Top 14 Preview: Toulouse old guard set for much-needed return

SATURDAY’S scheduled Top 14 match between Montpellier and Stade Francais has been postponed ‘to a later date’ after a number of positive Covid-19 tests were reported among the hosts’ playing group.

We have to get used to frequent match postponements like this. We know it’s not the first. It won’t be the last. France is not the only European country experiencing a serious spike in coronavirus cases. France is not the only European country to put normal life on hold for a second time as it battles to bring the pandemic under something that looks a bit like control.

Professional sport is continuing – as much to offer, as it did in the days before coronavirus, a brief break from the day-to-day. It’s not easy. Players and coaches have to try to maintain a bubble. They are tested regularly. It can go wrong. Meanwhile, the financial cliff-edge French rugby finds itself staring at without crowds is a topic for discussion elsewhere.

In the meantime, here’s a look ahead to the six games on the weekend’s Top 14 programme.

Toulon v Brive
Stade Felix Mayol
Friday, November 6, 9pm

A radically different Toulon – missing 14 players to international call-ups and injury, captained by 21-year-old Louis Carbonel, and with international Fiji 7s winger Ro Dakuwaqa packing down at 7 – welcome Brive to Stade Mayol for a match that will be broadcast in France free-to-air.
Toulon are looking for their third Top 14 win in a row, but had an unexpected break last weekend after their match against Bayonne was postponed that may have derailed their momentum.
This is a difficult bloc of matches for their opponents – who have brought new signing Daniel Brennan straight into the squad after he joined from Montpellier earlier this week. They come into Friday’s match on the back of consecutive losses against Toulouse (home), Montpellier (away) and Clermont (home). Stade Mayol is not the best place to end losing streaks and rediscover confidence, especially for a side that is struggling to score points away from home. To make matters worse, they face Racing next weekend.

Toulouse v Castres
Stade Ernest Wallon
Saturday, November 7, 3.15pm

Toulouse have suffered in the early part of this extended international window. Having supplied a sizeable chunk of the France squad, they lost at home to Lyon a fortnight ago, and were well beaten by Stade Francais in the Classico in Paris last week.
They are still without newly elected Player of the Six Nations Antoine Dupont, halfback partner in crime Romain Ntamack, fullback Thomas Ramos, hooker and club captain Julien Marchand, prop Dorian Aldegheri, and backrow Francois Cros – who broke a bone in his foot in France’s victory over Ireland.
But they are expected to welcome back from injury Jerome Kaino, Rynhardt Elstadt, Alexi Bales, Pita Ahki, Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard. Huget is reported to be heading to Bayonne next season – while there has been speculation that Medard, too, could be close to a surprising exit from Ernest Wallon at the end of this campaign.
As such, it is likely a much more experienced Toulouse side will step out to face derby rivals Castres. There was a brief period in 2018, when the visitors had the wood over their opponents – with two victories, including their first in 39 years at Ernest Wallon in their title-winning season. Since then normal service has resumed – and should continue on Saturday afternoon.

Bordeaux v Bayonne
Stade Chaban Delmas
Saturday, November 7, 6.15pm

After four matches on the road, Bordeaux marked their return to Chaban Delmas last weekend with a 10-try, 71-5, demolition of Agen. They are enjoying the comforts of home for a second weekend in a row, and the smart money should probably be on another Bordeaux win.
They’ve lost key players to international call-ups this week, notably in the engine room of the second row, where the squad is now down to the bare bones. You’d expect them to cope, though. And they’re also missing hooker Clément Maynadier, who’s injured, meaning Joseph Dweba could be set for his first start.
And yet… Bayonne, despite being down in 10th and after a week’s enforced break because of positive coronavirus tests in their group, have won two out of three on the road. They will be without John Ulugia, who has returned briefly to Australia for family reasons. How quickly they can get back in the straps after their week off remains to be seen. Chaban Delmas, like Mayol, is probably not the ground to try it…

Racing 92 v Pau
La Defense Arena
Saturday, November 7, 6.15pm

No Chat, Le Roux, Baubigny, Vakatawa – on international duty with France. No Zebo, Gomes-Sa, Thomas, Iribaren, Begic – injured. It’s a good job Racing are well stocked. They still have Beale, Dupichot, Klemenckzak, Machenaud, Gibert, Trinh-Duc, Lauret, Ryan, and Bird.
The Champions Cup finalists lost on the road to a determined Castres last weekend – but it would be difficult to see them missing out on points at home, even with a side shorn of some serious talent.
Despite the absentees, you’d expect Racing to be far too strong at home for a Pau side reeling from two losses on the bounce – including their first at home, last weekend, to La Rochelle, when they recovered from 32-3 at halftime to lose 35-24.

Agen v Lyon
Stade Armandie
Sunday, November 8, 7pm

Agen legend Philippe Sella told Midi Olympique this week that the bottom-of-the-table side ‘must believe [they will] stay up’. History is against them, however.
No side that has lost six games has managed that. Only one – Castres in 2014/15 – has survived after losing five. Agen are nought-for-seven right now, without a coach, and with – reportedly – three players told they will never play for the club again.
They face a Lyon side that hasn’t been beaten since the second weekend of the 2020/21 season, with three wins and a draw to their name – and two postponements. Given the situation in Agen, where the players have been self-training, it’s hard to see anything other than a Lyon win.

La Rochelle v Clermont
Stade Marcel Deflandre
Sunday, November 8, 9pm

Undeniably the match of the weekend – second-placed La Rochelle against leaders Clermont. A shame it will be in an empty stadium. Arguably more of a shame that broadcaster Canal Plus is planning to pipe in fake crowd noise – complete with the occasional ‘Ici! Ici! C’est La Rochelle!‘.
But that’s by-the-by. Two sides, each undefeated since September 11, and each looking their fifth win on the bounce, meet at Stade Marcel Deflandre for the first time since October 2018, a match the hosts won 16-12. Back then, the stands were packed – as they always were for La Rochelle home games. This time, because of coronavirus, they will be empty. Will that make a difference?
La Rochelle’s Uini Atonio should have recovered from the leg injury that kept him out of last week’s win at Pau, but Ezeala, Moala and Parra are still missing for Clermont, while Raka could return next week after seeing out his four-week ban for a dangerous tackle.

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