CASTRES, FRANCE – It only seems like yesterday that Rugby Wrap Up posted a review of the third round of matches in France’s Top 14… oh, wait… it was only yesterday. Give or take a couple of hours.
There’s no time for anyone to rest on their laurels right now, though, as the powers that be have decided that every team should face a gruelling three-matches-in-nine-days run.
Ours not to reason why, and all that, but it’s at times like this, when the rugby fixture list is more congested than Paris’s Place de la Concorde at rush hour that the heroes of the French game earn their corn, while managers rotate their squads and pray to the rugby gods that their players come out the other side relatively unscathed.
To make matters even more interesting there are some big, potentially season-defining games in Wednesday’s almost pointlessly full fixture list, as Toulouse entertain Racing Metro, and Stade Francais put their reinvigorated table-topping team’s reputation on the line with a difficult trip to Castres.
In fact, we’ll kick off this preview proper with that latter game. Castres are likely to welcome star full-back Brice Dulin back into the team, after he was forced to miss the opening three matches following an assault during the off-season that left him with a broken jaw. New monstrously large winger Remy Grosso could also make an appearance. It will be a real squeaker, but Castres are a tough side – especially at Stade Pierre Antoine.
The evening’s standout game, however, is Toulouse’s must-win clash with Racing Metro. The host’s legendary manager Guy Noves took a huge gamble resting key players, including Luke McAlister and Thierry Dusautoir, against Clermont on Saturday. He – and others – will argue that he was looking further into this crowded portion of the schedule, but things do not get any easier. After Racing, Toulouse face Montpellier away on Sunday, then Biarritz followed by neighbours Castres at home, and Perpignan away before Stade’s visit ahead of the European ‘break’. A third defeat in four games against Racing on Wednesday would leave Toulouse in deep early season trouble with a tough set of fixtures lining up. If Noves has gambled wrong, this season could turn into a long, hard slog for France’s former undisputed champions.
Clermont made it 61 wins in row at Stade Marcel Michelin on Saturday when they cruised away from Toulouse in the final quarter of the match. They should make it 62 as they entertain Bayonne. Expect a big number on the Clermont side of the result, and a small one on the Bayonne side.
For the record, Biarritz are the last team to beat Vern Cotter’s side at home – waaaay back in November 2009. They are away at Oyonnax, who are acquitting themselves well in their debut Top 14 season. Too close to call this one, unless the hosts wear their gold kit, in which case the Basque side should win. If, however, Oyonnax are kitted out in red, they could bag their second win in the top flight.
One-dimensional Bordeaux rely heavily on the boot of new signing Pierre Barnard. So far he has engineered two impressive home wins – against Toulouse and Castres – but he cannot carry the team on his own. They’re away to Montpellier side that beat Brive 33-24 at the weekend, but coach Fabien Galthie was understandably upset that his team conceded 21 unanswered points in the final 20. The Herault outfit should win their second game of the season, and win well, but fans will be wary of their self-destructive tendencies.
Pity poor Brive. They’re on the road again. Only this time they’re at Toulon whose defence – following their shock defeat at Grenoble on Saturday – is unlikely to be as generous as Montpellier’s. No contest. At Stade Mayol, the rouge-et-noir are these days about as unbeatable as Clermont are at Marcel Michelin.
And, finally, Grenoble are proving again that their 2012/2013 return to the top flight was no fluke. Their heroics against Toulon on Saturday will stand them in good stead against a battered and bruised Perpignan side that lost last time out against Bayonne – and will be without the combative flanker Bertrand Guiry for the next three weeks. This will be another close one, but James Hook’s boot could prove the difference between the two teams. Mind, we’d have backed the rent money on Jonny Wilkinson landing that last-kick-of-the-game conversion attempt at Stade des Alpes, too…