Top 14 Preview: Move Along… No Club vs Country Row Here

Top 14 champions Castres have a new international star after centre Remi Lamerat was named in Philippe Saint-Andre's provisional squad for the Scotland game
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Top 14CASTRES, FRANCE – There’s no Six Nations this week… which means that the Cold War between the FFR and the Top 14 clubs heats up again, as players who have been away on international duty are sent back to their clubs, with a note from Philippe Saint-Andre asking that they be excused from games.

Toulon’s Daddy Warbucks, Mourad Boudjellal, for one, wasn’t impressed to receive Saint-Andre’s missive asking the club not to pick Mathieu Bastareaud for the match against Oyonnax. He told France’s RMC Sport: “The Fed, rather than keep the players and compensate clubs, prefers to send players back to their clubs because it costs them nothing.

In fairness, Saint-Andre had wanted to keep hold of his players for this week, something which Boudjellal recognised. He said: “It might have been easier, as demanded by Philippe Saint-André, to keep players an extra week in Marcoussis and compensate clubs.”

Other Top 14 clubs have been less vocal in demonstrating what they thought about the request. They simply ignored it. Montpellier have selected prop Nicolas Mas to start against Stade Francais on Saturday, while Stade are starting with the recalled Rabah Slimani and have picked both Pascal Pape and Jules Plisson as replacements.

This is a game Montpellier have to win. Last week’s abject defeat at Clermont, where they were up against 14 men for the better part of an hour, saw them drop from second to fifth in the Top 14. Arguably the only piece of good news for Montpellier last weekend was the fact that coach Fabien Galthie was on Six Nations commentary duty with national broadcaster France 2 at the time, so wasn’t there to witness the horror as it unfolded.

As it was, he’ll have had to watch it on video later… Which probably won’t have made things much better for the players when he stalked into the dressing room on Monday morning.

Clermont coach Vern Cotter
Clermont coach Vern Cotter

There’ll be a bumper crowd at Bordeaux’s Stade Jacques Chaban-Delmas on Saturday, where – at the time of writing – 30,000 tickets have already been snapped up for the visit of Top 14 leaders Clermont. The visitors’ coach Vern Cotter described the match as “a real test on the road”.

He’s not kidding. The Girondons are a tough nut to crack at home. They walloped an admittedly weakened Racing Metro last weekend and are just four points outside the play-off places, with a game in hand over the teams ahead of them.

Clermont may be four points clear at the top of the table, but this is not a forgone conclusion for them. In fact, it would be no surprise to see the gap between Les Jaunards and the chasing pack closed by the end of the weekend.

Clermont will be without the services of Morgan Parra, who has been suspended for two weeks after being sent off for headbutting Montpellier’s Rene Ranger last weekend. The suspension also means he will not be available for Scotland v France on March 8. Wesley Fofana, meanwhile, is injured.

Brive v Grenoble is another tough one to call. Both sides lost last weekend. Brive came off worse in a dour match at Perpignan, while Grenoble were on the receiving end of a late mugging from a Top 14 basement side Biarritz, who picked up just their third win of the season at the previously impregnable Stade Lesdiguieres.

The pressure is steadily mounting on Racing Metro coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers. It’s probably why they have happily welcomed internationals Dimitri Szarzewski, Dan Lydiate, Maxime Marchenaud, Mike Phillips and Marc Andreu back into the fold – not to mention named them in the squad to face their old club Castres at Colombes.

Top 14 champions Castres have a new international star after centre Remi Lamerat was named in Philippe Saint-Andre's provisional squad for the Scotland game
Top 14 champions Castres have a new international star after centre Remi Lamerat was named in Philippe Saint-Andre’s provisional squad for the Scotland game

Castres bosses David Darricarrere and Serge Milhas have also picked from a full deck. Brice Dulin, Antonie Claassen, Brice Mach, Yannick Forestier, the released Ibrahim Diarra, and new Bleu Remi Lamerat are in the 25 – as are Richie Gray and Max Evans. This could be an earth-shaking clash. The result depends on which imponderable improves most: Racing’s shaky form or Castres’ poor away record.

Toulon were rather lucky to win at Bayonne last weekend. Oyonnax were unlucky to lose at Stade Francais – though they did pick up just their second defensive bonus point at Jean Bouin. It may be too late for the side from the plastics city to save their season – even though they have two games in hand – but don’t expect Christophe Urios’s side to go down without a fight. Toulon should win, but there may well be a scare or two along the way.

Perpignan ended a long losing streak at Stade Aime Giral last weekend. It was hardly convincing, however, and Ernest Wallon is not the best place to go if you’re trying to start a late-season winning streak.

And, with a play-off place up for grabs, Guy Noves is sure to pick the best squad he can. Louis Picamoles will almost definitely be available, after being unceremoniously dumped by Philippe Saint-Andre for his petulant outburst at being sin-binned at the Millennium Stadium last weekend – but Yannick Nyanga joined the increasingly lengthy Toulousain injury list.

Maybe not as you remember him. Biarritz president and France rugby legend Serge Blanco
Maybe not as you remember him. Biarritz President and France rugby legend, Serge Blanco

The Top 14 spills into Sunday for the second week in a row. The final match is the Basque Country derby between Biarritz and Bayonne at Parc des Sports Aguilera.

Serge Blanco’s side come into the game on what passes for a high for them in this their centenary year, after last weekend’s last-gasp victory at Grenoble. Bayonne, meanwhile, came off on the losing end of another thriller – this time against Toulon.

Neither side will need much encouragement for this game. It’s likely to be brutal, and tense. And close.

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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!"