Top 14 Preview: French Intrigue Cushions Post 6 Nations Comedown

Bayonne's Charles Ollivon
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CASTRES, FRANCE – How do you follow 27 tries and 221 points in three deliciously bonkers games? After last week’s insanely glorious final round of RBS 6 Nations matches, players and fans in France return to domestic Top 14 action with something of a bump.

But there’s plenty of intrigue to soften the international-to-domestic comedown, including two spicy top-of-the-table clashes, and four matches that pit play-off chasers against relegation dog-fighters. And it is getting to that time of season where matches are won by the team that thinks they have the most to lose.

Bayonne's Charles Ollivon
Bayonne’s Charles Ollivon

The action kicks off with an intriguing encounter at Stade Jean Dauger, where Bayonne entertain Racing Metro. Both sides need as many points as possible but for very different reasons. The hosts are hovering nervously just above the drop zone, while the visitors have a home play-off quarter final very much in their sights.

The hosts have the worst try-scoring record in the Top 14, having managed just 27 in 20 matches, but they are stubbornly difficult to beat at home – just ask basement side Castres, who came within an after-the-hooter-penalty last time out.

Racing have won the last four encounters between the two sides, but it’s not that easy to call this weekend’s clash. The Franciliens come into the match without a win in their last three Top 14 outings.

For the longest time this season, trips to Stade Francais were fruitless, hopeless affairs.

The Parisians would beat all-comers – topped the league for a brief pink-tinted while and were the last undefeated-at-home side standing in the Top 14. But that changed on January 31, when Oyonnax edged them 15-13 at Stade Jean Bouin. Since then, the flamboyant side from the capital have not been able to buy a win – their two defeats on the road echoed by second loss at home to play-off rivals Grenoble.

So, it’s probably not the best time for Gonzalo Quesada’s side to welcome Clermont, who have won three of the last seven meetings between the two sides in Paris – and come into the game with a decent away record this season. They have the best defence in the league – both at home and away and have picked up three wins and a draw on their travels. All the indications, then, are that Stade’s dreams of a home quarter-final in the end-of-season play-offs could take something of a beating this weeked. Then again…

Toulon scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde
Toulon scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde

Toulouse have been widely criticised this season, and endured a dismal run early on, but still – somehow – find themselves in fifth place at the business end of the campaign. But this week they head to the Mediterranean coast, where they play Toulon at Marseilles’ Stade Velodrome.

It’s the best attacking force in the league versus the side with one of the best scoring records away from home. Looks like it should be some encounter. But Toulon haven’t lost to Toulouse at home – even if home this week is an hour’s drive from the blue-collar shipbuilding Var city – since 2005. It’s a record that’s unlikely to change this weekend.

As straightforward to call should be the clash between free-flowing seventh-placed side Bordeaux and on-the-road strugglers La Rochelle. But it’s not.

Raphael Ibanez may be the romantics’ favourite to take over from Philippe Saint-Andre after the World Cup and inject a little Bordeaux adventure into the national side – but the road to their first play-off has become more than a little bumpy for the Girondins. They have won just one of their last four outings. The Rochelais, meanwhile, have enjoyed three home wins and an away draw in the same Top 14 period.

Montpellier's Thibaut Privat
Montpellier’s Thibaut Privat

Montpellier and Lyon are both looking to break a losing spiral. The hosts still have play-off ambitions but have failed to win in the last three outings. Anything other than a win this weekend will see their fast-fading hopes just about disappear completely.

Lyon, meanwhile, having won the ProD2 at a canter last season, are in serious danger of plunging straight back down. They have lost their last four to be mired in 13th, level on points with Top 14 basement side Castres. The odds are heavily against the visitors, who have not won on the road all season – but Montpellier will be looking for more than just a win. They need a bonus point, too.

Oyonnax are this season’s surprise Top 14 package. In Christophe Urios’s last season in charge before he heads to Castres, they are currently seventh and very much in the hunt for a play-off place. Standing in their way this week are Brive – who really don’t travel well.

Oyonnax have bested Brive twice already in European competition this season and have home advantage. This one has home win written all over it.

Castres' stalwart Rodrigo Capo Ortega
Castres’ stalwart Rodrigo Capo Ortega

Grenoble must be favourites to maintain their push for the play-offs, as they’re at home to favourites-for-the-drop Castres in the final match of the 21st Top 14 weekend. After all, the Castres’ defence has shipped 329 of the 565 points it has leaked this season on the road – and has only scored 127 points away from home in reply.

Their predicament has seen resumes dusted off and rivals looking on with interest at the jewels in the Castres’ crown. Thomas Combezou will return to his old La Rochelle stomping ground next season, while the latest rumours are that Remi Lamerat will head to Stade Francais and Geoffrey Palis will join Bordeaux. But old warrior Rodrigo Capo-Ortega is set to stay regardless of whether the Top 14 champions are relegated.

But Bernard Jackman’s Isere side has a tendency to leak points at home, too. They have conceded 210 this season and come into the game with just two wins in the last seven games in all competitions.

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About James Harrington 196 Articles
James Harrington... Before injury brought his rugby career to a timely end, journalist James was equally useless whether he packed down in the second row or at number 8, positions in which he represented his school and university with indistinction. The prolific one now lives in France with his journalist wife and three children and watches as much Top 14, European and international action he thinks he can get away with; justifying his obsession by claiming: "But it's all work, Honey!"