Top 14 Preview: Castres return for coaches Labit and Travers

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Racing Metro coaches Laurent Travers (left) and Laurent Labit return to their old stomping ground at Castres' Stade Pierre Antoine
Racing Metro coaches Laurent Travers (left) and Laurent Labit return to their old stomping ground at Castres Olympique’s Stade Pierre Antoine

CASTRES, FRANCE – Rumours are abounding in the French rugby scene that Top 14 strugglers Bayonne and Biarritz could merge to form a new Basque superclub.

But… What will this new superclub be called? Bayarritz? Biayonne? US Basque Metro-Olympique? Where will they play? Stade Jean Dauger? Parc des Sports d’Aguilera? Perhaps they will alternate? Or maybe they’ll play somewhere else (Anglet is almost exactly halfway between the two rugby cities – just saying)? And what about the kit – what should that look like? Because green and red and white and blue sounds like a match made in Stade Francais hell.

More importantly. Who should be on this shiny new club’s books?

Pundits, fans, the potential new club’s possible new coaches and any other vaguely interested parties have been handed an early chance to compare and contrast the merits and otherwise of the two sides who meet at Jean Dauger on Saturday.

Dimitri Yachvili
Dimitri Yachvili
So, Dimitri Yachvili or Mike Phillips? That is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in your team to have a scrum half who looks good and can kick penalties or one who can run through monster flankers… You’ll be able to decide on Saturday. But chances are you’ll be torn. Yachvili will, no doubt, catch the eye – but Phillips will most probably end up on the winning side – so do you prefer a winner or a stylish loser?
Mike Phillips
Mike Phillips

Elsewhere, Fate and the sheer inevitability of the fixture list sends Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers and their Racing Metro team back to Castres Olympique, the side they guided to Brennus-winning glory last season. Such is the affection with which the two coaches are held in the Tarn town, that they are sure of a heroes’ welcome. Until the game kicks off.

Castres have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde team this season. They have beaten all-comers at home, but have been unable to win away. They’ve come close twice – against Perpignan and Bordeaux – but were blown away in the second half at Toulouse last week.

Expensively assembled Racing, meanwhile, have occasionally threatened to turn into the almost-all-conquering side they should be, without managing it. Yet. And few visiting teams win at Fortress Pierre Antoine. Grenoble couldn’t do it. Stade Francais couldn’t do it. Toulon couldn’t do it. Even if Racing reach their potential this weekend, they probably won’t be able to do it, either.

Oyonnax’s two-year unbeaten home run came to a halt last weekend, when they lost a sphincter-clencher against Stade Francais. While their marketing and accounts departments will love this week’s visit of star-studded Toulon and their fans will dream of a historic win, coaches and players all know that they will have their work cut out holding back the rouge-et-noir tide – even though the Var team have not been at their best over the past couple of weeks. Their form has certainly been enough to worry director of rugby Bernard Laporte.

Another team strangely in need of a morale-boosting win are the normally clinical Clermont. They were – not to put too fine a point on it – ripped apart by Montpellier last Friday. Morgan Parra’s second-minute penalty was about as good as it got for the jeune-et-bleu, as they spent the rest of the match clutching at shadows. The final score – 43-3 – was a fair reflection of the dominance of Fabien Galthie’s joyously rampant side.

So Clermont boss Vern Cotter is probably secretly delighted that his side is back at home, where (you may remember) they haven’t been beaten in 63 games. Expect that number to increase to 64 after the visit of Bordeaux this weekend.

What’s the betting that Montpellier will collapse like Dan Carter after that tackle by Bismark Du Plessis at Stade Francais’ Stade Jean Bouin?

It seems a reasonable bet. Born-again Stade have a perfect record at the new-look home, and have even managed to win two on the road this season. They actually look like they can and want to play rugby and should be too much for a Montpellier side that have found travelling difficult at the best of times. Let’s be honest, meeting Stade while they’re in this sort of form does not qualify as the best of times.

The last time Montpellier were on the road, they were left shell-shocked by a breath-taking 20-minute blitz at Perpignan. This week, James Hook and co welcome Toulouse. Like Midi Pyrennees rivals Castres, Guy Noves’ side have been unstoppable at home and approaching awful away. Even after their 26-9 win over CO last week, it’s hard to see the 2011 and 2012 Top 14 champions picking up a win on the road – though it will be close as the gnarly gnomic coach will not accept anything like the abject performance at Montpellier a fortnight ago.

All of which just leaves Grenoble v Brive. This looks an easy call on paper. Grenoble should win on home soil – but, if the Top 14 has proved anything this season, it’s that what looks simple on paper is a whole lot more difficult on the pitch. Not that Brive should give the hosts much trouble at Stade Lesdiguières. On paper, at least.

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About James Harrington 196 Articles
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!"