Top 14 Preview: Hallowe’en weekend opener for Toulon’s new boss Azema

Photo: RC Toulon / Twitter

Two stories have gripped French rugby this week: the possibility of a Jalibert-Ntamack 10-12 partnership for France against Argentina in just over a week, and – a late-runner on the rails – Toulon sacking Patrice Collazo and then, on Thursday, hiring Franck Azema … which didn’t go down too well with his former bosses at Clermont.

In among it all, not-quite silenced by the shrieks of excitement at the Jalimack prospect, groans of relief from the Toulon region over Collazo, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth about Azema from Clermont, there’s the small matter of the ninth round of the 2021/22 Top 14 season, the penultimate one before those players not involved in the November internationals get a deserved break after an opening block of 10 games in as many weeks.

UK and Ireland fans have four matches to enjoy this weekend. On Saturday, Premier Sports 2 is showing Castres v Brive, followed by Montpellier v Lyon. Then there’s the Bordeaux v Clermont evening game, also on Premier Sports 2.

On Sunday, Premier Sports 1 has Racing 92 v Toulouse – even shorn of its big stars, this one could be spectacular.

Here’s a preview of sorts of each game. Remember kick off times listed here are Paris time – also remember the clocks go back this weekend. 

Saturday, October 30

Toulon v Biarritz (kick off 3pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

Never let it be said that the rugby gods don’t have a sense of humour.

The last match of the Patrice Collazo era at Toulon, the 39-6 loss that broke Bernard Lemaitre’s patience, was at his former club, La Rochelle – Marcel Deflandre is a ground where, Toulouse excepted, visiting teams traditionally go to die.

As expected, Clermont’s former head coach Franck Azema was officially confirmed as Toulon’s new general manager on Thursday – too late to take charge of the side for this weekend’s match, at home to Biarritz, but in time for next weekend’s trip to … Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin.

Next week’s match could be awkward – Clermont have made it perfectly clear they’re not entirely impressed with Toulon signing a coach they consider still, officially, under contract with them. It’ll all end in compensation…

But first to this week – and a game the hosts would have targeted as a five-pointer in pre-season. Now, things aren’t quite so certain as, after eight evening slots to please the TV paymasters, Toulon play their first non-primetime match of the new campaign.

Former Munster backrow James Coughlan, who joined Toulon as defence coach from Brive in the summer, is in charge of preparing the squad for the visit of Biarritz, though Azema has been spotted at training. 

The visitors, meanwhile, hot off the back of a bonus-point 37-9 win at home to Brive last weekend, may suddenly have a shock win on the road in mind. It would be their first of the season away from the home comforts of Parc des Sports Aguilera. It would also, on paper, be hugely unlikely. 

But the coach with the hardest job this week has been Coughlan – though he’s not expected to change the selection too much, given his choices are limited with the club’s long injury list. But he could win a more-than handy four points for Toulon. 

Castres v Brive (kick off 3pm) – PREMIER SPORTS 2

Stade Pierre Fabre

Two sides, separated by just three league points and as many league places, who lost big last week meet at Stade Pierre Fabre for what is, traditionally, a hard-fought game between two of the Top 14’s least fashionable sides.

Castres were handed a midweek player boost, with France squad call-ups Wilfrid Hounkpatin and Florent Vanverberghe among 14 players released back to their clubs by the national set-up. 

Both are likely to step straight back into the starting line-up, the latter likely to line-up in the second row with the unrelentingly excellent Tom Staniforth, a little-known diamond-in-the-rough find from head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan, a coach whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the game and the players is close to unrivalled.

Fabien Galthie has kept hold of hooker Gaetan Barlot, however, meaning the starting hooker role is likely to fall to the experienced Paula Ngauamo, with youthful talent Brendan LeBrun on the bench.

Brive, meanwhile, will have worked hard on their discipline this week. They conceded 19 points in 10 minutes while captain Said Hireche was sin-binned late in the game at Biarritz last week – but his temporary sidelining was just the catalyst for their problems in southwest France.

Truth is, they had started shipping penalties and losing ground long before Hireche was binned.

Castres start as favourites. They are unbeaten at home under Broncan, and there’s no reason to believe that record won’t continue, but whether they will pick up four or five points at the end of a blood-and-thunder encounter remains to be seen. 

There’s no denying the hosts have developed another dimension to their play since Broncan took over last December, but – like Brive – their go-forward is sometimes halted by indisciplined errors.

Pau v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Stade du Hameau

Pau’s head coach Sebastien Piqueronies will have been quietly pleased that his one-more-season-only star player, Antoine Hastoy, was released from the France squad for this weekend’s must-win match against Stade Francais – despite the impressive early season form of former Leicester player Zack Henry, who was in fine fettle in this Rugbyrama Q&A.

Henry may well get the starting nod – he’s done almost everything right since joining Pau this season – but Hastoy’s at least likely to be on the bench.

He will also hope that new loan-arrival Jordan Joseph is ready to make an impact, probably off the bench again, after he struggled to break into the matchday squad at Racing 92.

Piqueronies, a former national under-20s coach, has a reputation as something of a young player whisperer – helping rediscover his barnstorming mojo is a major part of the reason why Joseph has been sent to southwest France. 

And it’s also why another former France under-20 star, Sacha Zegueur, will join from Oyonnax at the end of the season, as Piqueronies builds a young squad in his image – in a similar manner to Ugo Mola at Toulouse.

Right now, however, the concern is staying out of trouble. After their 42-20 loss at Clermont last week, Pau are 11th in the table, one place lower than their guests on Saturday – a side looking for their fourth win in a row, and their fifth in six, after a painful start to the season.

Stade will welcome back prop Paul Alo-Emile from suspension, while Lester Etien is available for selection after several months on the sidelines. Etien’s CV has, reportedly, been doing the rounds of Top 14 recruiters’ desks, but it seems likely he will agree a two-year deal to stay at Jean Bouin.

This isn’t one of Premier Sports games of the weekend for Top 14 fans in the UK and Ireland – which is a shame. It has all the hallmarks of a humdinger.

Perpignan v La Rochelle (kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Like Stade Francais, La Rochelle are looking for a fourth win in a row. Like Pau, Perpignan are looking to bounce back from a big defeat on the road. Any similarities to the match at Stade du Hameau – beyond the kick-off time – then end. 

Ronan O’Gara’s side looked like they’d finally started to gel in their Collazo-collapsing win over Toulon last Sunday. 

They weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, certainly not in comparison to Top 14 barometer side Toulouse against Castres the night before, but they did everything well enough to indicate that things are beginning to stick, that muscle memory is – finally kicking in. 

There wasn’t that microsecond’s pause in which the brain sent its instructions to the limbs; the limbs were doing it almost independently of the brain.

Perpignan, meanwhile, similar to Toulon, look like a side in need of a win without a plan to get what they need. 

After a decent start when they won their first two at home, this is starting to look like another long, difficult season for the Catalans – with relegation a strong possibility at the end of it. Unless they can rediscover how to win at Aime Giral, something they haven’t managed since September 25th.

Montpellier v Lyon (kick off 5pm) – PREMIER SPORTS 2

GGL Stadium

Montpellier’s scrum-half stocks have improved, with 23-year-old Georgian Gela Aprasidze fit and available after four weeks out with injury. He’ll likely be on the bench as Cobus Reinach’s deputy for this weekend’s visit of Lyon in a match refereed by Romain Poite (that only deserves a mention because of this magnificent image…).

Handre Pollard is expected to continue as a second playmaker at 12, outside Paolo Garbisi, who was at an Italian training camp earlier in the week, but returned to France for the weekend’s match.

In further good news for injury-hit Montpellier, Masivesi Dakuwaqa, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Marco Tauleigne are also available for selection – expect to see at least two of them at some point, probably off the bench. And the waiting period for a number of other players is now down to weeks rather than months.

Montpellier have done well enough despite a long absentee list, and will look to head towards the international break without losing any more players.

Lyon, meanwhile, have injury and selection issues of their own. Kilian Geraci was released from the France squad – which gave them a little breathing space – but lock is a current serious weakspot for Pierre Mignoni’s side – and one opponents will, no doubt, target. 

“In recruiting, we made up for international absences,” a philosophical Mignoni said, “but we could not foresee all the injuries. We will cope with it. We are going to prepare for the next two weeks with our available squad – we have goals for the next two games – and I don’t want any excuses.”

The visitors had also hoped that Pierre-Louis Barassi may be close to a return, but it appears his ankle injury has not quite recovered enough for him to be considered for selection. Mathieu Bastareaud, while nearing a return, is not quite ready yet.

Bordeaux v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm) – PREMIER SPORTS 2

Stade Chaban Delmas

No sooner had news broken on Thursday that Matthieu Jalibert had agreed a, no-doubt lucrative, contract extension through to 2025 at Bordeaux – ending in an instant speculation that he might leave for pastures plastic at Racing 92 – than Clermont revealed Sebastien Vahaamahina had signed a new deal to stay at the club.

Two very different players – obviously, Vahaamahina has 23cms and 40kg on Jalibert for a start – but both are very important to their clubs. In fact, Bordeaux president Laurent Marti has made no secret of his desire to build a title-challenging squad around his fly-half.

While the Clermont lock is set to start at Chaban Delmas, Bordeaux will be without their prodigiously talented fly-half, who’s away on France duty. Urios has a choice to make, Francois Trinh-Duc or UJ Seuteni, to cover the 10 gap outside Yann ‘two-tries’ Lesgourges. 

Thierry Paiva and Romain Buros were released by the France squad earlier this week. Word is they will get no closer to the starting line-up than the bench, as Urios puts his faith in the ‘smart’ squad that has had a full week to prepare for Clermont’s visit.

Jono Gibbes’ side are without hooker Adrien Pelissie, who ruptured ligaments in his knee last weekend and will be out for at least six months. They have recalled 19-year-old Benjamin Boudou from loan at ProD2 side Aurillac as cover, though Etienne Fourcade should start on Saturday. 

If he makes it into the Clermont squad at all, France squad releasee Tani Vili will most likely be on the bench, while JJ Hanrahan is set to start at 10 for the injured Camille Lopez. Interestingly, it’s rumoured Kotaro Matsushima may start at 14, with Jean-Pascale Barraque at fullback.

Most importantly for the visitors, Vahaamahina and new arrival Tomas Lavanini – recovered from the facial fracture he suffered on debut at Stade Francais – are set to start in a second row so ferocious it will probably get a yellow card just for walking out on the pitch. 

Bordeaux were probably expecting a brutal, full-frontal attack, anyway. That locking partnership – with, in all probability, Fritz Lee, Peceli Yato and Arthur Iturria backing them up – merely proves they would have been right.

Sunday, October 31

Racing 92 v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm) – PREMIER SPORTS 1

La Defense Arena

Give French broadcaster Canal Plus their due – they’re not even trying to sell the big game of the Top 14 weekend on the two clubs’ French internationals … who are mostly with the national set-up preparing for next weekend’s November internationals.

It’s unsurprising, really. Both sides have been ripped open by international call-ups. And Racing, in particular, have an sizeable injury list – so they were happy enough to see Bernard Le Roux, who’s struggling with injury, Donovan Taofifenua and Ibrahim Diallo released from Marcoussis for this match – the latter two, at least, will feature and may even start. 

They will be happier still to see Camille Chat and Teddy Thomas back from injury – their timing couldn’t have been much better after last week’s shock loss at home to Montpellier.

The big decision for the hosts is whether to start with an underperforming Finn Russell or an overperforming but youthful Antoine Gibert at fly-half outside Nolan Le Garrec, a player apparently destined for great scrum-half things, and likely to get the nod ahead of Maxime Machenaud.

Toulouse, too, are shorn of several leaders – not least Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos, Matthis Lebel and Julien Marchand. But they, too, are likely to welcome at least one player from injury – with Sofiane Guitoune set to return to the midfield alongside Pita Ahki, if he’s not on the bench.

Otherwise, Toulouse – as they have done for a few years – will rely on their young guns to provide cover while their established stars are on international duty. They’re very good at that, Toulouse – and you’ll probably barely notice a difference.

Joe Tekori, meanwhile, his four-week ban cut by a week because he applied to attend a tackling training course, may see some game time.

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 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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