade. This would not be a good time for a third stumble.

Try machine: Brive's Benito Masilevu

Try machine: Brive’s Benito Masilevu

Hence the reliance on their fullback, who has 210 points to his name in 21 starts this season. Captain Arnaud Mela is sure to turn to his kicker at just about every opportunity. They will also need Fijian winger Benito Masilevu to add to his seven-try tally this season as they look to keep clear water between themselves and bottom two.

For Jake White’s Montpellier, meanwhile, the math is simple. Three little points are all that stand between them and the last of the play-off places. They cannot afford to lose.

Christophe Urios’s sixth-placed Oyonnax welcome fourth-placed Racing Metro to Stade Charles Mathon. Just four points – a simple win – separates the two sides in the table. And history is with the hosts. Oyonnax have won every encounter between the two sides since 2008, and last season didn’t let the ciel et bleu even score a point at this ground. But, at this time – even in this place – history matters little compared to the lure of home advantage in the play-off barrage matches.

It may matter even less, as Racing look to keep pace with second-place Clermont – a late charge could see them finish second, and avoid the barrages all together.

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James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"

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