CASTRES, FRANCE – The Top 14, which returns by popular demand for one week before the European break, has used the November internationals as a great time to bury some news that – if it hasn’t always been bad, has been at the very least intriguing in a Movember beard-stroking kind of way.
Montpellier sit uncomfortably at the top of the puzzled-looks charts.
They crashed to their fourth loss in a row at home to Brive the week before the Top 14’s international break. Cue a serious bout of hand-wringing introspection and blood-on-the-carpet meetings – followed by a terse and no-nonsense message from club president Mohed Altrad.
He confirmed the immediate departure of forwards coach Mario Ledesma, who it seems fell on his sword in light of what Mr Altrad described as “the fiasco” of the defeat to Brive.
The communique ended with: “I urge everyone to take responsibility, just like Mario, to restore the situation and return the club to the standards it deserves and I expect in terms of performance and results. For my part, I’ll take mine.”
All this after the departures of key backroom and executive figures, Denis Navizet, Jharay Russell, and Alain Elias – who have all left in recent weeks.
Worse, however, was to follow. Backs coach Stéphane Glas was absent from training on Tuesday, leaving head coach Fabien Galthie on his own to put on a brave face and try to pick the team up and prepare them for this week’s trip to Lyon.
It’s a long way from ideal for any club, let alone one that harbours increasingly hard to believe dreams of silverware. And it’s a long way from ideal for a coach who, for a long time, has been a favourite for the France job after Philippe Saint-Andre.
Now, according to press reports in Australia, the club has been in contact with both Ewen McKenzie and Jake White.
With all this in the background, Galthie has turned to on-field leaders like team captain Fulgence Ouedraogo and flying New Zealander Rene Ranger for help. He needs all the assistance he can get, as he suddenly has no top-level coaching experience to turn to.
Will this week’s match at Lyon’s Matmut Stadium end in a fifth defeats in a row for Montpellier? It’s probable. Likely, even.
Things aren’t much better down in Toulon, where president Mourad Boudjellal has been indulging in “anytime, anywhere”-style trash talk with South African-based Super Rugby side Sharks.
He was responding to a challenge from Sharks’ CEO John Smit who issued a tweet claiming that the old Heineken Cup was an easier competition than Super Rugby and offering a match to decide which competition is best.
Toulon’s Drew Mitchell also got involved, saying in a tweet that Toulon were more interested in taking on his old club, Super Rugby champions Waratahs.
Boudjellal has also been forced to admit that – after apparently missing out on the signature of Ma’a Nonu – he does not think he will be able to sign another one of his “Fantastic Four” wishlist, Israel Folau.
He blames the Top 14’s 10million euro salary cap. It’s obviously a stumbling block.
The Top 14 champions had to swallow another slice of bad news when Oyonnax coach Christophe Urios, long regarded as the man most likely to take over from manager Bernard Laporte in 2016, signed a four-year deal to join Castres as their director of rugby from next season.
There was some good new for the Var side, though. They did grab Argentinien hooker Matias Cortese as a medical joker for the injured Craig Burden.
Cortese goes straight into the squad to face Top 14 leaders Clermont at Nice’s Allianz Riviera on Saturday, as does scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde, whose heroics for France this month have surely catapulted him to the top of Saint-Andre’s starting scrum-halfs list.
Toulon’s coaching pain is league strugglers Castres’ gain. Urios, a former CO player, is now a highly regarded coach, and news of his arrival has raised expectations and hopes during a season that is most generously being described as difficult.
Already, Northampton’s Samoan centre George Pisi has been linked with a move to the Tarn as what is beginning to look like an exodus from the English club apparently gathers pace.
The futures of the current coaching team, David Darricarrere, Serge Milhas and team manager Matthias Rolland is not yet clear.
Castres’ tough season has been in Europe and on the road. At home – other than the Champions Cup defeat to Leinster – they have been unbeatable this season.
However, if there’s a team that should know how to beat them, it’s Racing Metro. The coaching team is ex-Castres, while several players also moved north from Stade Pierre Antoine. It could be an interesting return for Racing’s number 8 Antonie Claassen, who joined the Paris side in the summer.
Fear of being dragged into the relegation zone will add extra tension to the match between La Rochelle and Bayonne. Recent history is with the hosts. They won a Challenge Cup encounter against the Avironais earlier this season, and will be looking for an early-season double over Noreiga’s men.
The match will offer the first start for Bayonne’s 19-year-old Australian centre Lalakai Foketi, who joined the Basque Country side in September. He will line up alongside returning Bleus Charles Ollivon and Scott Spedding, with Uncle Joe Rokocoko back on the wing.
Bordeaux head to a real bogey ground this week as they travel from Atlantic coast to the east of France to face Oyonnax at Stade Charles Mathon.
That said, the Mathon fortress has crumbled this season, witnessing two defeats in the past three games. Maybe this is a good time to travel to the shadow of the Jura Mountains – even for a side that suffers travel sickness as badly as the Begles.
They have, however, not won at Charles Mathon in seven visits – their best result was a 22-22 draw back in 2006.
Six wins in a row. It hasn’t quite cast aside the horror of those five straight losses earlier in the season, but it looks like the crown princes of the Top 14, Toulouse, are back on track. There are even rumblings from Ernest Wallon about title challenges – unheard of as the Toulousains suffered their worst run in 50 years.
But now… well, it’s hard to bet against them. Unusually, they have been able to rest most of their players during the international break – which only adds to the likelihood that they’re going to do nasty, horrible things to poor, hapless Grenoble.
Really. The Isere side lost 38-8 here last season, and 57-7 the season before. Expect another one-sided score this weekend.
Only two Top 14 sides are unbeaten at home this season – Stade Francais is one. The other, for the record, is Grenoble – but they’re on the road this week, so that record is not in doubt.
Stade, however, are defending that record – against Brive. On paper, the third-placed hosts should be way too strong for their opponents. On paper, and on the pitch, in fact. The Correze side may field new medical joker signing Christopher Tuatara-Morrison, whose brief stay at Castres ended when Sitiveni Sivivatu returned from injury.
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