Top 14 preview: Lyon threaten Toulouse control and Biarritz enter dark period as nights draw in

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

It’s the Top 14 weekend before France coach Fabien Galthie selects 42 players for Les Bleus’ first November international against Argentain – and one last chance for some players to make a good impression – but for some notable names, Louis Carbonel in particular, it might be too late this time.

The most difficult challenge of Toulouse’s winning season so far will be Sunday night, when they head to Lyon – in a match shown in the UK and Ireland on Freesports – while Toulon fans will get a brief view of their new star Cheslin Kolbe as a patched-up Toulon entertain Racing 92 at Stade Mayol.

Biarritz, meanwhile, enter a difficult run of three away games in four weekends after dropping to the foot of the table.

Freesports is also showing Brive-La Rochelle, followed by Montpellier-Clermont and then Toulon-Racing 92 on Saturday. All kick-off times here, remember, are French time – adjust accordingly, if you’re trying to watch.

Saturday, October 16

Perpignan v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Stade Francais’ win over Clermont last Sunday – their second of the season – eased the early pressure on head coach Gonzalo Quesada, as the Parisians moved from the bottom of the table to the heady heights of second-from-bottom. 

This week, general manager Thomas Lombard insisted in an interview with RMC Sport that Quesada’s future at the club was not at risk – though he did not rule out a ‘reinforcement’ joining the coaching staff sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, he pointed out the need for young players Arthur Coville and Joris Segonds to step up and show leadership potential in a young squad that – he said – was in phase two of a three-phase rebuild, while defending the slow start of Ngani Laumape’s Stade career. 

They certainly looked better in victory last week – though far from the finished article.

There’s no doubt that a win on the road at the side just above them in the table, Perpignan, would ease jangling Jean Bouin nerves further. But, after their hard-fought performance at Racing last weekend – they lost 17-14 in a match they were expected to ship a hatful of points – the hosts will be feeling confident right now.

Perpignan, meanwhile, should field Melvyn Jaminet and Tristan Tedder, having rested both for last week’s trip to Racing 92, as they look to set the home record straight after defeat against Pau the last time they were in front of their Aime Giral fans.

Pau v Bordeaux (kick off 3pm)

Stade du Hameau

The second week of a difficult three-week run for Sebastien Piqueronies’ Pau. They were blown off the park in the second half at Toulouse last week, entertain Bordeaux this week, and head to Clermont next Saturday.

The Bearn side this week announced prop Nicolas Corato and winger Aminiasi Tuimaba, currently suspended after his red card against Perpignan, have extended their stays through to 2024, and it was also reported that one of France’s brightest young talents, backrow Sacha Zegueur, will reunite with former national under-20s coach Piqueronies next season, from ProD2 side Oyonnax.

That was the limit of the good news out of Pau this week. On the flipside, the hosts will be without Guillaume Ducat for several months, after he suffered a cruciate ligament injury last week. Though home fans should see Antoine Hastoy and Clovis Le Bail reunited at the hinge, with Zack Henry launching orbit finders from fullback.

Louis Picamoles’ retirement at the end of the season is the big news out of Bordeaux this week. He’s injured and won’t be involved this weekend, anyway – nor will long-term infirmary residents Lasha Tabidze and Jules Gimbert.

But the visitors, second in the league and fighting to keep pace with leaders Toulouse, may be able to count on the services of Guido Petti and Santiago Cordero for what looks, on paper, as if it will be a thoroughly entertaining match-up. Maxime Lamothe, too, should start.

Castres v Biarritz (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

We need to talk about Biarritz. Six games into a hellish opening 10-game block, and the Basque Country side – despite their refusal to blame fatigue – are blowing. Unsurprisingly. They don’t have the player resources of other clubs, and squad rotation options are limited. 

Early on, the intention appeared to follow the accepted standard French rugby method. Build a fortress at home, rest certain players for road trips as possible and target key matches. For the record, they lost their two away trips so far this season by sizeable margins.

But, first Toulouse, then Lyon last weekend wrecked the early fortifications built with wins over Bordeaux and Racing 92 at Parc des Sports Aguilera. And – with three away days in the next four weeks, Biarritz are bottom of the table, and face a grim few weeks with few points. 

This weekend’s trip to Castres will be a canary game for the Basque Country side, though the hosts’ head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan was quick to remind journalist that Biarritz would, probably have beaten Toulouse a fortnight ago, but for the individual brilliance of former Castres’ prodigy Antoine Dupont.

The first season back in the Top 14 is tough for any club. The battle for survival runs to the dying weeks of the season. For Biarritz, it’s likely to get much darker quite quickly before any slow-arriving dawn.

With Mathieu Babillot, ink on a new three-year deal still drying, out for three months with a thigh injury, Rory Kockott is expected to take on captaincy duties, while Santiago Arata, fresh from helping Uruguay reach the World Cup could be on the bench. Tyler Ardron, returned from a call-up to Canada’s squad, should start in the back row.

Brive v La Rochelle (kick off 3pm)

Stadium de Brive

Brive have 14 points out of a maximum 15 on home soil this season, having beaten Perpignan, Pau, and Stade Francais at Stadium de Brive. 

They are fifth in the table, five places and four points ahead of their opponents, last season’s losing Top 14 and Champions Cup finalists (in France, that earns La Rochelle the honorific of ‘vice-champions’. It’s probably not one they want).

To add to the good news, the club announced contract extensions for props Daniel Brennan and Wesley Tapueluelu.

The equation for Brive head coach Jeremy Davidson, who also recently extended his stay in the Correze, is simple. Add La Rochelle to that list of the fallen and make it 18 or, if possible, 19 points out of 20 in four matches on home turf.

The visitors, then, face an uphill task: winning at fortress Brive to record successive wins for the first time this season, after their 29-10 victory at home last weekend over Castres. The good news for coach Ronan O’Gara is that Will Skelton is available for selection again, having served his five-week suspension.

And the coach wants to see something special…

Montpellier v Clermont (kick off 5pm)

GGL Stadium

Clermont, usually so good on the road, have not won away from Stade Marcel Michelin since March – though, in their defence, their opponents in that seven-match losing streak have been Lyon (twice) and Toulouse (twice), Racing, Bordeaux and Stade-Français.

The good news for head coach Jono Gibbes is that Jean-Pascal Barraque, Kotaro Matsushima, Morgan Parra and Apisai Naqalevu should be available for selection. Parra, now 32, is out of contract at the end of the season and has attracted the interest of Stade Francais according to reports. But the latest word is that Clermont are keen to keep their little general – along with experienced lock Sebastien Vahaamahina. 

The bad news, however, is that Tomas Lavanini will be out of action for three weeks, after suffering a jaw fracture in this tackle from international team-mate Marcus Kremer on his debut at Stade Francais last Sunday.

Barraque told reporters on Thursday: “We know we have to do better, especially away from home, and we hope to measure progress this weekend.”

Montpellier, meanwhile, have lost once at home – against Toulouse – already this season. Philippe Saint-Andre won’t want to see that record added to on Saturday evening.

Cobus Reinach was straight into the side last weekend, having been little used by South Africa in the Rugby Championship. He should start again this week, while transfer-rumour subject Handre Pollard may on the bench for what would be his first club appearance this season.

The skies are set to be clear in the Herault, with a light wind. Perfect conditions, then, for a match with plenty riding on it – and one that may get heated as a result. 

Toulon v Racing 92 (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

Cheslin Kolbe will be at Stade Mayol this weekend – but the grand pre-match introduction to the Toulon faithful is as much as they’ll see of their new star, who has a knee injury that still requires a fair amount of support, suggesting his return to action won’t be for some time.

Kolbe arrived at Toulon on Thursday, to a certain amount of excited ceremony, where his injury will be assessed by team doctors. Until they’re complete there wll be no confirmation on how long he’ll be unavailable for, despite reports it could be as long as six months.

As well as Kolbe, Toulon are also without Eben Etzebeth, Mathias Halagahu, Julien Hériteau, Facundo Isa, Matteo Le Corvec, Charles Ollivon, Sergio Parisse, Quinn Roux, Baptiste Serin, Lopeti Timani, Christopher Tolofua, and Jiuta Wainiqolo.

Anthony Belleau, a target for several clubs, is likely to start at 10, with Louis Carbonel on the bench, as under-pressure head coach Patrice Collazo – who faces some sort of job review after this weekend’s match – tries to keep him at the club.

Fourth-placed Racing, meanwhile, will be without new signing, combative French international lock Baptiste Pesenti, for about five months after he dislocated a shoulder last week in the gritty, lacklustre 17-14 win over Perpignan at La Defense Arena. 

But it doesn’t look like they’re sending a cannon-fodder side to the Mediterranean coast. It looks like Bernard Le Roux is expected to cover for Pesenti in the engine room alongside Boris Palu, with Beale, Taofifenua and Fickou among the likely starting backs. 

There’s been plenty of negotiating table action recently, with 22 players out of contract at the end of the season. Ibrahim Diallo is set to agree new terms, according to reports – following in the re-signing shoes of Henry Chavancy, Camille Chat, Baptiste Chouzenoux and Antoine Gibert

Sunday, October 17

Lyon v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade de Gerland

The record for winning starts to a French top-flight men’s rugby campaign in the professional era is currently held by Stade Francais, with nine wins from their opening nine games of the 2006/07 season. 

Toulouse head into this weekend on a six-from-six run – the club’s own record is eight from eight back in 2005/06. It’s a record no one at the club is talking about. Pointedly.

But third-placed Lyon will be formidable opponents at home, even for a side that has beaten La Rochelle, Montpellier and Biarritz away from home without actually hitting anything approaching top gear. Even if Toulouse win this week, they have to beat Castres at home and Racing away to equal the Parisians’ record. They’re already looking ahead to the derby against Castres.

If they get that far, expect a party atmosphere at Ernest Wallon the following weekend as they go for the perfect 10 against Perpignan.

What’s most remarkable about their early season form – after the fact that they have not played well – is that no defending champion has managed such an early winning run.

But Lyon – and, in particular hooker Guillaume Marchand, younger brother of Toulouse and France 2 Julien – will have their own plans for the game. Which will, inevitably, involve wrecking that record dream that Toulouse players and staff won’t speak of and will pretend not to know about.

A side with five bonus points from their first six games is likely to give the champions the sternest test of their mettle to date. For extra fun, they may unleash Josua Tuisova, if they believe he has fully recovered from the injury that has kept him on the sidelines since the second weekend of the season. Fans may get a first glimpse of Lima Sopoaga, too, possibly off the bench.

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

Please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. And I round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.

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