Top 14 Preview: Clermont look to end home Racing hoodoo, and Brive plan centenary celebrations

Image: ASM Rugby / Twitter

Five weeks into the Top 14 season, and the LNR is undertaking a massive media push to promote the game, while the transfer market is already in overdrive. 

As well as this TV ad, local posters are going up all over the country as the game looks to attract new fans:

Three of the weekend’s games are broadcast in the UK and Ireland. Biarritz-Toulouse, Castres-Toulon, and Clermont-Racing are all on FreeSports.

Meanwhile in the recruitment world, Pau’s Antoine Hastoy is on his way to La Rochelle; and, if rumours are to be believed, Clermont’s Camille Lopez wants to leave despite having a year left on his contract; Stade Francais have their eyes on Morgan Parra; Lyon’s Pierre-Louis Barassi is heading to Toulouse, who have also grabbed Melvyn Jaminet from Perpignan … or, maybe they haven’t. Certainly, Perpignan president François Rivière has dismissed reports the long-predicted deal is as done as some may think. Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

But recruitment rumours are for another post. This one is all about this weekend’s matches in French rugby’s top flight. Remember kick-off times listed here are France time…

Saturday, October 2

Brive v Stade Francais (Kick off 3pm)

Stadium de Brive

In a nod to history, Brive entertain Stade Francais at ‘le Stadium’ almost 100 years to the day after the two sides played the first-ever match at the ground – on September 25, 1921.

The club and the town have arranged all sorts of celebrations to mark the centenary. There’s an exhibition of photographs from the 100 years of matches at the Stadium, and matchday will be marked by a series of events for fans – including demonstrations by the rugby, tennis and athletics sections of Club Athlétique Brive Corrèze Limousin, in homage to the events of the inauguration a century ago.

On the pitch, however, it’s Top 14 duty as standard for both sides. Brive have bonus-point home wins over Pau and Perpignan to thank for their 10 league points and current fifth-place standing in the league. Their goal – to remain undefeated at home, pick up another bonus point, if possible, and mark their home ground’s centenary match in style.

Stade, perhaps finally ready for the season after last weekend’s player-down win over Castres at home, will have other ideas.

Montpellier v La Rochelle (Kick off 3pm)

GGL Stadium

Two narrow defeats on the bounce – a 15-17 defeat at home to Toulouse, followed by a 23-22 loss at Pau – have left Montpellier 10th in the standings, while visitors La Rochelle are currently 12th, having picked up their first win of the season last Saturday – a 59-17 nine-try hammering of Biarritz at a sold-out Stade Marcel Deflandre.

This, then, is a battle between two ambitious sides who have found themselves in the lower reaches of the table, far from where they want to be even so early in the campaign.

Both are playing better rugby than their league position perhaps suggests – an indication as much of the exaggerated nature of new season tables as any given side’s form. This has all the hallmarks of an early afternoon bar-setter.

Perpignan v Pau (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime-Giral

Perpignan have a home record to maintain – and a target to beat against Pau this weekend. And after their ground-out win against Toulon at the same ground last Saturday, the odds of them making it three from three have to be in their favour.

The home fans will take more of the same, after their side last week equalled the number of wins – two – from their entire last, disastrous, Top 14 campaign in 2018/19 in just four games.

And all eyes are likely to be on home fullback Melvyn Jaminet, as the newly crowned ProD2 player of the year and Revelation of the year seeks to keep talk of a possible move to Toulouse to the back of his mind and focus on the here and now.

It won’t be easy. Perpignan president François Rivière publicly denied reports this week that a deal had been signed to allow Jaminet to head to Ernest Wallon in July despite having another two years on his contract. But the rumours, which have been swirling since the summer, are refusing to go away, such is the star power of the player right now. 

Pau boss Sebastien Piqueronies, meanwhile, is planning to pick up the pace of his squad rebuild. After last week’s one-point win over Montpellier at Stade du Hameau, he told reporters: “We are cruelly lacking in realism and efficiency in key areas, but we manage to create chances. We’re getting closer.”

He’ll want to see some improvement this weekend – if not, necessarily a win, then a better performance than they managed last time they were on the road, when they were well beaten at Brive. And maybe a few more touchdowns – Pau have been a bit tryline-shy so far.

Lyon v Bordeaux (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Gerland

Anything 10th v 12th can do – Montpellier v La Rochelle, in case you scrolled straight to this match preview – third v fourth – that’s this match – can do too … and, maybe, better. 

These two sides are heavy points scorers. Lyon have 13 tries in four outings, Bordeaux 11. The hosts, meanwhile, have the early advantage in defence. They have conceded just four tries – and three of those were in the first 13 crazy minutes at Racing 92’s La Defense Arena last week – to the visitors’ seven.

But Bordeaux have Mathieu Jalibert. He’s been in rare form this season – and, although he is under contract to 2023, there’s already been speculation about his future, with Racing 92 reportedly keen to pry him from Christophe Urios.

The player is keeping his counsel – a gnomic Instagram post stated only that he remains under contract at Bordeaux, while he told former player-turned-radio host Vincent Moscato in a statement that says nothing: “I have no contact with Racing. I take the time to reflect. For the moment I am focused on my season with the UBB.”

Lyon have home advantage – but this one looks like it will be close. Probably a relatively high-scoring close, too, which will be good for neutrals if not for fans of either side.

Expect to see this fellow, too, in the crowd. He’s been training with his new club this week – and may make his debut as early as next weekend.

Biarritz v Toulouse (Kick off 5pm)

Parc des Sports Aguilera

Strained relations between Biarritz the rugby club and Biarritz the resort on the southwest coast of France reached another low this week, if a series of tweets between club president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé and mayor Maider Arosteguy are anything to go by.

The staff and players have done well to ignore long-rumbling off-field issues, which may yet end up with the club relocating to Lille. And, they’ll be satisfied enough with their return to the Top 14 so far – having already dispatched Bordeaux and Racing 92 at home to pick up eight points from their four games to date.

This, however, is a whole new challenge. Toulouse are now the only unbeaten side in the Top 14. They have beaten La Rochelle and Montpellier on the road; and ripped Toulon a new one, then beat a fast-and-furious Clermont side determined to play the Toulouse way at home – all without actually hitting anything approaching top gear.

At this early stage, it’s hard to look beyond Toulouse for the title. It’s just as hard to look beyond them for who’ll win at Biarritz this weekend.

Castres v Toulon (Kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

Toulon’s fifth primetime kick-off in five games this season sees them head to the stadium where their play-off dreams last season were ended in the final outing of the campaign on June 5.

Castres, at the time, were on an unlikely mission for the play-offs themselves, having been 13th in the table at the turn of the year. Like their opponents, ultimately, they didn’t make it – but they did qualify for the Champions Cup, courtesy of Montpellier’s Challenge Cup victory.

Now, however, things are slightly different. Castres were embarrassed at Stade Francais last weekend, losing their unbeaten start to the season in the process. They will want nothing more than simply to get back to winning ways.

Toulon, meanwhile, lost a poor TV advert for the Top 14 at Perpignan to slip down to ninth in the table. 

Coach Patrice Collazo, meanwhile, is a coach under pressure. Toulon could – and, perhaps, should – have won last week. 

But they have not won on the road since February in any competition and – with a still heavily depleted squad (there were fitness concerns over centre Julien Hériteau and lock Brian Alainu’uese this week, with Baptiste Serin, Charles Ollivon, Facundo Isa, Sergio Parisse, Christopher Tolofua, Jiuta Wainiqolo, Mathieu Smaïli, and Duncan Paia’aua already in the infirmary) – will do well to get close at Stade Pierre Fabre, where Castres are unbeaten under coach Pierre-Henry Broncan.

“I do not ask for time. I ask that we win games. I do not want time. We took only one point at the weekend. There were four points at stake. The discontent, I can hear it,” Collazo told reporters this week.

The message is clear. The players on the pitch need to step up. As Gabin Villiere says here: “The main objective is to remain undefeated at home, but if we want to go higher, we have to win away.”

Sunday, October 3

Clermont v Racing 92 (Kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Coming off second best against Toulouse in what was, without doubt, the match of last weekend won’t have impressed Clermont coach Jono Gibbes much. 

For long periods of that game at Ernest Wallon, they had the beating of the defending champions – only to head back to the Auvergne with nothing to show for their efforts. 

He will want cooler heads and more clinical play as Clermont look for their first win over Racing at Marcel Michelin in four years.

Racing, perhaps with Jordan Joseph – the subject of loan speculation in recent days – selected for the first time this season on the bench, should expect a ferocious backlash in the Top 14’s flagship Sunday primetime match. 

It has, no doubt, been a busy week at Plessis-Robinson, the Nanterre club’s training complex. Last Saturday’s win was not so much a game of two halves as one of four quarters. The first, Racing were the only club in town, running in three unanswered tries to be 21-0 ahead in 13 minutes. Then they switched off, scoring just one more penalty in 65 minutes, and allowing Lyon to get within four.

Last week wasn’t good enough for Racing – and they won. Last week wasn’t quite enough for Clermont – and they lost. Both sides’ coaches will demand better. Clermont have already lost at home this season, and won’t want to make it two defeats in three in front of their fans. But for the weather – rain is forecast – this would have the makings of a decent match. It still could be…

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. And I’ll round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.

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