The cancellation of France’s Autumn Nations Cup opener against Fiji threatened to throw coaches’ plans in the air – but most resisted the opportunity to bring unexpectedly released players back into the club fold this late in the game.
Here’s a look ahead to the weekend’s Top 14 fixtures – minus Clermont v Lyon, which has been postponed because of positive coronavirus tests among the Lyon camp.
Castres v Bordeaux
Friday, November 13, 8.45pm (France time)
Stade Pierre Fabre
These two sides last met at Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban Delmas on what turned out to be the final day of the 2019/20 season. It was a remarkable match. Bordeaux had raced to a 20-12 halftime lead, and – despite the visitors’ retiring captain Rodrigo Capo Ortega scoring one of the tries of the season in reply – the result appeared locked-in. After all, Christophe Urios’s side were unbeatable at the time.
No one told Castres, though. They touched down twice in the second half, while Bordeaux could only manage two second-half penalties through Ben Botica. Those six points would be, thanks to a missed late conversion from Ben Urdapilleta, just enough, as Bordeaux held out for a 26-24 win.
Neither side has enjoyed the start to the season they were hoping for. But Bordeaux followed four defeats in a row on the road with two big wins at home, while Castres recovered from Covid-19 and a 63-3 hammering with a skeleton squad at La Rochelle to beat Racing 92 at home and then draw with Toulouse away. Coming into this game, both sides have some reason to be confident. It remains to be seen who quiet converts that confidence into points
Pau v Toulouse
Saturday, November 14, 3.15pm
Stade du Hameau
Gonzalo Quesada said, after the cancellation of the France-Fiji Autumn Nations Cup game, that he would give his returning internationals a break this weekend and not select them for Sunday’s game against La Rochelle. No such bets could be made for Ugo Mola, who’s facing a bonfire of injuries at Toulouse – and even may have breathed a massive sigh of relief on hearing that Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos and Julien Marchand were haring down the autoroute from deepest Brittany. But he resisted the temptation to call up those players as Fabien Galthie quickly revised his squad selection for next weekend’s match against Scotland in Edinburgh.
It has been a rough period for both sides, after promising starts. Pau have lost their last three, while Toulouse have lost two and drawn one. Neither of them will want that streak to continue – but you’d have to favour Toulouse even if Mola has decided not to bring his internationals back into the fray.
Agen v Toulon
Saturday, November 14, 5.30pm
Agen played much better last weekend at home against Lyon, following a week of self-coaching and with a matchday squad picked by their president, days after he relieved his club’s senior coaching staff. They still lost – for the eighth time in as many games – but they at least picked up a bonus point.
But, already seven points behind 13th-placed Brive, there’s a reason Agen are hot favourites for relegation. To make matters worse, they are missing 10 players – including leading try-scorer Gabriel Ibitoye – for this weekend’s match against Toulon.
The visitors are missing a fair few players of their own, but should have far too much strength in depth to miss out on at least four points here. Agen were helped by a poor Lyon performance last weekend. Patrice Collazo will have watched and taken notes.
Bayonne v Montpellier
Saturday, November 14, 5.45pm
Stade Jean Dauger
Two sides, both alike in their number of league points, in fair Bayonne, where we lay our scene… I don’t know about ancient grudges breaking to new mutiny – but the similarities pretty much end there. Montpellier have played two matches fewer than their hosts, yet sit just above them in the table.
Even so, it has not been plain sailing for Xavier Garbajosa’s side. Director of Rugby Philippe Saint-Andre has come down from on high to help out with the day-to-day in recent weeks, and Olivier Azam has joined the staff to bolster forwards training.
Bayonne’s wily coach Yannick Bru will have noticed the faultlines in the Montpellier set-up, which has been affected by coronavirus postponements, and will look to make the most of them. Only a brave person would bet against them…
Brive v Racing 92
Saturday, November 14, 6pm
Stade Amadee Domenech
Four defeats on the bounce – including two big losses at home – have seen Brive slip from sixth to 13th. It’s hardly the ideal time to welcome a Racing side that has dogged out two wins from three while their internationals have been away, and are expected to welcome back Simon Zebo to their ranks.
Henry Chavancy is a doubt, however, which may see the polyvalent Kurtley Beale get his first start at centre, while the return of hookers Chat and Baubigny will be a relief for head coach Laurent Travers, who was facing a severe shortage of players at hooker. He brought in Baubigny to sit on the bench with Le Guen starting in the middle of the front row. Prop Eddy Ben Arous played in that position for an hour last week, winning a spot on Midi Olympique’s team of the week in the process. Brive need to improve, or a fifth defeat is very probable.
Stade Francais v La Rochelle
Sunday, November 15, 9.05pm
Stade Jean Bouin
With Clermont v Lyon postponed because of a number of positive coronavirus tests in the Lyon camp, this match has been moved from its originally planned 7pm slot to Canal+’s primetime live sport position on Sunday night.
Stade head coach Gonzalo Quesada has pledged not to call up those players who have been released from international duty, meaning his side will be shorn of the services Julien Delbouis and Gael Fickou. But that doesn’t mean the Parisians, currently eighth in the table, will be a pushover – even for the league leaders who come into this match with a record of six wins from their seven games to date.