Southwest France – Last weekend’s Top 14 results made a mockery of many a pundit’s opinion – especially Oyonnax’s stuffing the RWU favorites for the Brennus, Clermont… Biarritz beating Montpellier and Stade Francais showing fortitude in taking out Perpignan. But onward and upward… They say there is a thin line between being brave and being foolish. As a self-anointed “expert,” I am ready to put my reputation on the line, so here’s my first Top 14 Preview.
Stade Francais v Biarritz
It’s a big weekend for the once-mighty Parisians. After opening the 2013/2014 season with a two-week road trip, they get to play at the redeveloped and now 20,000-seat Stade Jean Bouin for the first time since 2010… To make their home debut that bit extra special, Stade could have the services of South African international Morne Steyn for the first time with The Rugby Championship on break, though he may not be needed after the heroics of Jules Plisson and his 80th-minute drop goal against Perpignan last week… Stade should prove too strong for Biarritz, if they can keep pocket battleship Dimitri Yachvili quiet, they will eliminate the Basque side’s attacking threat.
Clermont v Toulouse
Clermont’s out-going coach Vern Cotter looked ready to leave it all behind last week and take up his new role with Scotland as soon as possible after unfancied Top 14 newbies Oyonnax, put his side to the sword… And a match against Toulouse, even at Fortress Marcel Michelin, is the last place you want to play after an off game. To make matters worse, Clermont could be without influential players Morgan Parra and Wesley Forfana. Meanwhile Toulouse bounced back from a sub-par performance against Bordeaux to being clinical against Bayonne last time out. Luke McAlister scored half his side’s 40 points, while the defence was so tight, they conceded just one penalty. This one has “down to the wire” written all over it.
Bordeaux-Begles v Castres Olympique
There will be a reunion of sorts at Bordeaux this weekend, as the hosts’ fly-half Pierre Barnard leads his team out against the club he played at last season… While at Castres last season, Barnard was mercurial to say the least. However he has started life at his new home at UBB, in fine form. He engineered an opening-day victory over 2012 Top 14 champions Toulouse and although UBB lost to Brive last week, Barnard gave a standout performance… Castres have also picked up from were they left off as last season. They ran in five unanswered tries last weekend against Grenoble. Only if Barnard and fellow sorcerer of the mercurial, Bruce Reihana, can conjure up some magic, will UBB have a chance.
Montpellier v Brive
Montpellier have reached the end-of-season play-offs for the past three seasons. Each time they have faced Castres. Only once, in 2011, have they made to the semi-finals. Playoffs are the furthest thing from head coach Fabien Gaulthie’s mind at this moment.
However, the Top 14 “boasts” the longest season in domestic rugby, so there’s plenty of time. tIt’s not as if Montpellier have done much wrong, after all. They bossed much of the Toulon game, and were mugged by a Yachvili-inspired-Biarritz last week. A home encounter against one-dimensional Brive should provide the right tonic for what ails them.
Racing Metro v Oyonnax
When they looked at the fixture list, Racing’s new coaches – the Laurents, Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers, who are collectively and affectionately known as The Lolos – probably saw this third match of the season as a relatively easy five-pointer after a bruising week two encounter with Toulon… Last week’s match was definitely a bruising one, a 41 to 14 thumping. Racing were beaten by simple, straightforward play. Oyonnax, meanwhile, have clearly not read this season script that calls for them to be Top 14 whipping boys. They bounced back from an opening-day thumping at Bayonne to shock Clermont.
Racing is too strong at home, but Oyonnax may have already played their championship game last week.
Bayonne v Perpignan
Will the real Bayonne stand up?! Bayonne fans have enjoyed an easy win over Oyonnax, and endured the horror show against Toulouse. Opponents Perpignan are similarly inconsistent, with a narrow win over Castres and last-minute heartbreak against Toulouse to date. No one is sure which version of the teams will show up.
Perpignan have the firepower of Welsh international James Hook’s mighty boot. He will turn any kickable infringement into 3 points. A Perpignan win, then, but by how much?
Grenoble v Toulon
A game against the deep-pocketed Toulon can put out these days is going to be tough, but poor Grenoble face double trouble… Grenoble’s leader and ex Toulon member Geoffrey Messina is out and Toulon look to show off new signing Bryan Habana… Despite being on international duty with South Africa, Toulon’s Daddy Warbucks owner Mourad Boudjellal insists that will be available for the game. Maybe Grenoble should just write this weekend off.
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