CASTRES, FRANCE – Contrary to what new American rugby fans may have heard recently, the game does exist beyond the boundaries of Chicago’s Soldier Field, where the mighty Eagles are playing some other side on Saturday.
Here, on the right-hand side of the Atlantic, for example, not one but two European club competitions have recently brought a temporary hiatus to several domestic leagues.
Now, those domestic leagues are about to kick off again.
The French Top 14 returns on Saturday, several hours before the shenanigans in Illinois, with what could turn out to be a strangely fascinating encounter between Lyon and Toulouse at the Matmut Stadium.
ProD2 champions Lyon have found tries hard to come by since their return to the Top 14. They have just 14 to their name in nine matches. But they are at home, where they have touched down eight times in four games – and won them all.
In fact, Lyon haven’t lost at home since April 2013…
That should make them firm favourites. This is the Top 14, after all, where home advantage genuinely means something. But Toulouse have come alive in recent weeks. Since they duked out a brutal win over Stade Francais to end their worst losing streak in 50 years, the most successful club in French rugby have won four games in a row – beating Toulon in the Top 14, and Montpellier and English rugby giants Bath in the European Champions Cup.
When he spoke to Rugby Wrap Up earlier this season, former All Black-turned-Toulouse favourite Luke McAlister described the win over Stade as the start of their season. He wasn’t joking. That win over Bath was huge – not least because it was in Bath. It suggests that Toulouse have found the winning formula. But this isn’t Europe. This is the Top 14. Toulouse can’t buy a win away from home in the Top 14. Until, maybe, now.
After all, Lyon haven’t beaten Toulouse, home or away, for 60 years.
There’s a bruising basement battle in store as 13th-placed Brive face 12th-placed Castres. The prize? A move away from the relegation zone. Which makes this a must-win game for both sides. Don’t expect this one to be pretty. Both sides lost at home in their respective European competitions, but the visitors’ performance against three-time Heineken Cup winners Leinster will stand them in better stead than Brive’s shock defeat to Italian Pro 12 whipping boys Zebre.
If Brive-Castres is a basement battle, Stade Francais-Bordeaux is a high-flying dogfight, as the Top 14’s fifth-placed team welcomes the side two places higher in the table. The stats favour the hosts. Stade are unbeaten at home this season – and Bordeaux have never won at Stade Jean Bouin.
But, before the European break, Bordeaux walked on water. They ran up 50 points against both Clermont and Castres. This is likely to be a real ding-dong battle.
After two defeats in two European games, Montpellier are already as good as out of the running for a place in the knockout phase of the new-look Champions Cup. So they will be very firmly concentrating on the Top 14 – which could well be bad news for the French top-flight’s other new boys La Rochelle.
Montpellier will pitch their Francois Trinh-Duc-free but nonetheless still frequently savagely beautiful and free-scoring attack against the leakiest defence in the Top 14. But the Herault side cannot be complacent. La Rochelle are more difficult to beat at home than their record suggests. Another Lyon v Toulouse-style encounter is more than likely.
A perfect home record in the Top 14, and two wins in two in Europe. Things are really starting to go Racing Metro’s way. So, they will welcome bottom-of-the-table Oyonnax to Colombes with open arms. Anything other than a home win – maybe even a big one – will be a surprise, as the last time Oyonnax won here was in 2007, when both sides were in the ProD2.
Bayonne entertain Top 14 leaders Clermont, knowing a third home defeat in domestic competition will leave them in serious trouble. Expect a big game from the home side, who need to turn around a four-match Top 14 losing streak. But expect a bigger one from the visitors…
Grenoble’s perfect away record this season – four defeats in four matches – does not suggest a surprise is on the cards when they head to Toulon on Sunday. But, last season, they stole a victory in the Bay that has gone down in Top 14 history. Can they repeat it? Unlikely – but you can bet Bernard Jackman’s side will give it their all…
That’s it for now… Feel free to add your thoughts 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, Scheenagh Harrington, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.