CASTRES, FRANCE – To say Top 14 play-off contenders Bordeaux have had a tough run in the league recently is an understatement bordering on the obscene.
The Begles have faced five top-six rivals in five Top 14 matches since the turn of the year. Last week, they lost to Stade Francais at home by a single point and, in 2015, have been beaten by Racing Metro and Montpellier on the road, but have bettered both Grenoble and Toulon at Stade Chaban Delmas
It is not about to get any easier this week for the side currently lying in seventh, just one place outside the all-important end-of-season play-off places.
This week, Raphael Ibanez’s Bordeaux, who haven’t travelled well this season, are at second-placed Clermont, who are not noted for their generosity towards visiting teams at Marcel Michelin.
If, however, there is a good time to play Clermont, it is probably now. Even a team as miserly at home as Franck Azema’s are sure to struggle with 13 first-choice players missing.
Five are with the French side in Italy this weekend – including Noa Nakaitaci, who will become the 82nd player selected by Philippe Saint-Andre in his three-and-a-few-months years in charge of the national squad; another two are also on Six Nations duty and six more are taking up beds in the infirmary.
There are concerns for Clermont in the front row and at the back of the scrum – but the coaches are making the right confident sounds about the players who are available being able to step up and do the job in front of them.
They are probably right. It takes a vintage performance to beat Clermont at home.
Two more Top 14 play-off rivals – Toulouse and Montpellier – also meet this weekend. But the big clash at Stade Ernest Wallon has been overshadowed slightly by speculation about the future of forwards coach William Servat.
The former France hooker’s contract is up and the end of June and no extension has yet been agreed. With time fast running out, he has understandably started looking elsewhere for a job.
Like Clermont, Toulouse have been weakened up front by a combination of the Six Nations and injury. Thierry Dusautoir and Yoann Maestri are on France duty, while Romain Millo-Chluski, Gillian Galan and Vasil Kakovin are injured. The good news for the hosts is that Patricio Albacete may make the squad as he comes back from a shoulder knock – but Toby Flood is still a doubt as he comes through return-to-play protocols following a concussion.
The injury news out of Montpellier is more reassuring. Francois Trinh-Duc, who has been out since suffering a broken leg in October, could return to action on Saturday, coach Jake White has said. But the Herault side will be without the services of Fulgence Ouedraogo, who picked up a calf injury in last week’s draw with La Rochelle.
That’s not all. There’s a third match featuring two sides with genuine play-off ambitions. Stade Francais, whose heroics at Bordeaux last weekend cemented third place in the league entertain eighth-place Grenoble at Stade Jean Bouin.
Stade will be weaker than normal, with a number of players away on Six Nations duty – but they should be too strong at home for Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble, who are another Top 14 side that has found winning away from the confines of home difficult.
After their heroic comeback at home against relegation rivals Lyon last week, the Top 14’s basement club Castres this week travel to another side living in fear of the drop – Bayonne.
The 2013 Top 14 champions are without several key players. Rory Kockott is warming the French bench in Italy, while Johnnie Beattie is with Scotland – but Remi Tales has returned to the Tarn side after being released by PSA.
Meanwhile, Richie Gray, Puila Faasalele, Geoffrey Palis, Remi Lamerat, Yannick Forestier, and Max Evans are injured; while Yannick Caballero is suspended following his red card last Saturday.
For Castres, winning on the road has been impossible this season. It was almost impossible last season, too. But they cannot afford to lose against Bayonne on Saturday – but history, form and confidence are all against them.
Racing Metro welcome back Wencelas Lauret and Marc Andreu from the French training camp at Marcoussis, while Teddy Thomas is fit again. They are all in the 28-man squad for the must-win trip to Brive – which also features four players from Racing’s Espoirs.
Brive, meanwhile, will be looking to bounce back from last week’s comprehensive David Smith-led defeat at Toulon. The Correze side don’t lose many at home, so expect this one to be tight.
Oyonnax put their fifth-place play-off hopes on the line at La Rochelle – who are set to welcome back Jason Eaton from suspension.
In more good news for the Rochelais, young winger Alofa Alofa will remain with the club until 2016 after he pledged his immediate future to them despite the threat of relegation and has renounced a get-out clause in his contract that would allow him to leave if they do drop down.
The visitors unlikely play-off ambitions were cemented last weekend when they beat Toulouse at a bitterly cold Stade Charles Mathon, and star player Silvere Tian this week admitted on Sud Radio that missing out on the end-of-season knockout phase of the Top 14 would be a “disappointment”.
The final match of the weekend sees table-toppers Toulon head up the A7 to Lyon. The news out of the Top 14 champions’ stable this week started with the league’s leading try-scorer David Smith claiming his time at the club will finish at the end of the season and ended with president Mourad Boudjellal insisting nothing has been decided yet.
In between, it emerged that Gerhard Vosloo could be loaned out to ProD2 side Beziers next season, and that Chris Masoe’s planned return to Castres – whether they are relegated or not – may be scuppered by the offer of a new deal.
Like Clermont, Stade Francais and Toulouse before them, Toulon have been hit by Six Nations call-ups, but should be able to put out a strong enough side to give Lyon a run for their money at the Matmut Stadium.
This is a match Lyon must win. Last week’s defeat in Castres leaves them just one point above the bottom of the table. They will be relying heavily on home advantage and the fact that Toulon are not as strong as they would be at any other time of the season. The question is: will that be enough?
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