Top 14 Preview: Early Season Symmetry Set To Be Broken

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Top 14CASTRES, FRANCE – There’s a certain symmetry to the Top 14 table going into the third round of matches.

Five teams – Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont, Bordeaux and Stade Francais – have two wins to their name, four – Bayonne, Brive, Montpellier and Racing Metro – have one and the final five – Grenoble, Lyon, Oyonnax, Castres and La Rochelle – have yet to break their duck.

The first and last games of this third Top 14 round promise to be the most interesting. The weekend kicks off at Stade Marcel Michelin, where two-for-two Clermont entertain won-one-lost-one Montpellier.

Intimidating... The crowd facing Top 14 visitors to Clermont's Stade Marcel Michelin
Intimidating… The crowd facing Top 14 visitors to Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin
Fabien Galthie’s visitors are away from home for the first time this season – and they could hardly have wished for a more difficult road trip.

Clermont were made to work for their opening-day win at home to Grenoble, but looked much better last week at Brive. And with 14 defeats in 14 previous visits to the battered but still mightily impressive fortress, things really don’t look too promising for the visitors. An average scoreline of 35-12 for those visits doesn’t bode well, either.

The visitors are expected to give newly arrived Australian international Ben Mowen a starting slot, though they could be without Anthony Tuitavake, who missed training earlier in the week.

La Rochelle – one of the five teams without a win to their name so far this season – will be pleased to be on home turf for the first time this season, especially after last Saturday’s 60-19 defeat at the hands of a Matt Giteau-inspired Toulon.

They will be less pleased to face a Toulouse side that boasts a perfect two-for-two record, albeit that both of those matches were at home.

The visitors have, in fact, lost just once at the Charente side since the 1976-77 season – but will be haunted by their inability to win on the road last season.

Toulouse's Luke McAlister returned to training this week, and may be in Top 14 action against La Rochelle this weekend
Toulouse’s Luke McAlister returned to training this week, and may be in Top 14 action against La Rochelle this weekend
In fact, it took them until February to pick up their first and only away win last season. But Guy Noves’ side must start as strong favourites against a team that has failed so far to pick up even a bonus point and shows little early sign of being able to stop hemorrhaging tries. They have conceded 13 in the opening two games.

The visitors will have been boosted by return to training this week of Thierry Dusautoir, Luke McAlister and Yoann Maestri, and the news that Florian Fritz has signed a new contract that will keep him at the club until 2018.

They will, however, miss the services of Gael Fickou, who picked up an injury in last week’s 35-6 win over Castres.

Speaking of Castres, not many pundits predicted they would be languishing in 13th place in the Top 14 table after the first two weeks of the season.

But an opening weekend defeat against Stade Francais in Beziers, followed by a dismal performance in the Midi Pyrenees derby last Friday means there is huge pressure on last season’s losing Top 14 finalists in their first match at a reduced-capacity Stade Pierre Antoine this season.

It’s only the third week of the season, but this really is a must-win game for the hosts.

The odds really should be in their favour. They have only lost one of their last 10 home outings against Saturday’s opponents Bayonne. But there is the threat of an air of pessimism surrounding the Tarn side right now.

Watch out for Charles Ollivon in the Top 14 and beyond this season
Watch out for Charles Ollivon in the Top 14 and beyond this season
Patricio Noreiga’s Basque side, meanwhile, showed huge heart last week in recovering from an opening weekend home defeat. This really could be close – especially if Bayonne’s young number 8 Charles Ollivon continues his astonishing early season form. French sports newspaper Midi Olympique isn’t noted for doling out praise, so the headline “The Phenomenon” really says it all.

Pity poor Grenoble. Not only are they zero-for-two and not only are they playing two-for-two Bordeaux, but they could be playing two-for-two Bordeaux boasting both Sofiane Guitoune and Metuisela Talebula on the wings.

That’s a genuinely scary proposition.

On the plus side for Bernard Jackman’s Isere side, they very nearly gave as good as they got at both Clermont and Montpellier.

Lyon, like those other Top 14 new boys La Rochelle, have lost their opening two matches on the road, and will welcome being at home for the first time this season.

They face week one pacesetters Brive, who lost a kickathon against Clermont’s Camille Lopez last weekend. Meanwhile, the hosts will have taken heart from their astonishing comeback against Stade Francais at Stade Jean Bouin last weekend, when they fought back from 17-0 down to just miss out 23-20.

Don’t be too surprised if Lyon pick up their first win of the season on Saturday.

Rugby Wrap Up favourites Oyonnax, too, are at home for the first time this season. They welcome Stade Francais to Stade Charles Mathon.

The Parisians have made a perfect start to the season, including one win on the road, but the Jura side are tough to beat at home. Expect both Stade’s perfect record and Oyonnax’s perfectly imperfect record to be broken.

The final match of the weekend sees Racing Metro entertain Toulon in a repeat of last season’s play-off semi final.

Watch out for this guy, too... Racing's Teddy Thomas will be a handful for all defences in the Top 14
Watch out for this guy, too… Racing’s Teddy Thomas will be a handful for all defences in the Top 14
Racing’s attacking shortcomings are troubling them again, in spite of the arrival of Teddy Thomas from Biarritz. He scored twice against Bordeaux last weekend, but could not prevent the Paris bluebloods losing at the death.

And given that Toulon have nailed 89 points in their opening two games, the odds have to be in favour of an away win – but, in rugby if not in physics, anything can happen when an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object.

The future of Jonny Sexton remains the big question for the Colombes’ side. After last week’s news that the Irish fly-half was being wooed with a return to Leinster, it emerged that he has been offered a new four-year deal at Racing. Given the depth of club president Jacky Lorenzetti’s pockets, you can bet there will be an unseemly number of zeroes involved.

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!"