In the marathon-not-a-sprint stakes of the Top 14 season, it’s pointless being surprised by the early standings.
Brive were top of the French pile after the opening weekend, but dropped to eighth after last weekend’s loss at Montpellier as the exaggerated effects of early season results bounced teams up and down the table.
This week, Toulouse are the leaders, followed by Racing 92 … with Castres third. But few would have expected Stade Francais, La Rochelle, Clermont and Toulon to be languishing at the bottom of the table – and, by a curious twist of fixture-scheduling fate, this weekend’s final two matches feature all four of those teams.
Here are the matches on Premier Sports TV in the UK and Ireland, by the way
Brive v Pau
(Kick off 3pm) Stade Amedee-Domenech
It’s very early days, obviously, but these two sides have near-identical records this season. Both have won and lost one. Brive have scored a total 53 points and conceded 54, while Pau have scored 33 and conceded 33.
That suggests, vaguely, that Brive are better in attack, and Pau stronger in defence, again borne out by the statistics. The hosts have six tries to their name, while the visitors have yet to score one. Yet Brive have conceded five to Pau’s two, while the Bearn side won last week despite being a player down for 55 minutes.
The hosts will miss the services of prop Cody Thomas, who was replaced at Montpellier with a shoulder injury last week. He needs surgery and will be out for a few weeks.
But don’t let the stats grind you down. This has all the hallmarks of an end-to-end encounter. Pau probably should break end their try drought, but you have to reckon Brive will edge this one. It’ll be close – but there should be plenty to enjoy.
Biarritz v Racing 92
(Kick off 3pm) Parc des Sports Aguilera
Last week’s loss at Perpignan was something of a reality check for Biarritz after their grand opening-day home win over Bordeaux. To be frank, they caught Christophe Urios’s side cold – they looked a couple of weeks shy of campaign readiness.
Biarritz should not – and will not – expect the same generosity of spirit from Racing, who have won both their outings this season to sit second in the table behind Toulouse – producing a couple of pieces of magic along the way. Whether they can do anything about it remains to be seen.
What also remains to be seen is how well the fans are taking the news that Biarritz will play its two Challenge Cup pool games this season in far-off Lille. Problems between club and council go back a long way, and it seems almost certain now that Biarritz will move to the far north of France sooner rather than later.
Some good news for the Basque Country side, however. Argentine international Tomas Cubelli has resumed individual training and may be available from mid-October.
Castres v Bordeaux
(Kick off 3pm) Stade Pierre Fabre
He left at the end of the 2018/19 season, but Castres’ fans have not yet got over the manner of Urios’s departure for Bordeaux – at the end of a season in which the 2018 champions should have made the play-offs but didn’t.
To frustrate them further, Urios has engineered a Bordeaux win in every meeting between the two sides since – though it has been close a couple of times. And his side looked to be on the match-winning money last week against an overwhelmed Stade Francais, following their dismal opening-weekend defeat at Biarritz.
Expect another close encounter of the furious kind – Castres have won both games this season, and their winning streak at home now extends to nine games, bettered only by a club-record 11-game run from March to December 20112. But week’s win at Clermont will count for little if they do not follow-up with a victory at home. They just have to watch out for this sort of skill from their opponents.
Bordeaux, who have spent the past day or so in a hotel in Montauban, are expected to start with Francois Trinh-Duc at 10, and Mathieu Jalibert – fresh from his inspirational performance last week – on the bench.
Lyon v Perpignan
(Kick off 3pm) Stade Gerland
All the indications point to a big home win, as newly promoted Perpignan – fresh from their first win of the season at home to Biarritz – head from southwest to southeast France.
The hosts, on their newly installed synthetic pitch, were too hot for Clermont to handle on the opening day, and will have been more than disappointed to lose at Pau last week, when they had a numerical advantage for most of the game.
The players have spent the past few weeks getting used to the faster pace of the surface, working to tighten up their precision and keep their gameplan simple and speedy. They should win far more than they lose this season – and will expect a near-perfect home record.
Clement Laporte looks set to get his first start of the season at 15 for Lyon – while the hosts may also welcome back Thibault Regard and Patrick Sobela to the matchday squad.
Montpellier v Toulouse
(Kick off 5pm) GGL Stadium
A major challenge for Montpellier after they fought back for a draw in their opener at Toulon, then blasted Brive aside in their first home game of the new season as they welcome France’s other European champions.
Toulouse looked like a side that had only trained together for four weeks when their opened the defence of their title at La Rochelle. But they still found a way to win, helped in part by Will Skelton’s dismissal for a dangerous tackle, as well as Jules Plisson’s wastefulness off the tee.
A week later, against Toulon, that first-game rust had mostly disappeared as Ugo Mola’s side won 41-10 at home, despite a fair few handling errors.
The defending champions are beatable. They may even lose this weekend against a Montpellier side that looks more dangerous and threatening than it did at any time last season – but they’ll go down swinging. A warm, dry evening is forecast in the Herault, so this match could swagger.
Clermont v La Rochelle
(Kick off 9.05pm) Stade Marcel Michelin
This is one of those ‘pattern’ matches that stick out like a sore thumb and excite weekly preview writers. It’s former coaching colleagues turned opponents, as Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara reunite for the first time since Gibbes left Marcel Deflandre for Marcel Michelin.
And – double trouble – both sides have lost their opening two matches. Clermont have suffered for their ongoing inability to win consistently at the breakdown, while La Rochelle’s vaunted KBA philosophy has been worked out – at least by Toulouse and Racing 92.
No doubt Gibbes, with his inside knowledge, will have his own ideas on how to beat a system he was instrumental in developing. This has turned into a key early season match for both sides – and the hosts may have a couple of secret weapons. As well as Matsushima possibly making his first start, word is that Fritz Lee and Peceli Yato are close to a return, and may even make the 23 this weekend.
Toulon v Stade Francais
(Kick off 9.05pm) Stade Felix Mayol
League points and table position, unusually, won’t matter quite so much on an emotional Sunday evening as the first-ever Trophée Christophe Dominici match kicks off between the two clubs closest to his heart.
No trophy will be handed out here – it will be awarded to the team that scores the most points over both Top 14 meetings this season, so the first winners will be decided in January 2022.
Both sides will want to break their win duck for the season, however, and with the mid-September weather set fair according to Meteo-France, we can hope to expect some decent running rugby in memory of Domi.
My name is James Harrington. I’m a freelance sports journalist based in France, writing mostly about French club and international rugby. If, after reading this, you feel the urge to commission me for some match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me