CASTRES, FRANCE – Toulon manager Bernard Laporte earlier this week threatened to forfeit Saturday afternoon’s Top 14 match at Castres due to the unavailability of 17 key players.
International commitments (Toulon are supplying six of the France squad to face Fiji on Saturday, for example), injuries (Carl Hayman and Craig Burden are the latest players to fill the Toulon physio’s room) and suspensions (Martin Castrogiovanni really has no-one to blame) mean that 17 regulars in the rouge et noir are out of club action.
In fact, Toulon’s most experienced available prop has played six minutes of Top 14 rugby in his career. And that was at the end of the big win over Grenoble last week.
Laporte told anyone who cared to listen that he would be prepared to concede the five points for a bonus-point win to Castres to protect young squad players from career-threatening injury. Club president Mourad Boudjellal later joked that he might turn out on Saturday himself before suggesting that Toulon could field fewer than 15 players, or insist on uncontested scrums.
It could even come to that. Castres, too, have a problem in the front row. Five props are unavailable, either through injury or international commitments. Saimone Taumoepeau and Yohan Montes are likely to start, while Florian Houerie has been brought back from loan at Tarbes to provide cover on the bench, alongside Grégory Marmoiton.
Remi Tales and Rory Kockott are among 10 provisional replacements for France’s match against Fiji in Marseille; Richie Gray and Piula Faasalele are also on international duty, and Remi Lamerat and Dan Kirkpatrick are both injured – so expect two almost unrecognisable teams to take the field at Stade Pierre Antoine on Saturday.
That said, despite their numerous missing contingent, the Armitage brothers, Juan Smith, David Smith, Gerhard Vosloo, Chris Masoe, James O’Connor, Michael Claassens, Eric Escande, and Ali Williams are all likely to feature for Toulon. Maybe not that unrecognisable, then…
The Top 14 weekend kicks off on Friday evening, as Montpellier face a potential banana-skin when they welcome Brive to the Altrad Stadium.
The Herault hosts have not lost at home in the Top 14 since the opening-day defeat to Racing Metro; The Correze side have not won on the road this season – but last week’s conquerors of Castres are something of a bête noire for Fabien Galthie’s side. They have won four of their eight games in the Mediterranean coastal city.
At the very least, the visitors will be after a bonus point. They are hovering just above the relegation zone and face a trip to Stade Francais when the Top 14 resumes following its two-week international break. They simply cannot afford to leave Montpellier with nothing.
Two sides level on points in the upper echelons of the Top 14 meet at Stade Marcel Michelin, when Clermont meet Stade Francais. History is with the hosts – the last time they failed to beat the Parisian bluebloods at home was in 2009, when a grateful Stade headed back to the French capital with a 19-19 draw.
But this season’s Stade, with two wins on the road to their name, could spring a shock and condemn the Jaunards to their second home defeat this season. Possibly.
Grenoble meet Lyon for the first time in the Top 14 this weekend – but the two sides are old and ferocious enemies from their ProD2 days. No more than seven points separated them in 2006, 2007 and 2008, while the matches in 2009 and 2011 ended in stalemate.
It all points to a close encounter of the sphincter-clenching kind, but hosts Grenoble will start as favourites. They’re higher in the league, and haven’t lost at home, while Lyon have lost all five matches on the road and sit perilously close to the relegation zone.
Another first for the Top 14, another difficult call, as Oyonnax and La Rochelle are set for their first encounter in the French top flight. Oyonnax have the upper hand from the two sides Pro D2 days, and come into the game on the back of last weekend’s remarkable win at Racing Metro. That, surely, puts the odds in their favour…
Despite that shock defeat to Christophe Urios’s side last week, the big-spending ciel-et-bleu from Colombes will expect to beat Bayonne at Stade Yves du Manoir on Saturday. After all, Bayonne haven’t won here since a European Challenge Cup win in 2009. Everything points to a home win, despite international absences, especially as Bayonne have not won on the road so far this season.
The Top 14 has saved – potentially – the best for last, as Bordeaux entertain Toulouse in the Garonne derby. The hosts have the advantage. They’re better placed in the league, they’re at home – where they have put more than 50 points on the board against both Clermont and Castres in two heady weekends before the European break. And only Toulon have a more potent attack.
But, right now, Toulouse are a different side from the one that hobbled to five defeats in five Top 14 matches earlier in the season. They have won five on the bounce, including a European Rugby Champions Cup victory in Bath, and their first Top 14 win on the road at Lyon last week. And it’s likely Luke McAlister will return from a brief injury layoff.
Whatever happens at Stade Chaban-Delmas, expect final score to feature some pretty big numbers.
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