CASTRES, FRANCE – Lost a rugby fan this week? You’ll find many of them sitting exactly where they were on Sunday, slowly rocking backwards and forwards and drooling gently as they contemplate April’s Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
To shake themselves out of their blissed-out reverie, just remind them that Top 14 / Premiership / Pro12 (delete as applicable) issues return to take centre stage this weekend.
Paris is awaiting an invasion from the Midi Pyrenees region of southwest France, as near neighbours Castres and Toulouse head to the capital to face Stade Francais and Racing Metro respectively.
Stade v Castres opens the weekend’s Top 14 proceedings at Stade Jean Bouin on Friday night. Second-placed Stade have not lost at home all season, and won four league fixtures on the trot before turning their attention to Amlin Cup qualification over the past two weeks. They will start as huge favourites against the reigning Top 14 champions, who are just one place behind them in the league, but lost their final two Heineken Cup fixtures and who have only won once on the road.
Eighth-placed Racing Metro’s stuttering, stumbling season got worse over the Heineken Cup fortnight, as they lost to Scarlets and Clermont to end their group stage at the bottom of Pool Four. Those defeats left them with just one win in their last five outings – though, on the plus side, that victory was over Toulon.
They’re at home to fourth-placed Toulouse. Despite their current form, it’s a match that may, surprisingly, be made for Racing.
Guy Noves’ side booked their place in the quarter finals of the Heineken Cup with a week to spare. But their dismal limp to victory at a rain-sodden Zebre last weekend – when they also lost Thierry Dusautoir to injury – will not have pleased the coach. Worse for the visitors, they have not actually won a Top 14 match away from the safety of Ernest Wallon since last season.
Pity poor Bayonne. They entertain Top 14 leaders Clermont at Stade Jean Dauger this weekend. Vern Cotter’s side may have only won two league games on the road, but they’re in rare form right now, with two wins from two in the Heineken Cup, including a dramatic smash-and-grab raid at Harlequins and a clinical bonus-point win over Racing.
The hosts, currently 13th in the Top 14 and in danger of relegation, will need to be at the top of their game – and hope that Heineken Cup qualification has taken its toll on the visitors.
Basement side Biarritz are at home to 12th-placed Oyonnax. It may be too late for the Basque Country side to avoid the drop – they’re 13 points adrift of Bayonne at the bottom of the table – but they’ll be keen to restore a little pride after crashing out of the Amlin Cup and in their centenary year. This could be a rare four-pointer for them.
The visitors have attracted many new admirers with their never-say-die approach to life in the Top 14. They have beaten Clermont, Toulon, Castres, Biarritz, Perpignan, Brive, Bayonne and Racing at home to claim a 33-point haul in 16 matches this season. But, despite consistent improvement, they have so far lost every Top 14 match away from home.
Life is good in Grenoble right now, as players dine out on THAT astonishing victory over Toulon at Stade Mayol.
Few sides hold any fears for the Isere outfit these days – especially at Stade des Alpes. This weekend, as they look to strengthen their claim for a place in the end-of-season play-offs, they welcome Perpignan.
Like many of Top 14 side, the Catalans are finding winning away from home just about impossible this season, so this one has home win written all over it. Especially as the visitors will miss the lightning-quick services of Sofiane Guitoune, who has been sidelined for the rest of the season.
Montpellier should also be looking forward to another tick in the win column as they entertain Bordeaux. Fabien Galthie’s side returned to winning ways in the Heineken Cup with a comfortable win over Benetton Treviso last weekend – but they need a win to kickstart their domestic season, which had stuttered to four defeats in five games.
Bordeaux, however, are difficult to break down. The hosts will need patience and discipline, virtues they have – on occasion – lacked this season. Especially in combination. They should win, but Montpellier are a side that can strike fear into the heart of fans and pundits alike. And ‘should’ does not always turn into ‘did’.
Rugby may be the last thing on the minds of players, staff and fans of Toulon – who have more the much more pressing matters to deal with after devastating floods hit the Var region.
But the stellar rugby side head to Brive this weekend, with one mission in mind: restart a Top 14 season that had stalled, following three defeats in their last four games.
The Heineken Cup break provided blessed relief, as Jonny Wilkinson reminded his colleagues what winning feels like.
Brive have lost just once at home – to Biarritz of all sides – so, like Bordeaux, they will be tough to break down, but Toulon really should have the firepower to pick up a valuable win on the road.
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