Top 14 Preview: The Long, Dark Teatime of Mayol…

Johan Goosen
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Matt Giteau has ended speculation about his future, by signing a new deal at Top 14 champions Toulon
Giteau ended speculation about his future, signing Toulon deal

CASTRES, FRANCE – News that Matt Giteau has signed a two-year contract extension with Top 14 champions Toulon has finally shone a solitary ray of light on what has been a troublesome week down in the Var.

The Australian spurned a reported €1m-a-season offer from Racing Metro to sign a deal with the Var club that includes an option for a one-year extension.

Up until then, last weekend’s surprise defeat at home to Stade Francais prompted, as such events always do, soul-searching, navel-gazing, pontificating and pronouncements from the corridors of power at Stade Mayol.

Club president Mourad Boudjellal has never been backward about coming forward, but he has been particularly vociferous this week, talking to anyone who’ll listen about paying players while they’re on international duty (he doesn’t want to do it any more), and the future of Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny at Toulon (he may not have one).

Boudjellal would have been feeling particularly sore about Halfpenny’s ongoing absence when he realised, about 15 minutes after Freddie Michalak picked up a shoulder injury midway through the second half of last week’s defeat that – for all all his wealth, and the stellar list of rugby names on the roster – he’s suddenly short of kicking options.

So he lashed out, speculating openly that Halfpenny could have been carrying the groin injury that is currently keeping him out of action when he signed for the club. If that was the case, he said, then the club would look at whether it could cancel the lucrative two-year deal.

It also emerged that Toulon have sounded out Jonny Wilkinson for a possible short-term return to team colours.

Toulon boss Mourad Boudjellal issued a warning to his international players
Toulon boss Mourad Boudjellal issued a warning to his international players

Boudjellal has also this week warned Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha and Juan Fernandez Lobbe that he will stop paying them if they don’t return to France by the end of the week.

The trio are are playing for their countries in The Rugby Championship, which does not finish until next month. As it is an IRB-sanctioned competition, he has to release the players, but – he argues – that doesn’t mean he has to pay them.

He told sports newspaper L’Equipe: “It is quite simple – they wear the colours of their country but are paid rather comfortably by Toulon.

“The IRB decided the rules. That’s fine, but I’m not here to fund South African and Argentine rugby and I will not.

“These players will return as we need them. If they do not and if we receive no compensation, they will not be paid by us because they will not be playing for Toulon.”

He’s prepared to take the case to court, and argued that French employment law could overrule IRB regulations.

He said: “We have reached a stage where we have to turn to French law. Therefore, we will ask a French judge whether a foreign federation can take my employees and force me to pay them.

“It’s just unthinkable that we have players who we pay very well but cannot play. Moreover, I have to pay the players replacing them. This is a double sanction.”

Smaller nations’ unions – such as Fiji or Samoa – will be watching the legal manoeuvrings nervously. They probably could not afford to compensate clubs to release their overseas-based players.

While the bossman has been sounding off in the media, Toulon’s coaches and players have been busy preparing for Friday’s trip to Brive. The good news is that Giteau is back from injury, so they at least have kicking cover.

The even better news is that Mamuka Gorgodze and Sebastian Tillous-Borde are also set to return, which means that the Toulon side likely to take the field at Stade Amedee Domenech on Friday evening looks a lot more like the Toulon sides other teams in the Top 14 have come to know and fear.

Brive, even with their discipline issues, don’t lose many at home – and they have a near full squad available for selection – but the side Toulon are sending to the Correze has been put together with one aim in mind. To make a statement.

Mourad expects… There’ll be hell to pay if he doesn’t receive.

Rory Kockott and Top 14 side Castres need a win
Rory Kockott and Top 14 side Castres need a win

Castres’ president Pierre-Yves Revol is normally much quieter than his opposite number in the big chair at Toulon, but this week he made the walls shake at the club’s training ground, as he gave his frank assessment of the season so far to players and staff.

He has no small amount of justification. The 2013 Top 14 champions and last season’s losing finalists are languishing at the bottom of the table, having won just once in five games.

The players can be in no doubt that anything less than an utterly dominant victory over Oyonnax at home on Saturday evening will be good enough. Revol – and several thousand suffering Castres fans expect…

Toulouse’s three-match losing streak – their worst in 37 seasons – could easily continue beyond the weekend, as they take their dismal away record to Racing Metro, not the easiest place to go in the week following a shock home defeat.

On the plus side for Guy Noves, a number of injured players returned to training this week – Imanol Harinordoquy, Luke McAlister, Vincent Clerc, Timoci Matanavou, Vasil Kakovin and Census Johnston – but will they be enough to break down one of the toughest defences in the Top 14?

Probably not. Racing’s own injury woes have become a little easier with news that prop Anton Peikrichvili has been cleared to return. His move from Castres to Paris had been on ice after it was discovered he had a spine injury, but successful surgery and rehab means the big man is ready to resume his career.

League leaders Clermont welcome Lyon to Stade Marcel Michelin for what should be a shoo-in win. The visitors will be without catalyst scrum-half Lachie Munro, who picked up an injury last week against Racing Metro and is expected to be absent for six weeks.

Clermont should be too powerful for Top 14 rivals Lyon at Stade Marcel Michelin
Clermont should be too powerful for Top 14 rivals Lyon at Stade Marcel Michelin

After a strong start to the season, Grenoble will want to bounce back from last week’s defeat at Oyonnax with a win over Bayonne at Stade des Alpes. Under Patricio Noreiga, the youth-filled visitors are starting to win over many fans with their vibrant style this season – but Bernard Jackman is putting together a side that incorporates discipline and training with French flair. This could turn into some game. It could even be the match of the weekend.

Bayonne will have to do without flanker Jean-Jo Marmouyet, however, after a motorcycle accident left him needing surgery that will keep him out of action for three months.

La Rochelle proved that their home victory over Toulouse was no fluke when they hammered Castres last weekend. So this weekend’s visitors Bordeaux should be forewarned that Marcel Deflandre is no easy hunting ground. Whether they’ll be able to do anything about it remains to be seen.

Montpellier entertain Stade Francais in the final Top 14 match of the weekend. The hosts welcome back Nicolas Mas, but may have to do without Francois Trinh Duc. The fly-half missed training on Thursday with a calf strain. No decision will be made on whether he will play until the last possible moment.

Stade, meanwhile, are expected to play former Montpellier man Julien Tomas at nine, with Sergio Parisse back in the likely starting line-up, along with Digby Ioane, who missed last week’s historic win at Stade Mayol with an ankle injury. Pascal Pape, however, is expected to sit out this weekend’s match. Alexandre Flanquard and Hugh Pyle are set to make the second-row pairing.

It’s one year and counting to the Rugby World Cup, which kicks off in England on September 18, 2015. And Les Bleus have already courted controversy by naming 10 overseas players in their 74-man provisional squad, thanks to an Olympic loophole on eligibility.

Steffon Armitage could be a France player at next year's World Cup
Steffon Armitage could be a France player at next year’s World Cup

Toulon flanker Steffon Armitage, the European player of the year and an integral part of Toulon’s European and Top 14 titles last season, has already been capped by England Saxons, which up until this year would have seen him ineligible for France.

But the International Rugby Board changed eligibility rules ahead of the inaugural sevens tournament at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, meaning players can represent a country provided they have the correct passport and have not been capped by another team for 18 months. Armitage is applying for a French passport.

An appearance in just one Olympic sevens qualification event could lead to a player being selected for that nation’s 15-a-side team even, though the IRB is trying to reduce the number of ‘dual internationals’.

And France coach Philippe Saint-Andre has named Armitage in his extended squad, along with New Zealand’s Uini Atonio, Alex Tulou and David Smith, South Africans Rory Kockott, Francois van der Merwe and Scott Spedding, Australian sevens star Blair Connor and Fijian winger Noa Nakaitaci.

Kockott could even play for France in November’s internationals, having qualified for the country on residency grounds in July.

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!"