CASTRES, FRANCE – The 15th round of the Top 14 season features two bottom-of-the-table dogfights – one of which is a battle between west-coast neighbours; a Mediterranean and an Alpine derby; a new coach’s baptism of fire; and a clash of the titans.
And it opens with a match that, a couple of weeks ago, would not have set many a pulse racing: Lyon v Stade Francais at the Matmut Stadium. But the hosts’ last-gasp back-from-the-dead victory over Clermont last weekend has added a whale’s mouthful of water to the prospect of this fixture.
Certainly Lyon will not fear the table-topping aristocrats from the capital, for all that Stade have been doing the rugby equivalent of walking on water in recent weeks and head southeast on the back of a thumping 30-6 bonus-point victory over defending Top 14 champions Toulon.
News out of Paris is that New Zealander Paul Williams will start at fullback, while the out-of-favour Morne Steyn will wear the number 10 shirt, with Jules Plisson warming the bench like the ghost of future fly-halves.
The bad news is the weather could still play a major role in proceedings. The mercury has plunged well below zero across large swathes of France this week. The Matmut pitch has been covered to protect it as groundstaff do their level best to ensure Friday night’s game goes ahead as scheduled.
Sub-zero temperatures in the Alps have also prompted Grenoble to cover the pitch at Stade des Alpes ahead of their must-win mountain range derby against Oyonnax. After going on a four-match winning streak, the hosts have lost their last two matches – including a blistering defeat at home to current Top 14 leaders Stade Francais two weeks ago.
The Isere side’s players were forced inside for training due to the freezing weather earlier this week.
There can be no better way to start the new year than with a win – particularly against Alpine rivals. But don’t expect it to be easy. Christophe Urios’s side have won six of their last seven. And they’re as used to the cold as Grenoble. Don’t expect this to be pretty; do expect it to be close as hell and twice as tense.
All the talk out of Racing Metro’s Yves du Manoir has been about the post-World Cup arrival of Dan Carter – and no wonder.
But the ambitious Franciliens have a more immediate problem at 10. South African Johan Goosen is set to be out of action for up to three weeks after injuring his knee while coming down the stairs of the team bus.
The 22-year-old was set to be in the starting line-up to face Toulouse last Sunday but missed the 15-9 defeat, after his mishap on arrival in the Rose City.
And with Jonny Sexton serving a 12-week mandatory medical stand-down after suffering his fourth concussion this year during Ireland’s victory over Australia in November, the ciel-et-blanc have a big problem at the crucial 9-10 axis.
It could be just what visitors Bordeaux need as they look to improve on their dismal away form. At home, they score tries at will – but on the road, they cannot seem to pick up a win.
Eleventh-placed Brive entertain almost equally troubled west-coast rivals Bayonne, in 10th, in what is likely to be a crucial match for both sides. Brive have lost four of the last five, so confidence is low in the Correze – but Bayonne have yet to notch a win away from home. Call it how you see it…
Last week, Castres reminded the Top 14 that it is unwise not to take them seriously with a much-needed victory over Montpellier. Despite that win, they remain bottom of the table, one point behind their opponents this weekend, La Rochelle.
One win does not alter the fact they have lost eight of their last 10 in all competitions, and they need to lose that losing feeling.
Many would think that fellow strugglers La Rochelle would be easy pickings, with no wins on the road and a defence so leaky it gives sieves a bad name. That would be a mistake – even though pundits – who are supposed to know about such things – have voted La Rochelle and Brive “the two sides most likely to be relegated from the Top 14”.
Stats suggest the Charentais have the wood on the 2013 Top 14 champions, with the hosts winning just one of the last five matches between the two sides.
Jake White’s first match in charge at Montpellier could not be more difficult – a home encounter against Top 14 champions Toulon. The visitors have the best attack in the league, and the best on-the-road record this season. Worse, the Herault side’s record against their opponents is nothing to write home about. Which suggests that leaving with anything from this game should be considered a victory, given all that has been going on at the Altrad Stadium in recent weeks.
Toulon have rung the changes following last weekend’s defeat against Stade Francais. Seven big-game players – including Bakkies Botha, Gerhard Vosloo, David Smith and Virgile Bruni have all been discarded for the trip, while medical joker Juan Martin Hernandez is in the 23-man squad.
Meanwhile, Freddie Michalak – who is still recovering from a shoulder injury – has exercised a one-year extension to his contract with Toulon, which means he will stay with the club until 2016.
And, as a reminder that no-one should ever completely trust anything to appear in British newspaper the Daily Fail or its day-of-rest counterpart the Fail on Sunday, it turns out that rumours of His Supreme Majestic Imperial Mightiness Lord Sir Jonny of Wilkinson’s deserved elevation to the ranks of Knight of the British Empire have turned out to be just a little premature.
The great man posted the following on his Twitter feed on December 30:
Might not be on the NY list by the way. Congrats 2 those will be + the many who deserve 2 be. Your support still baffles the hell out of me!
— Jonny Wilkinson (@JonnyWilkinson) December 30, 2014
And, sure enough, his name did not appear when the honours list was released on New Year’s Eve – though two England rugby stars did feature, namely World Cup winners Sarah Hunter and Rochelle Clark.
Top 14 heavyweights Clermont and Toulouse meet in the final game of the weekend – and both sides will be determined to prove a point after dramatic losses last time out. The odds must be in hosts Clermont’s favour, even though they could be without the services of Napolioni Nalaga, Benson Stanley or Peceli Yato.
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