The Top 14 returns to TV screens in the UK and Ireland for the first time since 2019 tonight, after pay-TV channel Premier Sports agreed a deal to broadcast four matches from rugby’s richest league from now to the end of the 2022/23 season.
From tonight (May 28), Premier Sports will show four Top 14 matches every weekend during the regular season, as well as a half-hour highlights show. Their campaign kicks off this evening with Stade Francais v Lyon (7.45pm).
Tomorrow, the broadcaster will show three games – Toulon v Bordeaux (1.45pm), La Rochelle v Pau (4pm), and Toulouse v Clermont (8pm).
There are only two rounds of the Covid-hit 2020/21 campaign before the play-offs, but there’s still plenty to play for. It’s tough at the top and bottom, but in the middle it’s so tough you could cut diamonds with it. Here, then, is a look at the teams, in league order, and their hopes and nightmares for what’s left.
Newly crowned European champions, Top 14 leaders and – heading into this penultimate weekend – the only side already mathematically guaranteed a play-off place. Toulouse stuttered in the league in the lead-up to London, but with the Champions Cup now behind them, dreams of a domestic and European double are on track. The first step – securing a pass straight to the semi-finals.
Matches remaining: Clermont (H), Bordeaux (A)
La Rochelle (72pts)
A week after coming up short in their first Champions Cup final, the Rochelais will want to set a few records straight by ensuring their place in the play-offs with a win against Pau. Marcel Deflandre is, generally, a ground where visiting teams go to die. There’s no reason to believe anything different will happen tomorrow – but that final-weekend trip to Clermont could be tense.
Matches remaining: Pau (H), Clermont (A)
Bordeaux Begles (72pts)
A 57-9 win over a near-embryonic post-Challenge Cup Montpellier side on Tuesday leaves Bordeaux on the brink of the play-offs for the first time in their history – but for Covid, they would have done it last year. Manager Christophe Urios has added the necessary steel to the Bordeaux style since joining from Castres, but they have an awfully tough run-in.
Matches remaining: Toulon (A), Toulouse (H)
Racing 92 (68pts)
Despite their undoubted riches, Racing had a Top 14 wobble earlier in March and April, losing five on the bounce in all competitions before returning to winning ways against Clermont earlier this month. They have a friendly end-of-season calendar – anything less than a maximum 10 points should be considered a disappointment as they chase an outside shot at a bye to the semi-finals, or at least home advantage in the barrages.
Matches remaining: Agen (A), Brive (H)
ASM Clermont (67pts)
After 10 years, the Franck Azema era at Clermont is nearing its end. The coach – long believed to be heading south to Montpellier – has, for now, nowhere to go. The club, meanwhile, should be confidently thinking about an attack on the post-season ahead of Jono Gibbes’ arrival from La Rochelle at the end of the season. Depending on results elsewhere, however, heading home from Toulouse with no points in the bag tomorrow night would leave them looking nervously over their shoulder heading into the final round of the season.
Matches remaining: Toulouse (A), La Rochelle (H)
Four teams are fighting for the sixth and final play-off place currently held, by the thinnest of margins, by Patrice Collazo’s side. This version of Toulon is very different from the Galacticos that laid waste to Europe for three glory-filled seasons. It’s more French. It’s younger. It can be more brazen. And it definitely does make more mistakes. But there’s no more room for error at this, the nervy end of the campaign. These next two games are a real test of his, and his side’s mettle.
Matches remaining: Bordeaux (H), Castres (A)
Stade Francais (62pts)
Tonight’s match between Stade Francais and Lyon at Stade Jean Bouin has all the hallmarks of a knockout game. Both sides head into the match with a shout of making the play-offs. One side will come out of it with their post-season hopes in tatters. Are you not entertained? Gonzalo Quesada has engineered some turnaround since taking over – belatedly – from Heyneke Meyer.
Matches remaining: Lyon (H), Bayonne (A)
Castres Olympique (60pts)
On December 27, 2020, the 2018 champions were languishing in 13th place, the Top 14’s relegation play-off spot. Ten wins in 14 games since the turn of the year leaves them with an outside chance of the top six. Former Bath coach Pierre-Henry Broncon has been the architect of the change in fortunes since taking over from Mauricio Reggiardo as head coach midway through the season. But defeat this weekend would stop their relegation-to-riches story in its tracks.
Matches remaining: Brive (A), Toulon (H)
With no Bastareaud, Taufua or Sobela to count on for tonight’s trip to Stade Francais, Lyon coach Pierre Mignoni has rolled the dice and named Josua Tuisova at eight. The winger-cum-centre has made special one-off attacking scrum appearances there to good effect – but has never started in the scrum. Injuries for this win-or-bust match have also forced a shuffle in the backs, with Toby Arnold on the wing and Charlie Ngatai at fullback.
Matches remaining: Stade Francais (A), Agen (H)
A season of two halves for Montpellier, who – at one point – were in serious danger of the drop. A change in coach, from Xavier Garbajosa to Philippe Saint-Andre, sparked a change in fortunes, which eventually led to relative safety, which really should be confirmed on Saturday against Bayonne, and the Challenge Cup title … with its free pass to next season’s Champions Cup. It’s just about season done for Montpellier, with a win tomorrow more than enough to see them safe.
Matches remaining: Bayonne (H), Pau (A)
Like Montpellier, proud, fighting Brive have just about wrapped-up this season – though their run-in, with matches against playoff-chasing Castres and Racing 92, is more difficult to navigate. It is perhaps ironic that, after kickstarting Castres’ turnaround in fortunes by beating them at Stade Pierre Fabre just before Christmas, they could be the side that ends their play-off hopes this weekend.
Matches remaining: Castres (H), Racing 92 (A)
Yannick Bru’s side have got the best of a number of sides this season – but they’ve also slipped up in their fair share of matches. Looking at their run-in, it seems they will be relying on results from elsewhere to avoid dropping into 13th place and the Top 14 relegation play-off zone … but it also looks like they really should get the help they’re hoping for. Though it will most likely go right down to the wire.
Matches remaining: Montpellier (A), Stade Francais (H)
It really doesn’t look good for Pau. The arrival of former France under-20s coach Sébastien Piqueronies at the beginning of May appears to have come too late to spare them from a Top 14 relegation play-off match against the losing side in the ProD2 final. To be fair, they were unlucky not to pick up anything last time out against Racing 92, missing out on even a bonus point at the end of an entertaining 29-35 game. But, looking at their remaining matches, it’s hard to see them overhauling Bayonne.
Matches remaining: La Rochelle (A), Montpellier (H)
That is not a typo. Edmund Blackadder could have summed up Agen’s season when he said, “It started badly, dipped a bit in the middle … and the least said about the end, the better.” Long-relegated, with no wins and just two bonus points to their name – the most recent picked up in October – they are on track for the worst-ever campaign in the French top flight. Unless something hugely unlikely happens, they will break the 1,000 points conceded barrier against Racing 92 tomorrow.
Matches remaining: Racing 92 (H), Lyon (A)