Top 14 Preview: Toulouse and Castres under Romain rule

Romain Poite is the referee for Toulouse v Castres in the Top 14
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Romain Poite is the referee for Toulouse v Castres in the Top 14
Romain Poite is the referee for Toulouse v Castres in the Top 14

CASTRES, FRANCE – Chances are, the referee who sin-binned Bismarck Du Plessis for THAT tackle on Dan Carter, then sent the South African hooker for an early bath after a second yellow, had been hoping his next game would keep him safely out of the media spotlight.

You know the sort of thing: a match between two village second XVs that would be watched by five people and a dog called Clive.

But neither the rugby nor media gods have deigned to smile on Romain Poite.

The referee whose name is probably now the worst kind of curse in South African rugby clubs will be in charge of Toulouse’s home game against arch Midi-Pyrenees rivals Castres Olympique – which just happens to be the Top 14’s big televised Saturday afternoon game on Canal+ in France and BTSport 2 in Britain and Ireland.

Ignoring the possibility of controversial refereeing decisions, the game is tough to call. Only points difference separates the two sides in the table. Both teams have won three, lost three.

But, and this is probably the clincher, neither side has yet won on the road this season. Toulouse have made mincemeat out of all three opponents – Bayonne, Racing Metro and Biarritz – at Ernest Wallon, where no visiting team has yet made it into double figures this season. Ironically, Biarritz have so far scored the most points of any visiting side. They’re also the only side to have crossed the Toulouse try line.

It’s probably safe to say that Castres have their work cut out. In their favour is the fact that Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles are both likely to be missing from Guy Noves’ squad, so there won’t be much in it, but CO probably won’t leave Ernest Wallon with much more than a losing bonus point.

The Top 14 rugby weekend kicks off on Friday as Montpellier entertain Clermont. It could be the best of games, it could be the worst of games. It could be 80 minutes of breath-taking, counter-attacking, running rugby, it could be 80 minutes of one-way traffic. It could be an early contender for match of the season, it could be completely forgettable.

It all depends on which version of Fabien Galthie’s Montpellier turns up – the uninhibited attacking one that blew away Toulouse; the one with the appetite for self destruction that faced Perpignan last week; or, worse, the one that against Brive inexplicably decided that a rugby match lasted just an hour.

Fritz Lee has signed a three-month contract with Clermont as a 'medical joker'
Fritz Lee has signed a three-month contract with Clermont as a ‘medical joker’

Whether even the really good Montpellier has what it takes to beat Clermont – who may field new three-month ‘medical joker’ signing Fritz Lee at the back of the pack – is another question entirely.

What did Toulon’s Daddy Warbucks owner Mourad Boudjellal do after his side lost at Castres last week? He let slip that he has approached Lions’ captain Sam Warburton about the possibility of relocating from South Wales to the south of France next season. Williams, Masoe, Warburton – that would be a back row to fear.

But that’s for next season. Possibly. Of more pressing concern to the Toulonnaise will be the visit of Bayonne to Stade Mayol in the Top 14 on Saturday. More specifically, how many tries should they score?

They’re too professional to admit it, but expect them to want to eclipse Clermont’s 55-0 demolition job. That might not be easy, however. Though they haven’t won a game since their Crazy Wednesday mauling, Bayonne gave Racing Metro’s big-money stars a run for their money during a cloudburst last Saturday.

This weekend, however, the weather is set fair on the south coast for a feast of ball-in-hand running rugby – and that will suit Toulon just fine.

Bordeaux coach Raphael Ibanez
Bordeaux coach Raphael Ibanez

Bordeaux beware. It looks like the Laurents – Labit and Travers – are just starting to get their expensively assembled Racing Metro side to gel. Worse, it’s expected to be dry at Yves du Manoir this weekend, too – which will please Racing fans after last week’s waterworks wrecked many a pundits’ Top 14 predictions. All this and Clermont next week for the Begles’ head coach Raphael Ibanez… It’s a difficult couple of matches for the well-regarded boss, who has been linked to the Marcel Michelin hotseat when Vern Cotter leaves.

Bottom-of-the-table and desperately in need of a win, Biarritz – whose fixture list has already featured Clermont, Montpellier, Stade, Oyonnax, Toulon and Toulouse – face another tricky match against the combative Grenoble. At least they’re at home. It will be close, but this could turn into a morale-boosting win for the troubled Basque outfit.

Still on a high after their 20-minute three-try demolition of Montpellier last week, Perpignan will expect to make it two wins in a row for the first time this season at one-dimensional Brive. The hosts may have won both their Top 14 home games, but don’t expect them to make it three this weekend.

The French top flight’s new boys Oyonnax are three for three at home – and in red – with Clermont, Biarritz and Castres all falling at Charles Mathon. Stade Francais will be under no illusions as they make the trip here, but it’s a long way from certain that they will be able to do anything about it. The hosts have turned their home in the shadow of the Jura mountains into a fortress. They will be tough for anyone to beat.

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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!"