Top 14 Preview: Welcome to a Nerve-Shredding Final Fortnight

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CASTRES, FRANCE: There are just two rounds to go in the regular Top 14 season but make no mistake, there are no dead rubber matches. Play-off and relegation matters are still to be decided – and every team still has much more than pride to play for.

Top 14 pundits regularly strike this pose at this time of the season

Top 14 pundits regularly strike this pose at this time of the season

It is at this time of the season that pundits and fans dig out their calculators and do their best to perm the numbers into something approaching sense, so let’s start with what we know. Then we can add in what the math says.

Toulon have booked their place in the Top 14 play-offs. Clermont and Toulouse are as good as there, too, and have in their sights automatic qualification for the semi-finals. Another five – Stade Francais, Oyonnax, Racing Metro, Montpellier and Bordeaux – are serious challengers for the remaining play-off places.

Even ninth-placed La Rochelle have a mathematical chance of finishing in the top six… Or they could be dragged into the drop zone. They are on 52 points, one more than relegated Perpignan managed last season. Bordeaux and Montpellier are also, theoretically, not quite clear of the pull of the relegation black hole.

Top 14 basement side Lyon still have the slimmest of chances of escaping the drop, while a single point separates four sides – Bayonne, Castres, Brive and Grenoble – in the dogfight to escape the second relegation spot.

If it’s Tight at the Top…

Clermont and Toulon meet... again

Clermont and Toulon meet… again

Making the dangerous assumption that the Top 14 run-in will go according to plan, European Champions Cup finalists Clermont and Toulon meet for what could be the second of three meetings in six weeks.

This time, second-placed Clermont are at home. They will start as favourites, but the pressure is on for Franck Azema’s side. Their formerly near-certain hold on automatic qualification for the play-off semi-finals has become less assured. They are a solitary point in front of Toulouse and two ahead of Stade Francais.

After Castres’ surprise win at Stade Marcel Michelin in last season’s play-offs, both Montpellier and Oyonnax have breached the once impenetrable fortress in this campaign. It is not hard to imagine that Toulon could become the third side to win here.

That means second place is no guarantee for Clermont, who after Toulon still face a trip to Montpellier. Nor indeed is a place in the play-offs. It is highly unlikely but still possible that the Jaunards could slip out of the top six altogether. It really is that tight at the top.

… It’s Even Tighter at the Bottom

Drop-fearing Grenoble entertain a rampant Toulouse in the Top 14

Toulouse head to Grenoble in the Top 14 this weekend

It’s just as tight at the bottom. In mid-March, Grenoble were sixth in the Top 14. They had just become only the second side this season to win at Stade Francais. The next stop looked almost certain to be the play-offs and a spot in the European Champions Cup.

Four defeats in a row later and their play-off dreams have become a relegation nightmare. They are 11th, one point clear of the Top 14’s dreaded second drop spot. And the belief of two months ago that – this time after fading badly in the latter parts of the last two seasons – they were ready to end-of-season play-offs turned out to be March madness.

It should be a comfort to be at home this week. But three of Grenoble’s four defeats – against Castres, Toulon and, last week, Clermont – have come at home. This week, they entertain Toulouse, who have won their last five outings to move into third in the Top 14, and whose late charge up the table seems unstoppable.

Remember, this is the same Toulouse who lost five in a row early in the season. Now, Guy Noves side could do more than just finish in the top six. They could finish in the top two – and qualify directly for the semi-finals.

So, relegation or semi-final qualification. That’s what’s at stake at Stade des Alpes. If Grenoble lose their fourth home match in a row, their survival will depend on what happens when they travel to Lyon next weekend.

Lyon’s Last Chance

Lyon's hopes of staying in the Top 14 hang by the thinnest of threads

Lyon’s hopes of staying in the Top 14 hang by the thinnest of threads

The fate of Grenoble’s final opponents is likely to be decided this week. Lyon are 10 points adrift of 13th-placed Bayonne and 12th-placed Castres. Maths, and the arcane way in which the Top 14 table is decided, is all that can save them now. They head to fifth-placed surprise package Oyonnax – a graveyard for visiting teams.

Christophe Urios’s side have won seven of their last nine matches to open up a three-point gap between themselves and seventh-placed Montpellier. But they still need a win this weekend, to strengthen their play-off claim ahead of a final-day trip to Toulon.

One place above Lyon, but in with a much stronger shout of escaping the drop, Bayonne head to play-off chasing, relegation-fearing Bordeaux. Not many visiting sides win at Stade Chaban-Delmas – just ask Castres and Clermont. Home advantage, coupled with the double prize of Top 14 safety and a continued challenge for the play-offs must mean that the hosts are strong favourites.

The fight for Top 14 survival will go to the wire for Patricio Noriega’s Bayonne. Next week, they are at home to La Rochelle who – like Bordeaux – can guarantee top-flight survival this weekend with a win at home against Racing Metro.

Racing Face Tough La Rochelle Challenge

Safety first for La Rochelle

Safety first for La Rochelle

The hosts were many pundits’ favourites to drop down into the ProD2 this season. But they have put clear water between themselves and the drop zone with an eight-match unbeaten run. Defeat would drag them back into the maelstrom, but it seems unlikely.

The Rochelais have only lost once at Marcel Deflandre this season. Which is bad news for Racing. They have not won in three Top 14 games since that last-minute indiscipline against Saracens cost them a place in the European Champions Cup semi-finals.

Racing currently occupy the sixth and final Top 14 play-off place – which comes with guaranteed Champions Cup qualification. But the high chance of a slip-up at La Rochelle means that the big-spending Franciliens could drop out of the top six.

It has turned out to be a more-difficult-than-it-needed-to-be run-in for Racing. Next up, after their La Rochelle away-day, is a home match against survival-chasing Castres. If they finish outside the top six, it could mean more than just a lack of Dan Carter in the Champions Cup next season.

Club president Jacky Lorenzetti has had nothing to show for his massive investment in Racing Metro since he first became involved with the club in 2006 – the same year a certain Mourad Boudjellal took the reins at Toulon. If they fail again, expect repercussions.

Top 14 Royal Rumble

Expect a brutal encounter as Castres entertain Brive

Expect a brutal encounter as Castres entertain Brive

Castres, meanwhile, who appeared doomed to relegation in February could do themselves a huge favour with a win at home over fellow drop-fearing side Brive, who were battered 67-19 by Toulouse last weekend. The 2013 Top 14 champions dragged themselves out of the bottom two with a 16-12 win over Grenoble, and have since held on to the most slender of advantages over Bayonne by matching the Basque side’s performances result for result.

If last year’s match between the two sides is anything to go by, this is likely to be a brutal, end-of-season affair. Even a bonus-point win over Brive, however, would probably not be enough for Castres – and it’s likely they will still need a point from their final-day trip to Racing.

Brive’s final-weekend opponents, fourth-placed Stade Francais, could make certain of their play-off place this weekend with a home win over Montpellier. All Gonzalo Quesada’s side can do is keep winning. Any further hopes they may have of an automatic semi-final place rest with other teams.

Under Jake White, the Herault side have recovered some of the form that they had lost during the dismal run that led to Fabien Galthie’s “suspension” in November – but they face the most difficult run-in of all sides with play-off dreams. After Stade, they head back home for the visit of Clermont.

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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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