CASTRES, FRANCE – Toulon and Clermont – and probably Racing Metro – may wish they had a week off after the intensity of last weekend’s European Champions Cup quarter finals, but the Top 14 waits for no club. It won’t even wait for the Rugby World Cup, so three of the top four clubs have no chance.
Toulon and Clermont may have one eye on next week’s European semi finals, but this week they face the small matter of holding on to the all-important top two places in the Top 14, which carry with them the bonus of a week off in the play-off phase of the season.
And with Stade Francais breathing down their necks, this weekend’s matches, cruelly sandwiched between the last-eight and last-four games in European club rugby’s leading competition, are especially important for the two French sides looking to set up a repeat of the 2013 Heineken Cup final.
Clermont have arguably the easier game of the Top 14’s top two this week. They are at home – where they annihilated Northampton last week, and where they have only lost once this season and twice in any competition since November 2009.
The Jaunards welcome sixth-place Oyonnax to the high-walled Stade Marcel Michelin, which has been described as a graveyard for visiting teams, but is more accurately a bearpit where visitors are – as the Saints learned last week – casually ripped apart while the baying crowd roars for more.
Oyonnax are punching above their weight this season, and currently hold on to the last of the six play-off places. But it is surely an almost-impossible ask for Christophe Urios’s side to claim their third Top 14 win on the road this season, at a ground where Franck Azema’s Clermont are close to unbeatable.
Bernard Laporte’s team have come off worst in two of the last three close encounters at Stade des Alpes, losing two and drawing one. They also looked far from certain against Wasps in the European quarter-final last week, so – with Leinster looming large on the Var side’s horizon – Grenoble will set a tough challenge.
Toulon have only lost twice in their last six Top 14 games – but those defeats raised big questions. The first, at Bordeaux, came after they had raced into a big first-half lead, and the second, against Toulouse in Marseille, was the second instance of the rouge-et-noir snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Third-place Stade Francais will be paying close attention to the matches in Clermont and Grenoble, after opening the weekend’s Top 14 action at La Rochelle. This is a tougher match to call than it would first appear. The Rochelais may be hovering just above the relegation zone, but they still have an outside chance of mounting a late play-off challenge – and they are unbeaten in their last five Top 14 outings. It has not been an easy run, either. They have beaten Clermont, Oyonnax and Brive at home, edged the Atlantic coast derby at Bordeaux and drew at Montpellier.
La Rochelle are tough to beat at Marcel Deflandre, so don’t be surprised to see them extend their unbeaten streak to six by the end of the weekend.
The two sides’ recent Top 14 records could not be more different. The Colombes side look a Racing certainty for a place in the play-offs, while Montpellier have won only one of their last four. Their challenge for the top six – and with it a place on Europe’s top table next season – is fading fast. Unless, that is, they can spring a surprise at Stade Yves du Manoir this weekend.
Much will depend on how well Racing have recovered from last weekend’s heartbreak, but a home win is the most likely result.
Brive have a double advantage. They’re at home, where they have only lost twice this season. And they are six points better off than their opponents, whose backs are firmly wedged against the wall following defeats in their last five outings.
Defeat may not officially herald the end of the season-long Top 14 adventure for last year’s ProD2 champions Lyon – even after this weekend, there are still up to 20 points up for grabs – but it is would make them odds-on favourites to bounce straight back down.
It goes to prove that money – even in the Top 14 – isn’t the answer. Lyon had the sixth-highest budget of any club in the French top flight this season, had signed some big names and entered the competition full of vim, vigour and ambition. The grand vision has changed at the Matmut Stadium – now their ambition is simply to survive. Whether they can is likely to depend on the result of this weekend’s clash.
Whisper it quietly. Despite a beyond-dismal season that has seen them rooted to the foot of the Top 14 for long periods, Castres are secretly daring to believe. Victory over Lyon the last time they were at home, despite being reduced to 14 men midway through the first half, was followed by a near-miss – and a potentially crucial defensive bonus point – at Bayonne. That, in turn, was followed by a win against all the odds at Grenoble that pulled them off the bottom of the table.
They’re not out of the frying pan yet – they’re still in the relegation zone and have a difficult run-in, but the faith is returning.
How long it lasts will depend on the results of the next two games. Both of them are at home. But both of them are against tough opposition – first Bordeaux, then Clermont.
The Girondins are the least confident right now. Ever since what are still officially just rumours surrounding head coach Raphael Ibanez’s next job reached fever pitch, Bordeaux have looked a little out of sorts. A little lost. They have lost their last three Top 14 games, and slipped out of contention for what looked a nailed-on play-off place earlier in the season.
It’s rising belief against lapsing faith. At home, rising belief surely wins.
It has been a strange season for the declining Toulouse. A five-match losing streak early on set the tone of a topsy-turvy campaign, which a European Champions Cup-led recovery that saw them on the verge of the quarter finals before Bath’s demolition job at Stade Ernest Wallon.
But four wins in their last five games, including that epic comeback against Toulon in Marseille last time out, have pulled the richest club in Europe back into the play-off places. And, belatedly, the old swagger is returning.
Which is definitely bad news for Bayonne.
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