ROUND two of the Top 14 season kicks off on Saturday, with those players who went to Australia with France now available for selection, while a number of overseas returnees and new arrivals could make their campaign bows.
France’s captain in Australia, Anthony Jelonch, is expected to make his debut for new side Toulouse, probably off the bench, while it’s hard to see Perpignan failing to select Melvyn Jaminet, or Castres not welcoming Gaetan Barlot back into the starting side at the earliest opportunity. Arthur Vincent and Anthony Bouthier may make the starting line-up for Montpellier’s match against Brive.
Kotaro Matsushima has returned to training at Clermont, but it might just be too early for him to make the squad. On the other hand, it’s not impossible that Toulon will select Fiji international Jiuta Wainiqolo for Sunday night’s trip to Ernest Wallon – with Louis Carbonel also likely to be in action. Meanwhile, Pau boss Sebastien Piqueronies has a choice at 10 – the returning Antoine Hastoy, or Zack Henry, who scored all his side’s points in their 16-12 loss at Castres last weekend.
In the UK and Ireland, Top 14 broadcasters Premier Sports TV are showing Perpignan v Biarritz, Bordeaux v Stade Francais and Racing 92 v La Rochelle on Saturday, as well as Toulouse v Toulon on Sunday.
Here, then, a look ahead to the weekend’s Top 14 matches.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 11
Montpellier v Brive
(kick off 3pm France time) GGL Stadium
Last week at Toulon, Philippe Saint-Andre’s Montpellier showed plenty of the grit that lifted them out of the Top 14 relegation zone and won the Challenge Cup last season, as Zach Mercer scored the after-the-hooter try that gave them a hard-earned draw.
Now, in front of their home fans for the first time this season, it’s time to add some style to the steel. Brive – who this week announced that head coach Jeremy Davidson had extended his stay in the Correze – are never easy opponents, however, and will be buoyed by their own big opening day win at home to Perpignan.
Perpignan v Biarritz
(kick off 3pm France time) Stade Aime Giral
After very different opening day experiences, the Top 14’s newly promoted sides meet for the first time since their ProD2 days. The hosts had the better of their three meetings last season, winning at home and – crucially – in the final at Montpellier.
It was, however, Biarritz who landed the first blow with an early season 21-12 win, a year and a week ago. Perpignan will want to bounce back after being well beaten at Brive last weekend, but face a Biarritz side brimming with confidence after knocking the complacent stuffing out of a lackadaisical Bordeaux in the curtain-raiser to the Top 14 campaign.
Clermont v Castres
(kick off 3pm France time) Stade Marcel Michelin
Clermont expect Japan international Kotaro Matsushima to be back in action for the visit of Castres on Saturday.
The second match of the season is a bit early to brand a must-win, but there’s no denying Jono Gibbes’ Clermont were second best by some distance in more areas than just the scoreboard at Lyon last weekend, and fans will expect better.
Home turf and healthy support from a packed Marcel Michelin should be enough to beat what’s sure to be a dogged Castres side, even if some or all of their summer tourists return to the matchday squad.
Pau v Lyon
(kick off 3pm France time) Stade du Hameau
Pau’s new head coach Sebastien Piqueronies will have been quietly pleased with the losing bonus point his side picked up at Castres last weekend – it was the least they deserved for a gutsy performance on the road.
But that point will have raised a few expectations – and heaped on the pressure for the first home outing of the campaign. Opponents Lyon, fresh from an impressive three-tries-to-one opening-day win over Clermont, will take some beating, however.
Bordeaux v Stade Francais
(kick off 5.15pm France time) Stade Chaban-Delmas
Two sides in need of an immediate improvement following sub-par performances in their opening matches meet at what is sure to be a packed Stade Chaban-Delmas.
The hosts’ ‘strongman’ coach Christophe Urios will not accept a repeat of his side’s performance in their 27-15 loss at newly promoted Biarritz, in which they appeared to be a preseason match or so shy or Top 14 campaign ready.
That could be bad news for Gonzalo Quesada’s Stade, still feeling the hurt from their own opening day heartbreak, a 36-21 home derby loss to Racing 92.
Racing 92 v La Rochelle
(kick off 9.05pm France time) La Defense Arena
It’s fair to say Ronan O’Gara was far from impressed with referee Jonathan Durfort’s decision to red card Will Skelton in last week’s opening round home defeat to Toulouse at Marcel Deflandre.
He said the game was ‘too big’ for a non-international referee to handle – the referee this week is Tual Trainini, an engineer by day and non-international referee at weekends.
This match will be no easier. Racing impressed last time out, as centre pairing Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa made light of the high-expectations of their opposite numbers Ngani Laumape and Waisea Nayacalevu. Can’t help but admire the club’s social media operation, too…
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12
Toulouse v Toulon
(kick off 9.05pm France time) Stade Ernest Wallon
A second Sunday night kick off in as many weeks for Toulouse, who finally shift to Saturday rugby next week when they head to Montpellier. Their referee-assisted 20-16 win at La Rochelle last week will have blown away a few cobwebs, but there’s no doubting Ugo Mola’s side – who opted for only four weeks of preseason – looked short on preparation.
That they were still able to find a way to win should be a concern for every other side in French and European competition – and it’s most immediately a concern for Patrice Collazo’s Toulon, who at least will welcome back a few internationals to their squad this week – new recruits Jiuta Wainiqolo and Leone Nakarawa have been making an impression in training. Expect, too, to see France’s touring captain Anthony Jelonch make his bow for the hosts.