CASTRES, FRANCE – That disturbance in the rugby force you felt earlier this week? It was Top 14 pundits across France crying out in ecstasy before collapsing en masse in an irony-induced coma when Grenoble’s coach Fabrice Landreau was named in the national media as one of five on Clermont’s shortlist to replace Vern Cotter, just days before the two sides were due to meet in the sixth round of the league.
To make the situation more delicious, Bordeaux, whose coach Raphael Ibanez has also been linked to the post, follow Grenoble into Darth Cotter’s lair in a fortnight.
So, two impending battles of the once and possibly future kings of Clermont has sent the experts wild – and allowed everyone to conveniently ignore the fact that Robbie Deans, Todd Blackadder and Richard Cockerill are also on this purely speculative list.
Despite his side’s lacklustre performance in defeat at Stade Francais last Sunday, the Dark Lord of Marcel Michelin will probably demonstrate the awesome firepower of his fully functioning squad on Saturday. Not that there’s any shame in losing at Clermont – 62 have tried since Biarritz won here in November 2009. Sixty-two have failed. Chances are even Ibanez Kenobi will fail the end of the month, too…
Such is the topsy-turvy nature of the Top 14 this season that, after two games, Fabien Galthie’s Montpellier were bottom of the table. Three games later, they’re second just a point behind Toulon after a run of three wins – including that astonishing 25-0 defeat of Toulouse last time out.
Perpignan, on the other hand, have been a model of consistency. They were seventh in the league after two games. Now, they’re ninth, after losing 19-16 to Racing Metro on Sunday.
If other matches run according to predictions, Montpellier will leapfrog Toulon and will be looking down on every other team from the top of the pile, while Perpignan will drop to 10th.
Recent history, if not seasonal form, is on the side of Castres Olympique in their encounter with league leaders Toulon, a repeat of June’s Top 14 final.
The visitors may have all the money and most of the big-name players (though, these days, Castres boast a fair few of their own), but the big team from the little town in the Tarn region have the wood on their opponents. After all, Castres’ 19-14 Brennus-winning victory just three months ago was their 11th in the last 14 meetings between the two sides.
The hosts lost a war of attrition in a quagmire at Oyonnax last Sunday, while the visitors notched up a not-unexpected away win at Biarritz, but this season has already proved that six days is a long time in the Top 14.
Oyonnax are enjoying life in the Top 14. Three home wins means they come into this game at Bordeaux a healthy seventh in the league, while their hosts are languishing in 11th. The visitors owe their success to their Argentinian fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta, who has notched up 12 penalties, five conversions and one drop goal. His 49-point haul is more than half his team’s 93-point tally for the season.
Expect Saturday’s encounter to turn into one of those kicking affairs, with Urdapilleta’s opposite number Pierre Barnard also in decent form. He has scored 73 of his side’s 107 points this season – made, stat fans, up of 22 penalties, two conversions and a drop goal.
Outside the Basque country, few would give Biarritz a sniff of a chance against Toulouse at Ernest Wallon.
They come into the game at the bottom of the table and on the back of three defeats in the Top 14’s bonkers nine-day rugbyathon that put players’ bodies, coaches’ sanity and fans’ bank balances at risk.
Unsurprisingly, the visitors are talking up their chances, and the ever-optimistic Teddy Thomas is backing his young colleagues to spring a shock of league-shaking proportions. But beating Toulouse, wounded after that 25-0 shut-out at Montpellier last Sunday? Unlikely. Just about impossible, in fact. Probably.
Just as it’s difficult to see Toulouse coming a cropper against Biarritz, so it should be close to heresy to suggest that Bayonne will get the better of the stars in Racing Metro’s ciel et bleu. So we won’t.
Bayonne may be two for two at home, and it may be a record they’re keen to maintain, as their performances on the road have been far from impressive – but even though Racing have still to gel as a unit on the pitch, they should pick apart their host’s defence.
It should be no contest at Stade Jean-Bouin, either, as struggling Brive face a Stade Francais side looking to maintain a perfect record on redeveloped home turf. And there’s no reason to suspect they won’t manage it. Even without the services of Morne Steyn, who’s on international duty with the Springboks, Stade – who have beaten Biarritz and Clermont at home already this season – should be far too good for Brive.