Top 14 preview: Already, everyone’s scrambling to keep up with Toulouse

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

Six weeks into the Top 14 season, and it’s already clear which side is setting the standard by which all others must be judged. Toulouse have opened up a six-point gap at the top of a table that has that slightly unusual early-season look.

There are 20 rounds of the competition left after this weekend before the play-offs. More than enough time for Clermont, Toulon, La Rochelle and Stade Francais – even Racing and Bordeaux – to up their respective top-six challenges. But it’s going to get harder quickly if some of them don’t improve fast – and more than one coach is under early campaign pressure.

Premier Sports is broadcasting two live games in the UK and Ireland this weekend – Toulon-Brive and Stade Francais-Clermont are on Premier Sports 1 on Saturday and Sunday evening respectively, while there’s delayed coverage of Toulouse-Pau as a curtain raiser to Sunday’s live game.

Here, then, is a look ahead at the weekend’s seven matches in French rugby’s Top 14. Kick-off times are France time…

Saturday, October 9

Biarritz v Lyon (kick off 3pm)

Parc des Sports Aguilera

A little friendly sibling rivalry could add a little interest this Saturday. Brothers in Top 14 rugby are not that unusual. Brothers playing for opposing sides also happens. Brothers in the same position on opposing teams is slightly less common. 

And then two come along at once: It may happen when Lyon entertain Toulouse next Sunday, if the Marchand boys, Guillaume is on loan at Lyon, rub heads at hooker. This week, it’s highly possible – probable, even – that Barnabé and Baptiste Couilloud will face off at scrum-half for the first time as professionals. The former is set to start while the latter may come off the bench.

Lyon might just bring Josua Tuisova back. He’s recovered from injury, and is reported to be raring to go.

By all accounts, the brothers in nines are the best of friends off the pitch, and Barnabé  has more than proved his talent. In front of at least 20 family members at Parc des Sports Aguilera this Saturday, he’ll be out to prove a point. And both sides will want a bounceback win after losing at home last weekend. Could get spicy, this one.

Expect to see new arrival Baptiste Soury in action for the hosts, too. The hooker arrived midweek from Toulon on a short-term medical joker contract. He may even be thrown straight into the starting XV.

He was more tactful about his departure than his mother, who had some choice words to say about Toulon following her son’s move.

Biarritz have lost three front-row middlemen to long-term injury in the first five weeks of the season. Last Saturday in the defeat to Toulouse, Romain Ruffenach suffered an ACL injury in the tackle that saw Joe Tekori red carded. Lucas Peyresblanques (hamstring) and Francois Da Ros (biceps) were already sidelined.

Bordeaux v Montpellier (kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

Discussions have started to extend Bordeaux coach Christophe Urios’s contract beyond its current 2023 deadline – but his future at the club is not the most interesting.

Scrum-half Yann Lesgourges seems to have fallen out of favour since signing a contract extension of his own through to 2025 just over a year ago, with Maxime Lucu the undoubted number one in that position, prompting some speculation that Bordeaux may be willing to let Lesgourges go.

In fact, Lucu has been so impressive in partnership with Matthieu Jalibert that he is now being talked about in terms of national squad selection – by Fabien Galthie himself.

Lesgourges is likely to be on the bench again for the match against Montpellier, with Lucu starting alongside his lauded 10-buddy.

For Montpellier, losing Arthur Vincent for up to eight months was a major blow. For France, too, as evidenced by remarks on social media by coach Fabien Galthie and the official France Rugby account.

Thomas Darmon and Geoffrey Doumayrou are covering midfield – but losing Vincent means Philippe Saint-Andre is down to the last two of his five-strong captains’ club, with Guilhem Guirado and Benoit Paillaugue also both on the long-term injury list.

One of them, Yacouba Camara, is expected to take captaincy responsibility this week.

They are likely, meanwhile, to bring returning South African Cobus Reinach, fresh off the plane from Australia, straight back into the action given their own severe scrum-half shortage.

La Rochelle v Castres (kick off 3pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Ronan O’Gara isn’t the only coach this week breathing a little sigh of relief that his opponents are eminently beatable away from home – yes, despite their win over Clermont on the second weekend of the season. 

Although he is not under the kind of official pressure that Patrice Collazo or Gonzalo Quesada are under at Toulon and Stade Francais respectively, a win of any kind after four defeats in five would be a relief.

That said, though a home win really should be a foregone conclusion, La Rochelle are not in a happy place so far this season. 

Their breakdown work, a reliable strong suit in a difficult start to the Top 14, fell apart last week at Montpellier – and it’s a foregone conclusion that O’Gara’s opposite number this weekend, perennial rugby student Pierre-Henry Broncan, has watched that game repeatedly to see how Montpellier did it.

Only the most die-hard La Rochelle fan would predict a win as big as the one the last time the two sides met at Marcel Deflandre, when the hosts racked up 63 points against the Covid-depleted visitors. 

This will be closer. It should still end with a win for the hosts – but there might just be a scare or two along the way against a World Cup qualifiers-depleted side.

Racing 92 v Perpignan (kick off 3pm)

La Defense Arena

For all that they outscored Clermont two tries to one, Racing were, on the whole, disappointingly passive in defeat at Stade Marcel Michelin last Sunday that saw them drop from second to sixth in the early-season standings.

The coaches, led by Laurent Travers, will expect more from a slightly tweaked Racing side that should still feature the livewire Nolan LeGarrec at scrum-half. They should play with more freedom on their synthetic home turf, where they have won both of their matches to date.

Meanwhile, with Fabien Sanconnie out for the foreseeable, Racing have poached Victor Moreaux from Agen on a short-term medical joker contract. He’s unlikely to play this weekend – but expect him to add some much needed oomph at lock in the weeks to come. But Henry Chavancy, injured at the end of last season, could return – it’s believed he could be named on the bench.

Perpignan are expected to give Melvyn Jaminet – whose future is the subject of talks between the club and Toulouse – a rest for a match that most probably would not expect them to win. 

Toulouse v Pau (kick off 5pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

Five from five really should become six from six as Toulouse entertain Pau – and, if the hosts get that particular feeling, numbers could get big on the home side of the scoreboard.

This should not be seen as a slight on Pau, busy rebuilding under head coach Sebastien Piqueronies. Fifth place, with three wins from five – including a useful on-the-road victory at Perpignan last week classes as a decent start to the season.

But, eventually, every Top 14 side comes up against Toulouse. And, the mood they’re in right now, it’s hard to see any opponents getting the better of them. So far, La Rochelle, Toulon, Montpellier, Clermont and Biarritz have tried. All have failed. 

Toulouse will lose at some point this season, but it’s genuinely close to impossible to see Pau – likely to rest their key points scorers Antoine Hastoy and Zack Henry this week – changing that record.

Toulon v Brive (kick 0ff 9.05pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

Officially, Toulon’s Patrice Collazo still has the confidence of club president Bernard Lemaitre – which, naturally, is understood to mean he is a coach under huge pressure as his side face yet another primetime TV match – they have yet to play in any other timeslot this season, and won’t until October 30. 

Freddie Michalak is set to join his staff in a consultancy role from December, while Lemaitre said this week he be watching this match and next week’s visit of Racing 92 very closely – and will then make a decision on his coach’s future. He also fired a broadside at players on the club’s books.

On Collazo’s side is the length of his contract – not long ago he signed a deal through to 2025, meaning that it may be prohibitively expensive to buy him out of his contract. That said, Lemaitre demonstrated with the late-summer signing of Cheslin Kolbe that he’s willing to dig deep if he deems it necessary. Will he go that far? 

Much will depend on the result – and the performance – against Brive this week. A big win would be a fillip for fans, staff and players alike ahead of what promises, on paper at least, to be a much sterner test next weekend.

Brive – for all that they are rebuilding their home fortress, giving up only one try in three outings – have shipped eight tries in their two matches on the road. 

Perhaps this match, against this opponent, at this venue, could not have come at a better time for Toulon’s troubled top dog.

Sunday, October 10

Stade Francais v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

If Collazo’s under huge pressure at Toulon, then bottom-of-the-table Stade Francais’ Gonzalo Quesada has entered a whole new physical state of pressure in which new forms of metaphysical matter are created.

The Paris club have won just once in five matches, against Castres a fortnight ago at Stade Jean Bouin, and are conceding an average of 28 points a game, while scoring just over 16 in reply. 

They were beaten 19-12 at Brive last weekend, and have lost Yoann Maestri for six months with a ruptured tendon in his bicep, while Paul Alo-Emile has been suspended until the end of October for a dangerous tackle three minutes into that one highpoint match of the season.

Owner Hans-Peter Wild this week formally and publicly denied that he has been in contact with former Montpellier coach and current Canal Plus pundit Xavier Garbajosa.

There was speculation this summer that Garbajosa would join Quesada’s staff – but, obviously, that never came to pass. However, to link him with the top job seems odd, given the coach himself said that he found out he was not ready for the head coach job in the Herault.

However, in the same interview in which his denial about looking for a new coach was as close to a vote of confidence as Quesada looks like getting at the moment, Wild also didn’t even try to hide his frustration at Stade’s season. 

“I consider the start of the exercise a disaster,” he said. “I am still awaiting an explanation from the technical staff and management.”

It’s to be hoped that, by now, he’s received that explanation. And what he’ll be looking for on Sunday is something additional – and better. 

Sadly, they face a Clermont side buoyed by a recent uptick in their own performances, and set to feature a Damian Penaud who has rediscovered his joie de vivre following a temporary switch back to midfield. This match could also see the return of Morgan Parra and Wesley Fofana from injury. Who’d be Quesada right now?

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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