The fourth week of the Top 14 is still very much in that early stage of the season when any points have an exaggerated effect on league positions.
Even so, there are hints at what the immediate future may hold. Toulouse already look strong contenders, Stade Francais and La Rochelle need to turn things around – as do Clermont, despite last weekend’s brief respite – and things look bumpy on the injury front at both Montpellier and Toulon.
Premier Sports TV live matches this weekend are La Rochelle-Biarritz followed by Racing 92-Lyon on Freesports on Saturday afternoon; then over on Premier Sports 2, Perpignan-Toulon on Saturday evening and Toulouse-Clermont on Sunday night.
Stade Francais v Castres (Kick off 3pm)
Stade Jean Bouin
A win. It’s all that matters for Stade Francais. It doesn’t have to be pretty or clever. It doesn’t need to be convincing. But it must be a win.
Three defeats and 111 points conceded in three games: the Parisians’ campaign is careering towards the catastrophic. Only once before have they lost their first four in a row – back at the start of the 2003/4 season, when the Top 14 was a Top 16.
If Stade are looking for optimistic signs from history, there is one: they recovered from that poor start, and went on to win their 12th French championship, beating Perpignan 38-20 in the final. Positives and all that.
But history, notoriously, is an unreliable guide to present form and blind to current needs. And the fact is Stade are the only pointless team in the league this season, and one of just two without a win to their name.
Gonzalo Quesada has a malfunctioning attack to correct, and a porous defence to fill ahead of a match against the unlikeliest of the Top 14’s two undefeated teams this season.
And there’s another problem. The squad has had to deal with illness this week – James Hall, Paul Alo-Emile and Yoann Maestri are among a number of key players who have barely trained.
Castres will do what they know – they will niggle, and they will scrap, and they will be generally annoying. In their current position, under their current pressure there’s a risk Stade may bite – and then things could go wrong very quickly.
For the visitors, this is a shot-to-nothing game, in which a win would be a bonus. It’s not impossible they could do it…
Pau v Montpellier (Kick off 3pm)
Stade du Hameau
The big news out of Montpellier this week involves a player who isn’t even at the club right now. Handre Pollard, currently on Rugby Championship duty with South Africa, may leave at the end of the season according to reports in France.
Meanwhile, another South African absentee, Cobus Reinach, can’t come back quickly enough. Montpellier are on the bones of a serious scrum-half shortage, with Benoit Paillaugue and Gela Aprasidze both injured in the opening three weeks of the season.
Martin Doan did well coming off the bench last week in the 15-17 home loss to European and Top 14 champions Toulouse, in just his second Top 14 outing after being plucked from the third-tier Nationale – but Pau will no doubt target the inexperienced 22-year-old on Saturday.
But it looks as if there may be some squad rotation, with Fulgence Ouedraogo, Geoffrey Doumayrou and Thomas Darmon among those who could be rested.
After two games without a touchdown, Pau finally broke their try-scoring duck after 180 minutes of game time at Brive last weekend. They may find it hard to breach Montpellier’s defence this week, and could end up relying on the boot of La Rochelle-bound fly-half Antoine Hastoy once again.
Ignacio Calles may return to the squad after being injured against Stade Francais back in April.
Bordeaux v Brive (Kick off 3pm)
A win, a draw, a defeat and mid-table mediocrity is probably not what Christophe Urios expected from his first three matches of the 2021/22 season, which featured trips to Biarritz and Castres and a home match against Stade Francais.
He may have been working on the theory that he would have at least one win on the road already – but he took an undercooked team to the far southwest, and will have been disappointed to let a 10-point lead slip on the trip to the side he guided to the 2018 championship and against whom he had, until last weekend, enjoyed a perfect record at Bordeaux.
But reality and expectation do not necessarily meet – though seven league points from three games with a positive points difference is a decent enough start to the season.
Urios will, however, want his side to make it 12 from four with a bonus-point home win over Brive. It might not be straightforward though.
The visitors looked good in attack and defence last time out against Pau at Amadee Domenech, when they welcomed Thomas Laranjeira back after a hip operation, and although all their 10 league points so far have come at home, they may well give their hosts a few scares.
La Rochelle v Biarritz (Kick off 3pm)
Stade Marcel Deflandre
Biarritz – fifth-placed Biarritz – have started their Top 14 return season in the right way. In beating Bordeaux and Racing 92 at home, they have ensured their current ground, Parc des Sports Aguilera, has an early reputation as a fortress, an unforgiving and brutal purgatory for visiting teams.
Their one away day so far was a 33-20 loss at fellow top-flight returnees Perpignan, which offers no real clues as to their levels of performance on the road. This match, however, against winless La Rochelle at Marcel Deflandre almost definitely will.
Ronan O’Gara will have always targeted this match for a win. But victory – and the four or five points that come with it – are imperative now. It’s been a cruel opening for his tenure in charge, meeting Toulouse, then Racing 92, then Clermont.
This should be an easier match – for a given Top 14 value of ‘easy’ – for the hosts, who could call on new signing Jonathan Danty for the first time this season. But we’ll also finally get a decent view of Biarritz away from the comforts of home against an established Top 14 opponent.
Racing 92 v Lyon (Kick off 5pm)
La Defense Arena
Teddy Thomas, with his new aerodynamic hairdo, was expected to make his first appearance of the season this weekend – but word is he has picked up a hamstring injury that looks likely to delay his return by several weeks.
It’s unfortunate timing – the France squad are due to meet around October 24 for the November internationals against Argentina, Georgia and New Zealand, and he’ll have little time, if any, to prove his form for the selectors. It now seems certain Fabien Galthie and Laurent Labit will be looking elsewhere for out-wide firepower.
This is nothing clubs aren’t used to – losing personnel to injury comes with the sporting territory. But it’s a shame for fans, as Thomas can be pure box office. There’s no Pierre-Louis Barassi for the visitors, either. He suffered a sprained ankle scoring a try in last week’s match, and will also be out for several weeks – to the frustration, no doubt, of Galthie.
Meanwhile, Lyon’s headline signing Lima Sopoaga was due to arrive in France this week after an agreed extended holiday before joining his new club.
As for Saturday’s match: two try-scoring bonus points separate second-placed Lyon from sixth-placed Racing after three rounds of the Top 14.
Lyon have the best attack in the league, scoring 11 tries and 92 points in their matches to date – but it’s still difficult to see them winning at La Defense Arena: only one of those 11 touchdowns and 17 of those points came away from home.
Perpignan v Toulon (Kick off 9pm)
Stade Aime Giral
Two big defeats on the road – at Brive and Lyon – and a win at home over Biarritz. Perpignan’s return to the Top 14 has, apart from the scale of those away losses, gone pretty much according to neutral expectation so far.
This is the first big test of their home credentials. Toulon are a heavily wounded side, despite their big win over Stade Francais in the inaugural Trophee Christophe Dominici match last Sunday night.
Sergio Parisse is out for three months with a wrist fracture, and Facundo Isa will miss six weeks with a broken finger. Both players join the likes of Charles Ollivon, Baptiste Serin and Jiuta Wainiqolo in a Toulon infirmary that’s already full to bursting.
Make no mistake, despite the number of missing players, Patrice Collazo will be able to field a formidable side. And this is the acid test for Patrick Arlettaz, Perry Freshwater and Christian Lanta under Saturday night lights.
The standard expectation in the Top 14 is that sides will win their home games. The Catalans did their job against Biarritz a fortnight ago, but that was a ProD2 match in Top 14 clothing.
This is the first real challenge of the season. Biarritz have passed both of theirs against established top-flight opponents. Now Perpignan, ProD2 champions last season, have to follow suit, or this will bear all the early hallmarks of another yo-yo campaign for the sang et or.
Toulouse v Clermont (Kick off 9pm)
Stade Ernest Wallon
No Charlie Faumina. No Joe Tekori. No Pita Ahki. Toulouse have gone three for three this season – including two on the road – without this trio of experienced squad members.
Clermont, who welcomed back their own big game threesome of Fritz Lee, Peceli Yato and Kotaro Matsushima for their first win of the season over La Rochelle last weekend, should probably be slightly concerned that at least one of those Toulouse stars – Ahki – is in the selection reckoning for the final game of the Top 14 weekend on Sunday night. The other two are near a return.
In their solo home game of the season so far, Toulouse hammered Toulon 41-10. They rode their luck a little early on, but it was a result and a performance that can have left no doubt in the minds of rival Top 14 coaches: this side will punish just about any error from just about anywhere. And then they’ll unpick your defence for the fun of it.
It’s safe to say there’s something about Toulouse. Despite the lack of preseason preparation, there’s even an early hint of a suspicion that the 2021/22 version might just be better than the double-winning 2020/21 squad.
Of course, there’s a long way to go yet, and plenty that can go wrong – but this is by far the biggest challenge of Jono Gibbes’ brief Clermont DoR career, which counts one win from three attempts – that came last weekend at home to his former club, La Rochelle. A fourth win in a row for Ugo Mola’s Toulouse is the most likely outcome. The size of the home side’s victory may offer a clearer indication of the scale of the job that Gibbes’ faces at Marcel Michelin.
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
Do please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. This week I’m focusing on the troubles at Stade Francais – that seems to be a common late September topic for me – and I’ll round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.