Top 14 Preview: It’s back after a mid-season break

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Scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili in action for Top 14 side Biarritz
Scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili in action for Biarritz

CASTRES, FRANCE – The two-week break that coincides with France’s November internationals may have been welcomed by battered and bruised players, but it could not have come at a worse time for at least one Top 14 club.

Bottom-of-the-league Biarritz signed off on the first third of the season earlier this month by grinding out a 9-6 victory over Racing Metro. The last thing they probably needed, as they rode a tiny wave of success that kept them almost within sight of the rest of the Top 14, was a fortnight off to forget that winning feeling. Worse, they’re away this week – at Brive – who are unbeaten at home this season.

Racing Metro, however, were probably grateful for the break. The Parisian side had lost three of their last four outings – and looked pretty awful in the process, notably against Biarritz where, bizarrely, Jonny Sexton spent the match warming the bench. They’re the Top 14 lambs to the slaughter at Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin this week, so chances are their fortunes are unlikely to improve in the immediate future.

Oyonnax's feisty winger Silvere Tian
Oyonnax’s feisty winger Silvere Tian

If there’s ever a good time to travel to Toulouse’s fortress Ernest Wallon, it could well be this week. Guy Noves has lost six of his first-choice players to the national side for the third and final November international against South Africa. Oyonnax are the – possibly – lucky side in question.

Despite a number of pundit-defying performances this season, the big club from the small city in the shadow of the Jura mountains are currently 13th in the Top 14, and in very real danger of bouncing straight back down to the ProD2 after just one season. They need points. They may not pick up a win this week, but a bonus point would keep them hanging on the coat tails of Bordeaux and Bayonne, who are sitting just above them on points difference.

While many of their fans freeze in an early Alpine snow dump, Grenoble are probably as grateful for a trip to the relative warmth of Bayonne on the Atlantic coast of south-west France as they were for the two-week break. They will be looking for their third win on the road this season… and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that they will get it. Bayonne have blown hot and cold all season, and the fallout from the sacking of Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips has been a headline-grabbing distraction they would have been much happier to avoid.

Top 14 leaders Toulon entertain Perpignan at Stade Mayol. Despite the demands of the November internationals, Bernard Laporte will be able to select a mighty powerful side to face a USAP outfit noticeably weaker for the absence of James Hook – who has actually made it into the starting line-up for Wales’ match at the Millennium Stadium against Tonga on Friday. It’s probably safe to expect a home win – and a pretty sizeable one at that.

Montpellier's Benjamin Paillaugue
Montpellier’s Benjamin Paillaugue

Second-placed Montpellier welcome 10th-placed Castres to Yves du Manoir in a clash that could turn into a classic Top 14 clash of attack and counter-attack. At the risk of losing my bloggers’ license for cruel and unusual mixing of metaphors, both sides have are capable of throwing caution to the wind at the drop of a hat. The visitors will miss the attacking threat of Remi Tales and Brice Dulin, but have worthy stand-ins in the likes of Geoffrey Palis and Daniel Kirkpatrick. If all goes well, this will be close.

Which just leaves Bordeaux v Stade Francais. Sleeping giants Stade have well and truly woken up this season, and – having spent money like Croesus in the close season – sit in the congested head of the Top 14 table, in fifth but just one point behind leaders Toulon. Bordeaux are in 11th – which indicates that this should be a comfortable away win, but in a league in which just five points separate the top 10, and nine points 13 of the 14 teams, anything is possible.

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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!"