Top 14 Preview: All to Play For at Season’s End

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rockocokoCASTRES, FRANCE – The big news in the Top 14 this week is not actually the impending final round of the regular season. Though it probably should be.

It’s not the fact that injury has brought Biarritz’s Dimitri Yachvilli’s career to a slightly premature end, or the decision of Toulon’s 36-year-old lock Danie Rossouw to call time his career at the end of this campaign.

Top 14
Top 14 Preview

It’s not the revelation that Castres Olympique stalwart Romain “Thor Thighs” Teulet will be the new kicking coach for the French national team.

It’s the rather more boring yet very important “New Deal” , which lays out how the Top 14 – and little brother the ProD2 – will operate in future.

From a rugby point of view, the decision to award defensive bonus points to the losing side only when the scores are separated by five points or less is intended to promote more attacking play. It’s a simple idea, but so is increasing the number of bonus points depending on tries scored. Three tries one point; Five tries two points; six tries three points. That sort of thing.

Winning a losing bonus point just got harder in the Top 14
Winning a losing bonus point just got harder in the Top 14

Players will also face an automatic one-match suspension when they rack up three yellow cards.

Money-matters, too, are taken into consideration. The salary cap remains at €10m, but now clubs whose players are named in an elite France squad of 30 to be decided in August will have an additional €100,000 per selected player added to their cap allowance.

Furthermore, when players are called up to national training squads, compensation to clubs will increase from €550 to €1,300 per player per day; while the rules surrounding transfer loans will be relaxed, with the aim of getting more young French players playing regular first team rugby – and stricter penalties will be handed down to those deemed to be behaving in a way that ‘undermines the image and spirit of rugby’.

Mr Grumpy - aka Mourad Boudjellal
Mr Grumpy – aka Mourad Boudjellal

That rather vague last point will probably hit Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal in the pocket a few times, before he learns that shutting up is sometimes the right thing to do… while Guy Noves will at least have an idea of which Toulouse players he’s likely to lose from the start of the season – and will have a few extra bucks to do something about it.

The new rules will come into force from the beginning of next season.

Now that the world’s longest introduction is over, you probably need reminding that this is a preview of what promises to be an utterly enthralling final weekend of an utterly enthralling, frustrating, thrilling, infuriating, dramatic Top 14 season – and the permutations would keep a maths genius at MIT happily engaged for days, while sending bookmakers running to the doctors for high-strength ulcer medication.

The match of the weekend is the battle between second-placed Montpellier and Racing Metro, who lie fourth. Two points separate the teams – and, with a bye through to the play-off semi-finals at stake, this promises to go to the wire.

Racing's Jonny Sexton could be key to their hopes of beating Top 14 rivals Montpellier
Racing’s Johnny Sexton could be key to their hopes of beating Top 14 rivals Montpellier

Racing have been the most potent team of the second half of the season, having picked up eight wins out of the 12 matches since the turn of the year. But the second half of Montpellier’s season has been almost as good. They have moved smoothly from sixth to second in the last 12 games.

One more win for either side could see them move into one of the Top 14’s two automatic semi-final slots.

Clermont, however, could upset both the Montpellier and Racing applecarts. They come into their last game of the season – at home to Perpignan – on the back of that shocking performance in the Heineken Cup semi-final against Saracens at Twickenham.

It’s probably time to really pity poor Perpignan. They are hanging tough, just outside the second relegation zone on points difference only, but their last game is at fortress Marcel Michelin against a Clermont side that’s likely to be out for blood.

The only possible piece of good news for the Catalans is that Clermont forwards Julien Bonnaire, Fritz Lee and Damien Chouly, and backs Aurélien Rougerie and Lee Byrne are all doubts, while Daniel Kotze will definitely miss the game.

It was always going to be a tough run-in for Perpignan, who faced Toulon last time out. It will be a difficult time for the fans, who will have one eye on this game, and the other on the Top 14 matches involving Oyonnax and Bayonne.

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

Oyonnax are at Brive. Bayonne are at home to Castres. It’s not beyond expectation that – in both cases – a single point would be enough to ensure both sides are playing Top 14 rugby next season.

But Oyonnax aren’t a side likely to settle for a single point. They’ll want to end what has already been a remarkable season on a winning high. Brive, meanwhile, have nothing but home pride to play for. It could be enough for Oyonnax’s never-say-die attitude to make a difference.

The result of Bayonne’s encounter with fifth-placed Castres may well have ramifications for both sides. Defeat for the hosts would leave them sweating on the result of the Clermont v Perpignan game, while the visitors’ play-off hopes could rest on the final score. The defending Top 14 champions have struggled on the road all season. They have just one win and one draw to their name away from Pierre Antoine this campaign – which is why they still need points to make sure of a play-off place. Especially with Toulouse and Stade Francais breathing down their necks.

Stade's young gun Jules Plisson
Stade’s young gun Jules Plisson

The good news for Castres is that Stade face Toulon at Nice’s Allianz Riviera. The Var side may have a Heineken Cup final to look forward to after last weekend’s tense encounter against Munster in Marseille, but this weekend there’s the small matter of ensuring an automatic Top 14 play-off semi-final spot to consider, too.

Toulon can finish the season with a maximum 78 points. That’s 11 points less than they managed last season and, in that campaign, would have been enough to see them finish fourth. This season, it would see them finish the regular season at the top of the pile.

Defeat could see them overtaken by Montpellier and Clermont, and miss out on either of the two automatic byes to the play-off semi-finals. They will not want that to happen. It probably won’t.

Thierry Dusautoir’s possible return is the big news coming out of Toulouse this week. It’s good news for Guy Noves, as his side entertain Grenoble. A home win is the most likely, as Toulouse do not often lose at Ernest Wallon.

Which just leaves the only game where almost nothing is at stake – Bordeaux v Biarritz. The hosts could sneak into seventh place – and a play-off for a European Cup slot, but they need to run riot and hope that Toulon leave bits of Stade all over the Allianz Riviera.

That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@ :RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.

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!"