CASTRES, FRANCE – The Top 14 clashes once again with the Six Nations, though the powers that be have arranged matters so French rugby fans can watch Les Bleus take on Wales in Cardiff on Friday night without feeling guilty about putting country before club.
They have, however, not been so kind to anyone who may want to watch the weekend’s other two Six Nations matches.
Future Scotland coach Vern Cotter, for example, will have to sneakily stream his future team’s game against Italy in Rome on a computer, tablet or smartphone while watching his current side, Clermont, take on – and most likely demolish – Montpellier at Stade Marcel Michelin.
It’s the second time in three weeks that first has played second in a Top 14 game at Marcel Michelin. Last time, Clermont barely broke sweat as they cruised past Stade Francais. Expect more of the same this Saturday as they look to extend their winning streak at home, which stretches back 72 games to November 2009.
Bordeaux had a surprise weekend off last weekend after their Top 14 match against Oyonnax was postponed because of the weather. So, they’re rested – and If their five-try performance against Grenoble last time they played at home is anything to go by, they’ll be too much for Racing Metro to handle – especially as the big-spending Parisians will be without their international contingent.
Racing’s season is hanging by a thread. They’re – just about – in touch with the top six and those all-important end-of-season play-off places, but defeat on Saturday could see them fall as much as five points of the pace with time and matches fast running out.
Grenoble fear no side in the Top 14. Last week, they beat Clermont at home – adding the Jaunards scalp to those of Stade Francais, Castres, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Oyonnax, Perpignan and Toulon to have left Stade des Alpes in defeat. They even did the double over Toulon with a late-late victory at Stade Mayol last month.
So Top 14 basement side Biarritz should hold no fears at all.
Some pundits were faintly surprised when Stade Francais lost in a swamp at Brive last weekend. They probably shouldn’t have been. The Brivistes are a nuggety side that make up for a lack of star-quality by playing as a team – and they’re nigh-on impossible to beat at home. So the second Parisian side are probably relieved to be back in the safe, pink-accented, confines of Stade Jean Bouin this weekend.
They welcome Oyonnax, who have had the worst of the weather in recent weeks. Two of their last three games have been called off, and they have lost ground on Bayonne, their main rivals for the Top 14’s second relegation spot. They need a win, but it’s not likely to happen away at Stade.
Fortunately for Oyonnax, 12th-placed Bayonne face the galacticos of Toulon this weekend. Unfortunately for Oyonnax, Bayonne are at home, where – like most sides in the Top 14 – they’re tough to beat. Worse, Toulon’s galacticos aren’t shining as brightly as perhaps they should. It’s perhaps an indication of how tight this Top 14 season is that the Var side have already lost more games than they did in the whole of their Heineken Cup-winning 2012/13 season.
There’s a derby battle of the fringe players at defending Top 14 champions Castres’ Stade Pierre Antoine. The Tarn side welcome Midi-Pyrenees rivals Toulouse, with both sides heavily weakened by injuries and international call ups.
Guy Noves is, once again, without the services of Yuann Huget, Gael Fickou, Louis Picamoles, Yannick Nyanga, Yoann Maestri, or Jean-Marc Doussain, who are all on international duty; while Thierry Dusautoir, Luke McAlister and Florian Fritz are injured.
Castres, meanwhile, have lost Brice Dulin, Yannick Forestier, Brice Mach and Remi Tales to the France squad, Richie Gray and Max Evans to Scotland, and Mihaïta Lazar to Romania – while Romain Martial and Romain Teulet are both on the long-term injured list.
But, finally, there’s some certainty for the future after scrum-half Rory Kockott revealed his desire to remain with Castres, joining 11 other current players in extending his stay in the Tarn. That new certainty, a passionate home crowd and a strong pack should prove too much for Toulouse.
Finally, Perpignan are going backwards quickly. They have lost six of their last nine games – a dismal run stretching back to October. So a match against Brive, last week’s conquerors of Stade Francais, is probably not what the doctor ordered… even if it is at home.
Confidence is so low at the Catalan side that this will most likely turn into a kicking contest… and Brive are pretty good at that sort of thing at the moment.
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