Top 14 Preview: A French rugby Classico weekend with a pandemic difference

James Harrington looks ahead to the weekend’s matches, as French Top 14 rugby prepares to enter the unwanted new world of games in empty stadiums

IT IS a shortened Top 14 fixture list this week, after two of the weekend’s matches were postponed because of coronavirus – leaving schedulers with yet more headaches even after they found ‘space’ in the packed rugby fixture list later this month to reschedule four games held over from earlier in the season.

Bayonne-Toulon and Lyon-Montpellier were called off after positive tests were recorded in the hosts’ camps in the week that France headed into modified confinement because of coronavirus.

There was some good news for Toulon, however – the long wait for Ma’a Nonu to arrive on a short-term medical joker contract is over. He arrived at the end of the week, passed a medical and has toured the club’s new training campus at Berg, but – according to Var Matin – now faces seven days’ isolation before he can join up with his teammates.

As we head into what is – officially – the seventh round of the French domestic rugby campaign, with all matches now taking place behind closed doors, here’s a preview of the five games still standing:

Brive v Clermont

Saturday, October 31, 3.15pm (France time)
Stade Amédée-Domenech

The postponement of Bayonne-Toulon, which had been scheduled for Friday night, means the first match of the Top 14 weekend – and, under France’s tightened coronavirus confinement measures, the first to be played behind closed doors – is the 101st Massif Central derby.

It’s a crucial one for 11th-placed Brive. Two defeats in their last two outings – a big loss at home to Toulouse and a typically dogged Briviste performance in defeat at Montpellier last week has seen them slip from sixth to 11th in two weekends. 

They face a Clermont side that has benefited from four home matches in its first five outings. Franck Azema’s men are unbeaten at home, but lost to Bayonne on their only away day so far in this pandemic-hit season. France 7s loanee Jean-Pascal Barraque should start his fourth game in a row at centre. He’s due to return to the 7s set-up in January, but has said that he would be keen to extend his stay at Clermont a while longer.

Make no mistake, Brive will be up for this. It’ll be close, but – even in front of no fans – they will not want to lose this particular game. 

In other news for Clermont, winger Alivereti Raka has had his suspension for a high tackle on Agen’s Paul Abadie reduced from five to four weeks on appeal. He will be available for selection in time for the match against Lyon on November 15.

Bordeaux v Agen

Saturday, October 31, 6.15pm
Stade Chaban Delmas

If Clermont have enjoyed – relative – home comforts in four of their five games to date, Bordeaux have been on the road since September 12 … and have lost three of their four Top 14 outings to sit 12th in the table. They have not won a game of any sort since beating Edinburgh in the Challenge Cup on September 19.

While they will not be able to welcome fans to the ground, the familiar surroundings of Chaban Delmas will be a welcome sight for Christophe Urios’s men.

The opponents, too. After travelling to Lyon, La Rochelle and high-flying Pau, Bordeaux have a couple of home games to revive their season. Next week, they face Bayonne. But this week, it’s troubled Agen – who have picked up only one point all season – and that was on the opening weekend in a close home defeat to Castres.

Missing Matthieu Jalibert, somewhat bizarrely called up to the France squad as cover for Teddy Thomas after recovering from illness, will be something of a blow, but the hosts should be confident of victory – even if the on-his-way-out Ben Botica had something of an off-day at La Rochelle last weekend. A try-scoring bonus is very much on the cards, too.

Castres Olympique v Racing 92

Saturday, October 31, 6.15pm
Stade Pierre Fabre

Only the second home match this season for coronavirus-hit Castres Olympique. They lost their first, against Stade Francais, and head into this match 13th in the table, ahead only of winless Agen, and with just one victory in four games.

Their losing streak includes a 62-3 mauling at La Rochelle, when they could only field 22 players, with prop Mike Tierney covering both sides of the front row, at the end of a week of training in which they could not pull together enough players for a training game. 

There were signs of an improvement last weekend as they frustrated Toulon at Stade Mayol – and they will be keen to set the record straight against Racing after their 27-0 hiding in the same fixture last season. 

Racing are expected to field close to the same internationals-shorn side that beat Stade in Paris with the final kick of the game last weekend, when young out-half Antoine Gibert took responsibility for the after-the-bell penalty and made no mistake. Jordan Joseph had another  strong game and is predicted to start again. It appears he’s finally made the leap from prodigious teenage promise to fully fledged Top 14 barnstormer.

This one has all the hallmarks of a close one. Too close to call, here. Sorry.

Pau v La Rochelle

Sunday, November 1, 5pm
Stade du Hameau

Sixth entertains third in the first of Sunday’s two Top 14 games, as one of the form sides of the competition – La Rochelle, unbeaten since September 12 – head to one of the early-season pleasant surprises, who are unbeaten on home soil.

Something, clearly, has to give. 

The hosts will be without Watisoni Votu, who has been suspended for six weeks for a dangerous tackle, but are otherwise pretty close to full strength as they look for an immediate bounce back after last weekend’s thoroughly entertaining 50-29 loss at Clermont.

La Rochelle have concerns over Uini Atonio, who picked up a thigh injury in last week’s win over Bordeaux, but the impressive backrow of Liebenberg, Gourdon and Bordeau is likely to be back together.

Importantly, both sides are playing with a collective spirit that was noticeable by its absence last season. This one should be a hoot, and Pau should, just about, do enough to win. As the hosts’ coach Nicolas Gordignon told reporters on Friday: “We hope to thrill the audience in front of their TV or radio.”

Stade Francais v Toulouse

Sunday, November 1, 9.05pm
Stade Jean Bouin

Toulouse coach Ugo Mola probably best described both sides’ approach to Sunday’s ‘Classico’ at a press conference on Friday: “We want to put on a good performance in Paris. It will be a game with a lot at stake for both teams.”

With Antoine Dupont away on France duty and questions over the fitness of Alexi Bales, who suffered a concussion early in the second half of last weekend’s loss against Lyon, it’s not impossible that Toulouse could field two 19-year-old scrum-halves.

France under-20 Théo Idjellidaine impressed with his speed and awareness, scoring Toulouse’s only try when he came on as a replacement for Bales last weekend. Bench cover would likely come from the equally promising Baptiste Germain, who joined the frankly frightening Toulouse academy from Bordeaux in the summer.

It’s easy to point at the number and quality of absent players and claim this is why Toulouse lost at home for the first time in two years against Lyon last weekend. But it’s an easy out that fails to take into account the Toulouse Way of integrating academy and senior squad training in case of situations like this. Frankly, it’s an insult to the players, who know what’s expected of them and are drilled to do it. 

Toulouse have played worse than they did against Lyon and won.

The Parisians, meanwhile, could have done better than they did against Racing last weekend, when they conceded defeat in a game they really should have won.

Stade coach Gonzalo Quesada is in the position opposition counterpart Ugo Mola was a few seasons ago: in possession of a squad rammed with talent and potential that needs to be transformed into a team. Mola managed it. Quesada, no doubt, will do the same. 

But Mola’s right – there’s a lot at stake here, as both sides come into the weekend on the back of home defeats. Expect the side that smells strongest of team spirit to head south with the points after a tense encounter.

This article is part of a brief run of French rugby news, previews and reviews in English. I also do interviews, features and opinion pieces – please check out my portfolio. If you are interested in commissioning pieces from me, please email me.

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