Top 14 Preview: French top-flight rugby back with a bang after international break

Image: ASM Clermont Auvergne / Twitter

After three weeks’ absence during the Autumn International window, the French Top 14 returns this weekend.

Live matches aired in the UK and Ireland on Premier Sports this week are Toulouse-Brive and Racing 92-Bordeaux, while Japan’s Ahasi TV kicks off its Top 14 coverage through to the end of the season with – unsurprisingly, given who’s playing – Perpignan v Clermont.

Remember, as always, kick off times listed here are Paris time. You’ll have to do the maths yourself to work out the time wherever you are…

Saturday, November 27

Perpignan v Clermont (kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Expect a relatively young Clermont to take to the pitch at Stade Aime Giral in the first part of their two-week run of matches against Top 14 promotees – the first match to be screened in Japan as part of a new TV agreement between a Japanese broadcaster and the French Ligue National de Rugby.

Peni Ravai, Damian Penaud and Thomas Lavanini are on holiday – the latter is also awaiting sanction for his red card in the autumn internationals; Marvin O’Connor is away on 7s duty; while Camille Lopez, Sebastien Bezy, Apisai Naqalevu, Alivereti Raka, Peceli Yato and Alexandre  Fischer are filling up the infirmary … leaving plenty of space for ambitious young players to impress Jono Gibbes.

Such is the balancing act the coaches face that Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima, amid whispers that his contract will not be extended, has delayed his holiday and is expected to start at 15.

Bringing academy players through to the senior squad is a key part of Gibbes’ brief – as it is in all clubs these days, as they seek to cut salary costs to keep pace with the ever decreasing cap.

Don’t be surprised, then, to see the prodigiously talented Cheikh Tiberghien – who already has 20 senior appearances to his name – start as Clermont test their strength in depth.

Perpignan, who announced that winger Alivereti Duguivalu has extended his stay at the club despite interest from elsewhere, won’t be pushovers at home for a less experienced Clermont. 

The Catalans know the score, they’ve always known they’re in a first-season-back dogfight for Top 14 survival. They’re already doing better than their last foray into the Top 14, with three wins from 10 compared to two from 26 last time. 

Four from 11 is distinctly possible. Especially with Melvyn Jaminet back from France duty and likely to start at fullback.

La Rochelle v Pau (kick off 3pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

After a slow start, the Top 14 campaign for Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle got better in the run-up to the international break. 

Five wins, five losses, sixth in the table – slightly better than halfway. But, after that early wobble, if you’d asked O’Gara if he’d have taken sixth by this stage in the competition he’d … well, he’d probably demand something better, to be honest … but he’d eventually take it, on the understanding that improvements were needed.

He’s able to pick a pretty strong matchday 23 for the visit of ninth-placed Pau – a side that have been much better at home than away, with only one win on the road, at Perpignan, to their name so far.

That record is unlikely to improve at Marcel Deflandre, a ground where only Toulouse have won in recent campaigns. And the Rochelais’ record is strong against Sebastien Piqueronies’ visitors. They’ve won the last five meetings between the two sides, a winning run dating back to March 2018.

It’s hard to see the visitors breaking that streak this weekend. The two sides met here in May, at the end of last season, with the hosts winning 51-27 in an 11-try scorefest. Don’t expect another high-try encounter. The weather at La Rochelle – as it is across most of France this weekend – isn’t favourable to running, high-scoring rugby.

Montpellier v Castres (kick off 3pm)

GGL Stadium

In the week Mohed Altrad revealed Handre Pollard’s future lies away from Montpellier, a record is set to break at the GGL on Saturday.

As third-place Montpellier face seventh-placed Castres, Fulgence Ouedraogo’s 332nd outing – on top of his 39 full international and 18 France 7 caps – overtakes the previous club best set by Didier Bès.

And, in more good news for the club, it appears both centre Arthur Vincent – currently out with an ACL injury – and tighthead Mohamed Haouas are both set to sign contract extensions, while Australian Brandon Paenga-Amosa arrived on Monday, on a three-year-plus-one deal to strengthen hooker stocks, with the retiring Guilhem Guirado nursing a biceps injury.

Haouas and the returning Paul Willemse, along with France Autumn International outcasts Anthony Bouthier and Vincent Rattez, are set to start for the hosts, who are set to kick off with a halfback pairing of Cobus Reinach and Paolo Garbisi, with Pollard set to come off the bench. 

Meanwhile another international returnee, Gaetan Barlot – who came off the bench in the win over New Zealand last weekend is likely to captain the visitors, who should also include Fiji’s Vilimani Botitu in their starting line-up as they look to spring a shock and overtake their hosts in the standings.

Biarritz v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

It had all seemed so promising. Biarritz, the club, and Biarritz, the town, had – apparently – kissed and made up. The disputed redevelopment of Parc des Sports d’Aguilera was to be redrawn and would go ahead after all. 

Top-flight professional rugby would stay in the most southwest of France’s rugby towns, rather than up sticks and head to Lille. Or San Sebastien. Or somewhere else.

But the November 15 deadline for submitting planning documents passed with no papers filed – and everything’s up in the air all over again. The project seems to have stalled, and Biarritz have nowhere to go… 

With all that going on behind the scenes, bottom-of-the-table Biarritz have been preparing for the visit of Stade Francais – a side that should be further up the table than four points, or one win, and three places ahead of their hosts.

Stade will have targeted this match at the beginning of the season as one to win. Given their poor start, a win on the road would be even more useful. But, with Ngani Laumape beginning to find his feet in the Top 14, Lester Etien fit again after a long absence with an achilles injury, and Arthur Coville and Joris Segonds just starting to fire, they will be confident the second block of games will be more lucrative than the first.

Despite their league position, Biarritz – expected to include former Munster prop James Cronin in the starting line-up after injury – are happy enough with their opening block of games. Perhaps one more win would have been a better reward for their efforts. 

But the coaches will hope a short rest and then some work on a few early season issues – notably their discipline – will have given one of the smaller squads in the Top 14, and one that has struggled with injuries, something to work with as the first-season-back survival fight kicks back into gear.

The objective, according to coach Matthew Clarkin: to “have at least one team behind us in the standings”.

Toulon v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Mayol

The Franck Azema era at 12th-placed Toulon officially started in the week leading up to the 10th and final match of the Top 14’s opening block of games at his former club Clermont on November 7. It was a match Toulon lost.

It is, however, much more fair and reasonable to consider his tenure from now. By the time Saturday’s match against Lyon kicks off, he’ll have had 20 days between matches to deal, or at least start to deal, with numerous issues at the club.

And Azema, whose role extends far beyond first-team affairs, has been busy, developing relations with the players and staff that he has inherited, meeting supporters’ groups and getting behind the club’s new ‘charter of values’. It may seem from the outside to be tinkering at the edges when he has an underachieving squad in something approaching crisis, but these are important matters – and the timing, coinciding with the international window, couldn’t have been better.

The messaging out of the club is that we should expect a period of relative calm after a stormy few months; that the injury list is decreasing – Baptiste Serin and Sergio Parisse are back in training and could well make the 23; that team spirit is flying, and that new mega-signing Cheslin Kolbe is just weeks away from a return to the pitch. Azema has said that Kolbe could be fit to play in a fortnight or so, when the European competitions add a little extra spice to the season.

For now, Azema’s immediate first team-related focus, is – unsurprisingly – on fourth-placed Lyon. He’s looking for cohesion. We’ll see how close he has got to achieving that by the final whistle.

Toulouse v Brive (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

Toulouse proved, in the last Top 14 round before the international break, that they had the resources to cope with the absence of a sizeable chunk of their squad – though they would have been grateful that they were at home to lowly Perpignan.

No doubt they’ll continue to be grateful as they welcome Brive to Stade Ernest Wallon. The visitors can be difficult to play, especially on home turf, but Ugo Mola should have the playing riches at his disposal to handle the challenge – even if, as expected, he resists temptation to play most of his returning internationals. 

Thomas Ramos, ignored by Fabien Galthie this autumn, could be set for a rare outing at 10, where he could form the experienced part of a halfback unit completed by Baptiste Germain, while Thibault Flament, only used once by France, is expected to be named in the second row.

Antoine Miquel, rumoured to be considering a move to Lyon at the end of the season if head coach Pierre Mignoni confirms his future is at Stade Gerland, could start at 8.

The visitors head coach, Jeremy Davidson, is likely to have made it as difficult as possible, with Jurand, Bituniyata, Galala, Muller and Herve all expected to start – as is a certain Toulouse academy graduate, Daniel Brennan. Intriguingly, brother Josh could be on the bench for the hosts…

Despite Brive’s best selection efforts, however, the expectation has to be that first will beat 10th – possibly even with a try-scoring bonus point.

Sunday, November 28

Racing 92 v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

La Defense Arena

Former Biarritz, Grenoble, Racing and Munster scrum-half James Hart moved up the Atlantic coast this week to join Bordeaux on a short-term medical joker contract as cover for the unfortunate Jules Gimbert, who is out for some time with a cruciate ligament injury.

Hart is unlikely to be called into immediate action, with Yann Lesgourges expected to start at nine and returning France international Maxime Lucu set to come on off the bench for what is undeniably the big match of the weekend between second and fifth.

Another player recently returned from France colours, Cameron Woki looks likely to start back in his more recognisable backrow position – but Matthieu Jalibert appears certain to be handed a rest after a busy role for Sunday’s visitors in the opening block of matches.

The hosts, meanwhile, could welcome Virimi Vakatawa back to the matchday 23 after he missed the autumn internationals with an injury that permitted the grand Jalibert-Ntamack experiment for the first two matches.

Camille Chat – another who has lost ground in the international order because of fitness concerns – will, meanwhile, want to show what France have been missing … though he’ll have his work cut out following the rise of Castres’ Barlot and Toulouse’s Peato Mauvaka.

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