AWAY from the bright lights of the first weekend of the end-of-year rugby internationals, France’s Top 14 features a full programme of games for the first time in several coronavirus-and-European rugby-hit weeks. Here, James Harrington previews all seven games
Friday, October 23
Toulon v Castres
Stade Felix Mayol, 8.45pm (France time)
It’s 12 years since Castres last won at Stade Mayol – and it’s likely that winless run is going to stretch another year, as the visitors hobble back from a Covid-19 outbreak that saw them forfeit a Challenge Cup quarter-final, then miss two weeks of the Top 14 season.
Coach Mauricio Reggiardo has kept faith with his backline from the coronavirus-shredded side that lost 62-3 at La Rochelle last weekend. But there are changes in the pack, with Matt Tierney – who covered both sides of the front row last week – on the bench. Julius Nostadt gets his first start of the season, as does ex-Toulon lock Florent Vanverberghe. Another former Mayol favourite Stéphane Onambele is set to make his Castres’ debut off the bench, along with Uruguayan scrum-half Santiago Arata.
So, Castres have a stronger squad – a full squad, but Toulon, for all that they have lost eight players to international duty and have another seven in the infirmary, have fielded a side long on power and potential – and with an appetite to set the record straight after their Challenge Cup loss to Bristol last weekend.
Saturday, October 24
Toulouse v Lyon
Stade Ernest Wallon, 3.35pm
On paper, this is probably the Top 14 match of the weekend, though it’s pushed all the way by La Rochelle v Bordeaux on Sunday night.
The hosts have lost just once this season – that crazy opener at Clermont, where they were down to 13 players but still came close to pulling off a miracle win. The visitors look to be warming up what could be a hot streak after winning just one of their first four.
South Africa’s decision not to take part in the Rugby Championship this year means Top 14 leaders Toulouse keep hold of Cheslin Kolbe – good news for fans as they are supplying a fair percentage of the French national side – probably not such good news for Lyon.
The visitors have supplied three forwards to the French side, and just about have enough fit locks and backrows with what’s left to make a working pack. But they were still too much for Bayonne last time out, and gave Toulouse a real scare the last time they were at Ernest Wallon. Don’t see that happening again, though.
Agen v Bayonne
Stade Armandie, 6.15pm
There were signs in the defeat at Montpellier last weekend, that Agen – the only Top 14 side without a win to their name this season – were still able to mix it with the best French rugby has to offer.
But there’s no doubt this is a must-win game against a side that has really targeted a result this week. Bayonne were routed at Lyon last time out – Pierre Mignoni’s men ran in 10 tries in a 62-10 win – but they were resting some key players who are expected to return this week.
The alarms aren’t ringing just yet. But defeat this week – with a trip to Bordeaux and home matches against Lyon and Toulon in the current bloc of games – would be the beginning of a disaster.
Last year, Bayonne won a thoroughly entertaining encounter at Armandie 29-27. Expect a similarly close result this time around – for which side? You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Stade Francais v Racing 92
Stade Jean Bouin, 6.15pm
Nine internationals are absent from the Racing roster for owner Jacky Lorenzetti’s ‘favourite match’ of the Top 14 calendar, which – a week after losing a third Champions Cup final in four years – comes at an important restart time.
Racing will be keen to kick-off the post-European era with a morale-boosting win over their nearest, greatest, and oldest rivals – a team also in the midst of ‘interesting times’. Like Racing, Stade have several players away on international duty, while Argentinian fly-half Nicolas Sanchez has been far from impressive in the club’s coronavirus-shortened season to date.
Gonzalo Quesada’s side will want a win on their return to home plastic after their slip-up against Bayonne last time they were at home. This will be close, but a Stade win looks the most likely. Just.
Clermont v Pau
Stade Marcel Michelin, 6.15pm
Clermont are making the most of home comforts so far this season. They’re currently three for three at Marcel Michelin this season – and are back in familiar surroundings for the third game in a row.
The 41-27 scoreline against Stade Francais last time out was possibly somewhat flattering as they again failed to pick up a try-scoring bonus point.
But their pragmatism will go a long way to countering the genuine threat Pau – with three wins and a draw to their name in five outings – are currently posing all their opponents. Nicolas Godignon’s side, who have never finished higher than eighth in the Top 14, are currently third, and pulled a win from the jaws of defeat at home against Bordeaux last week.
Even so, that pragmatic approach has worked for Clermont so far. Home win. With a try-scoring bonus point? Probably not.
Sunday, October 25
Montpellier v Brive
GGL Stadium, 5pm
Never mind the quality, feel the discipline. In their first three outings, Montpellier averaged more than 17 penalties and two yellow cards a game.
Things were so grim that the club called on referee Alexandre Ruiz to spend a day with the players, showing them what Top 14 officials would be likely to penalise.
It worked. Against Agen last week, they gave up just nine penalties and one yellow card – for Yacouba Camara, who earned himself a one-match suspension for his considerable efforts picking up three yellows in four games.
More importantly, after three defeats, Montpellier belatedly joined the Top 14 title race with their first win of the season.
Brive, on the other hand, head into Sunday’s teatime match on the back of a down-to-earth loss at home to Toulouse. With a somewhat stitched together pack, it’s likely they will struggle to contain Montpellier’s forward power. Mark up a second win for the hosts – and make it a big one.
La Rochelle v Bordeaux
Stade Marcel Deflandre, 9.05pm
A fourth game in a row on the road for Christophe Urios’s Bordeaux – an exile from Chaban Delmas forced by Covid-19 postponements, and a match the strongman coach has described as going ‘into hell’.
The pre-match headlines will no doubt focus on the expected return to club action of fly-half Matthieu Jalibert and backrow Cameron Woki, who both pulled out of Fabien Galthie’s first autumn squad due to illness.
There’s no denying he was happier last week after the 29-24 loss at Pau, than he was when Bordeaux lost 27-10 at Lyon – but that really wasn’t hard. And a third Top 14 defeat on the spin looks the most likely against a La Rochelle side that put 62 on the board against Castres last week, and scored 36 at Bayonne the week before.
It’s early days, and it’s taken two seasons to get here, but that Top 14-Super Rugby hybrid style that Jono Gibbes and Ronan O Gara are trying to develop at La Rochelle looks like it’s finally starting to stick.