Top 14 Preview: Basta’s back for the last weekend of the opening block, and first of the season’s Test ‘doubles’

Image: Lyon Rugby / Twitter

Ten uncompromising, unbroken weekends after the Top 14 season kicked off, we have reached the final weekend of a punishing opening block of games. 

Those not involved in the November internationals get some well-deserved time off – just as their kids go back to school after the Toussaint half-term holidays in France – before the league returns on November 27.

Fixtures have been shifted about – there’s an unusual Friday-night match this week – avoid a fixture clash with the men’s international between France and Argentina. No such joy for France women, whose match against South Africa in Vannes kicks off at 3pm.

Here, then, a look ahead to the weekend’s seven matches – which starts this evening with seventh versus first, and finishes with Sunday’s big match between the sides in eighth and 11th place. Fourth versus sixth, meanwhile, is in the Saturday afternoon multiplex…

Four of the weekend’s matches are broadcast in the UK and Ireland on Premier Sports. Live matches are La Rochelle-Bordeaux (Premier Sports 2); Toulouse-Perpignan (Premier Sports 2); Brive v Racing 92 (Premier Sports 2); and Clermont-Toulon (Premier Sports 1). Remember, all kick-off times listed here are Paris time.

Friday, November 5

La Rochelle v Bordeaux (kick off 9pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

La Rochelle’s match last weekend at Perpignan – a match they pretty much dominated from first whistle to last, and lost – pretty much summed up their season so far. They were good everywhere, at everything, except where it mattered.

They’ve been here before. They should have beaten Toulouse at home in the season opener. They could have won at Clermont. And although they won a stinker at Brive, then beat Toulon to end old boss Patrice Collazo’s time in charge, they then threw it away at Aime Giral – a defeat described as a ‘non-match’ this week by captain Romain Sazy.

Head coach Ronan O’Gara is suspended for this match and the next one, and has been fined €1,000, following an altercation with a match official in the win over Toulon. 

But that will not alter the fact that the hosts will be out to set the record straight immediately after Perpignan with a win – in front of the 60th full house in a row at Marcel Deflandre – to end the block on a high-note.

Just one problem: their opponents are on a run of six straight wins, overtook Toulouse at the top of the table last week, and haven’t lost a match since the opening round of the season. 

Christophe Urios has this week claimed that top slot in the Top 14 means little – but he’ll not be willing to give it, or this game, up without a fight. Expect fireworks at Marcel Deflandre on a cool, dry, relatively clear night…

Squads for this match have already been released.

Interestingly, Levani Botia, who pulled out of the Fiji squad with a knee injury is fit enough to start. Uini Atonio, too…

Saturday, November 6

Lyon v Castres (kick off 2.45pm)

Stade Gerland

It’s pretty much guaranteed that Lyon’s staff will have put their players through a week of hard graft following their uncharacteristically indisciplined performance in defeat in the rain at Montpellier last Saturday, as they look to end the opening block by consolidating their place in the top six.

It was such a poor performance that captain Patrick Sobela was first to use the ‘non-match’ phrase, days before La Rochelle’s Romain Sazy. There were, in fact, no punches pulled by anyone on the Lyon staff. Head coach Pierre Mignoni said the performance was the worst he’d seen from his side ‘in a long time’.

“We will have things to say to each other,” Mignoni said in the hot-take period immediately after last week’s match. “We have to learn from this kind of match, both the players and the staff.”

Lyon are able to select Pierre-Louis Barassi and Mathieu Bastareaud. Barassi could start, having recovered from an ankle injury, while Bastareaud is more likely to be on the bench – but the big question is at 10, where Leo Berdeu could ahead of Lima Sopoaga, who reportedly picked up a minor knock at Montpellier last week. He may feature off the bench.

Lyon’s task, then, like La Rochelle on Friday, is to bounce back immediately with a win. Like La Rochelle, they have an issue – in the form of their opponents, fourth-placed Castres Olympique. 

They don’t have the cachet of the current Bordeaux side, but they will have this match reasonably high up their target list – having won the two sides’ last six meetings. They won at Gerland back in January, despite playing almost all the match with 14 players after Filipo Nakosi was sent off for a dangerous tackle – and Lyon are missing a number of key players.

There’s, potentially, an additional problem for Lyon: whisper it quietly, but last week Castres – a side not recognised for their vaulting ambition – were repeatedly undone by their own desire to fizz the ball wide, to play with pace and width and … even daring? 

We’re not talking Toulouse, or even Toulouse-lite here, but is this a new Castres, not quite like the old Castres? Not quite – though they are trying new things. They still do old Castres, too. It’s just there’s something approaching multidimensional about the 2018 champions this season. They’ll still try to mug you in a streetfight, but they polish their shoes a bit first these days.

New arrival Jack Whetton – carrying on the family legacy by playing for Castres – is in the extended group for this weekend’s trip to Lyon. Whether he’ll feature is another question

Pau v Biarritz (kick off 2.45pm)

Stade du Hameau

Last week, Pau won a rain-sodden shocker at home to Stade Francais, Biarritz lost one against Toulon in even worse conditions.

Even Toulon’s defence coach and acting coaching lead James Coughlan this week admitted on the well-worth catching French Rugby Podcast that the match at an underwater Mayol against the Basque Country side should perhaps have been called off.

Conditions in southwest France are set to be better on Saturday afternoon for this match between two sides separated by 90 minutes of A64.

The visitors need to ramp up the discipline. They knew it before they played Toulon last week – and still coughed up 17 penalties, 13 of them in the opening period, admittedly in atrocious conditions.

The club have been in discussion with national director of refereeing Franck Maciello to identify areas where they need to tighten up their game – and how to best manage the referee. The talks were about ‘clarification’, according to coach Matthew Clarkin.

Meanwhile, Pau’s Argentinian loosehead prop Ignacio Calles could make a long-awaited first start of the season after recovering from a nasty double fracture of a forearm suffered in a Top 14 match against Stade Francais in April. 

Stade Francais v Montpellier (kick off 2.45pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

Let’s start with a few numbers, courtesy of L’Equipe – 12th-placed Stade Francais have played 146 minutes of their nine matches to date in the Top 14 with a numeric inferiority on the pitch. 

That’s an average of 16 minutes per game. In that time, they have conceded 50 match points, and – potentially – three league points. 

They have received seven yellow cards – including three for hooker Talu Latu, while Paul Alo-Emile’s early red in the win over Castres meant they played 76 minutes of that game with 14 players.

Such levels of discipline are unsustainable. If L’Equipe have noticed them, Montpellier boss Philippe Saint-Andre – who has fifth-placed Montpellier managing expectations pretty well this season – is all over them, too.

This is not to suggest Montpellier will try to get Stade players in trouble with the referee, but they can play a direct in-your-face game with the best of them. 

This might just be the occasion – with Paolo Garbisi, Handre Pollard, Paul Willemse, Mohamed Hoauas and Cobus Reinach among those away on international duty – to dust off the old no-nonsense Montpellier approach.

If Stade manage to keep the jets cool, they should have the wherewithal to win and put last week’s abject defeat at Pau behind them – when the hosts scored nine unanswered and decisive points while Latu was serving the latest of his 10-minute spells in the bin.

Toulouse v Perpignan (kick off 2.45pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

After running away with the early part of the season, Toulouse enter the first of two difficult international windows on the back of a second loss of the season at Racing 92 last week. 

They’re without 11 players retained by Fabien Galthie. They’re without Richie Arnold, out for a two months with a fractured arm, brother Rory is with Australia, and perhaps without scrum-half Alexi Bales. In total, they’re missing in the region of 20 players – even a club with the playing riches of Toulouse can’t easily handle that level of absence.

They’ve been preparing for this period – and their early season charge was part of the plan. “We had to take as many points as possible before the autumn internationals,” forwards coach Jean Bouilhou said recently. “We tried to take on as many matches as possible before the group lost several players.”

Their two Autumn international period matches are this one, at a full Ernest Wallon against 13th-placed Perpignan, conquerors of La Rochelle in extremis last weekend, and Brive – again at home, on November 27. At the beginning of the season they probably would have taken those matches, at Ernest Wallon, if offered them in this period.

The visitors, for all that they’re playing a side shorn of numerous big-game players, know the scale of the challenge awaiting them. Even without Dupont, Ntamack, Ramos, Jelonch Marchand, Flament, Cros, Lebel, et al, Toulouse were the better side at La Defense Arena for 40 minutes last weekend.

Losing at home will not be in the plan for the season. And Toulouse have the young players, and the set-up to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Brive v Racing 92 (kick off 5pm)

Stadium de Brive

After last week’s ‘good defeat’ on the road at Castres, Jeremy Davidson’s Brive will – no doubt – be happy enough to head into the November international break with a ‘bad win’ against a Racing side that beat Toulouse last weekend.

Brive gave their opponents last Saturday – once coached by Davidson – a tougher time than they would have expected. The expectation, now, will be for more of the same. With added home fan power.

There is a problem. And it’s a big one. Brive and Biarritz were the only teams in the Top 14 not to have a player selected for the France squad – but the hosts are without nine players to international call-ups, while another 10 are filling up the infirmary. 

Third-place Racing have a few absences of their own, but will likely count on the services of recent France camp returnees Ibrahim Diallo, Bernard Le Roux and Donovan Taofifenua. 

Nolan Le Garrec, unsurprisingly namechecked this week by France attack coach Laurent Labit as a near-future call-up, and Juan Imhoff have been injury concerns this week, while Kurtley Beale is with Australia, Finn Russell with Scotland. Manager Laurent Travers may call on youngsters Anthime Hemery and Maxime Baudonne to complete his 23 for the match.

Sunday, November 7

Clermont v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

The big match of the Top 14 weekend – between 8th and 11th. Most previews will focus on Toulon’s new manager, who’s Clermont’s ex-coach, and who’s at the eye of a trouble-storm between the two clubs. 

In brief, Clermont this week demanded the LNR to rule on a compensation package for Azema, despite earlier being told that he was free to sign any new contract he wanted. The LNR’s commission juridique said it was not competent to do that, so the whole thing’s heading to a tribunal. Which will be nice.

On the pitch, two inconsistent teams meet for a first block-defining match. Both have new coaches – one started in July, the other this week. There’s a lot going on for both sides to deal with – not least injuries and, as is common at this time of year, international absences.

That said, there’s possible good news on the horizon for Toulon. It may not be this weekend, but scrum-half Baptiste Serin in group training again after a shoulder injury.

The first rule of Sunday night rugby club for both sides. Play a more consistent game, for longer. Put together two decent halves of rugby in one match. The side that does that better – no matter the number of absences – wins the game. And, suddenly, that first block doesn’t look quite so … indifferent.

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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