CASTRES, FRANCE – Were not for the Top 14, the one-week gap between the end of the pool stages of Europe’s club competitions and the start of the Six Nations next week would be a howling tumbleweed-filled wasteland for fans of proper, serious top-flight rugby.
The Aviva Premiership has been put on hold for the latest stage of the Anglo-Welsh LV Cup, which rather unconvincingly touts itself as a chance for youngsters to impress, while the Pro12 drops off the radar completely before returning with an underwhelming whimper on Friday the 13th with Ulster v Treviso.
For serious competition, then, it’s French rugby all the way – and, with Top 14 clubs basking in the glow of a new broadcasting deal worth €74million a year for the next four years, two Toulon players being taken into custody, and injury updates – not to mention a full fixture list to plough through, there’s plenty to go at.
The Top 14’s stonking new TV deal with French pay-TV broadcaster Canal+ was the big news – until it emerged that Toulon players Steffon Armitage and Xavier Chiocci were taken into custody on Wednesday morning after answering a police summons in relation to an alleged attack on a 30-year-old man following the European Champions Cup victory over Leicester on December 13.
Chiocci was released on Wednesday evening, but Armitage was detained overnight. He was released on bail on Thursday morning, and will appear in court on February 10 to answer a charge of aggravated violence, Reuters reports.
Toulon said in a statement that it was “awaiting the results of the investigation and will, if necessary, place sanctions on the players to preserve the values ??that are dear to Toulon”.
It’s hardly ideal preparation for the players or the club ahead of Friday evening’s match at home to Bayonne.
But, despite the off-field distraction, despite losing players to Six Nations duty, and despite missing Matt Giteau who had surgery on a groin injury recently, it’s a match the Top 14 and European champions should win at a canter.
The depleted Toulon squad for Bayonne’s visit still features players of the calibre of Bryan Habana, Maxime Mermoz, Juan Smith, Ali Williams, Carl Hayman, Drew Mitchell, Juan Martín Fernandez Lobbe and Bakkies Botha.
A squad like that would be more than a match for Bayonne at the best of times. But this is not the best of times for the Basque Country side. They have just about managed to scrape together a team, despite losing Scott Spedding to France and having another 12 players filling up the infirmary.
Last week, Bayonne announced they had found a replacement for the Clermont-bound Spedding – in the form of Leicester fullback Matthew Tait, who they’ll be hoping will not suffer the run of injuries he has suffered since joining the Tigers from Sale four years ago.
Meanwhile, the ongoing Fabien Galthie saga has again engulfed Montpellier. The former French international had been on gardening leave following a run of poor form for the Herault club. Meanwhile, World Cup-winning coach Jake White, who had arrived over the Christmas holidays to take up a six-month consultancy role with the club was handed first-team responsibilities.
But Galthie – whose contract with the Top 14 club runs until 2017 – returned to work on Tuesday, having served a five-day suspension following a disciplinary meeting with club officials. He did not, however, take training and was nowhere to be seen during the hour or so the players were going through their drills.
His position at the club has not been explained – but the convoluted and complicated nature of French employment law seems to indicate this is one situation that will continue for some time.
While Galthie lurked somewhere in the background, White and his lieutenants Shaun Sowerby and Stephane Glas – who will join Olivier Azam in a new-look coaching set-up at Oyonnax next season – have been busy getting their players ready for the visit of Bordeaux.
The good news for the club is that Francois Trinh-Duc has returned to light-training with his team-mates, as he continues on the long road to recovery from the broken leg he suffered during a Top 14 game in October.
If Galthie’s star has fallen dramatically in recent months, that of Bordeaux’s head coach Raphael Ibanez has risen just as impressively. Galthie was once regarded as the obvious heir apparent for Philippe Saint-Andre’s job as France coach, but these days the name of the Begles’ coach is just as likely to be mentioned.
With good reason. Bordeaux are currently fifth and have played some truly mesmerising rugby this season. Their away form, however, is nothing to write home about – so expect the home side, still basking in the glory of last week’s morale-boosting European Champions Cup victory over Top 14 rivals Toulouse, to pick up four much-needed points here.
Castres, like Montpellier, need points. In fact, their need is even more immediate. They’re in the second relegation spot, three points adrift of safety. And they face near-rivals Toulouse, who are looking to prove a point after last week’s more-than embarrassing European exit.
You see, all is not well in the Stade Ernest Wallon. Things are so off-kilter that club president Rene Bouscatel made a rare appearance at training to ensure everything at Europe’s richest club was in better shape than it may appear to anyone on the outside looking in.
He need not have bothered. Things at Toulouse are not in good shape. Anyone could have told him that. The fact that head coach Guy Noves said that Toulouse’s aim is to finish in the top six of the Top 14 proves they’re not. It’s not so very long ago that Toulouse’s aim was to finish top of the Top 14, not just in the first six places.
Not that the situation is any better at Castres. It has been several months since Bouscatel’s opposite number at the Tarn side, Pierre-Yves Revol, dropped in on training to ensure everything was okay when he already knew it wasn’t.
This game has everything. It’s a Midi-Pyrenees derby. It’s between the 2012 Top 14 champions and the 2013 Top 14 champions. Both sides are in desperate need of a win. The fortress that was Stade Pierre Antoine has been breached four times this season – by Leinster, Wasps and Harlequins in Europe, and by Racing in the Top 14. Both sides have been weakened by Six Nations call-ups.
That’s why it’s the Top 14’s big Saturday-night match. And the midfield clash between the Top 14’s 2014 young player of the year Remi Lamerat and Toulouse’s Gael Fickou should tick all the boxes for rugby fans – let alone France coach Philippe Saint-Andre.
Castres and bottom-of-the-table La Rochelle, meanwhile, will also hope that Grenoble and Racing Metro can do them a favour. They need the two sides to win at Brive and Lyon respectively, otherwise they could find themselves even further adrift.
Grenoble’s form on the road suggests a win at Brive is unlikely, while Racing will also have their work cut out against a Lyon side that has beaten high-flyers Clermont and Stade Francais at the Matmut Stadium this season.
The Top 14’s basement side La Rochelle face leaders Clermont at Marcel Deflandre. It’s just about win or bust time for the hosts – and Clermont are not the side you want to face at a time like that. That said, the Rochelais have proved they’re no walkovers at home. It could be closer than anyone suspects.
Oyonnax, meanwhile, have a little bit of breathing space – but things could get much tighter quickly if they lose and those around them win. At home, Oyonnax are tough to beat, but they’re at Stade Francais this week.
Fly-half Jules Plisson has signed a new three-season deal with the Paris side and will have a little something to prove to the national selectors. It’s no real surprise he’s re-signed, despite interest from Toulon. This is a vintage Stade Francais that can and will be in the mix at play-off time.
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.