It’s routinely tough in the upper echelons of the Top 14, but right now – heading into a weekend in which second entertains first and in which the Christmas leader will be decided – it’s even tougher further down the ladder.
While 10 points separate leaders Toulouse from third-placed Montpellier, only one more point separates fourth-placed La Rochelle – currently in a post-season home play-off slot – and bottom-of-the-table Biarritz.
There’s just four points between 14th and ninth, and five between the relegation zone and the play-off places. It was about as close at the unwanted-business end of the table after 11 rounds of the ferociously tight 2014-15 Top 14 season, when – in the end – a usually plentiful 52 league points was not enough to save Bayonne from the drop.
There are still 15 rounds of the current campaign to go – and plenty can happen between the here and now and the there and then of the first weekend in June 2022 when the regular season ends – but this campaign is just starting to threaten to be a nail-biting classic of the genre when survival and play-off places were up for grabs all the way to the end.
For Top 14 fans in the UK and Ireland, Premier Sports has unsurprisingly picked the two evening games. Bordeaux-Toulouse on the final Saturday before European rugby kicks off should be a belter, and there’ll be plenty of action when Stade Francais entertain La Rochelle on Sunday night. But URC and Premiership club analysts may be missing the usual four matches a weekend as the leagues career towards a two-week European meeting of styles
Usual caveat: The kick-off times listed here are Paris time.
Saturday, December 4
Lyon v Brive (kick off 3pm)
Lyon, having just got Mathieu Bastareaud back, have to get used to life without him again, after just 84 minutes of gametime following a 10-month injury lay-off.
Four minutes into his second match, against former club Toulon at Stade Mayol last Saturday, Bastareaud slipped, and was taken off the pitch several minutes later on a stretcher. The club’s worst fears were confirmed on Monday – surgery on ruptured tendons in his left knee failed and he’d also ruptured the tendons in his right knee for good measure.
The 33-year-old took to social media to explain his health situation, and – with his contract up at the end of the season – to say that he would take time to reflect on his future following surgery on both knees on Thursday.
In Bastareaud’s absence, captain Jordan Taufua is likely to return to the middle of the backrow for a must-win match against 10th-placed Brive, flanked by Beka Saginadze and Dylan Cretin, but Lima Sopoaga has not made the wider group after picking up a knee injury that kept him out of last week’s match at Stade Mayol.
Brive, meanwhile, welcomed Dylan Lamb – Pat’s nephew and Ben’s cousin – to the Stadium de Brive this week on a short-term medical joker contract. He’ll probably be watching his new team-mates from the stands…
Castres v Racing 92 (kick off 3pm)
Stade Pierre Fabre
“Monday’s video review session must have been spicy,” Castres’ lineout coach Yannick Caballero said of the fallout from Racing’s 37-14 loss at home to Bordeaux last Sunday.
Caballero knows Racing manager Laurent Travers well, having played under him at both Montauban and Castres – and knows how much that the scale and the substance of that defeat will have hurt.
But his focus is on Castres rather than Racing, who have been building on the solid foundations of a ‘good defeat’.
Castres are, unsurprisingly, expecting a backlash from the Franciliens, who are expected to make a number of changes.
Teddy Thomas may be dropped following his ‘come and get me’ gesture to hat-trick hero Santiago Cordero last weekend, while Gael Fickou, Finn Russell, Kurtley Beale, Camille Chat, Hassane Kollingar and Georges-Henri Colombe – who all played last weekend are all expected to be rested for European challenges to come.
The hosts have good reason to be concerned. Racing won’t want to forget that defeat. They’ll want to use it to perform better.
Club president Jacky Lorenzetti did not mince his words after last week’s loss. In an interview with L’Equipe, he said: “When I left the Arena on Sunday, I was thinking more about not going down than about qualifying.
“The second half [against Bordeaux] was not worthy of a team that has the ambition to win something, or even to qualify … Today, the priority is to find our rugby, our marrow. We are far from it.”
Weather conditions suggest this won’t be an all-out running rugby fest. There’s a reason Racing were training with a wet ball this week.
Clermont v Biarritz (kick off 3pm)
Stade Marcel Michelin
While a number of clubs have started announcing early signings, most of the recent news out of Clermont has been outgoing. Camille Lopez wants out from the final year of his contract – even if his final destination may now be under question after a reported deal with Biarritz remains resolutely unsigned, to the very public ire of the Basque side’s president.
Toulon – now under Franck Azema – is said to be his new preferred choice, although ambitious ProD2 high-fliers Bayonne may have made a late bid for his services, which would fit in with Lopez’s publicly declared wish to return to the southwest.
And now, scrum-half Morgan Parra has revealed that his future is somewhere other than Stade Marcel Michelin, a venue he has called home since joining from Bourgoin in 2009. He had been offered a two-year playing contract then a year on staff, but decided that he wanted a new adventure. Reports in France say he’ll join Stade Francais.
Jono Gibbes’ brief is to inject new, youthful, blood into the Clermont set-up – via, as much as possible, the academy. Inward signings are currently non-existent, while about 16 senior and 19 academy contracts are up for renewal – including that of winger Cheikh Tiberghien, who scored twice in last week’s defeat at Perpignan.
Gibbes will be doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work to mould his new squad in his image – and it’s a safe bet he’ll be determined to keep Tiberghien, but losing the experience of Lopez and Parra at the same time has to be tough.
His first task is to get his squad to bounce back from the heartache of last week’s defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory loss at Perpignan. A return to home soil will be a relief – and a convincing win over Biarritz will be just what the fans ordered ahead of next weekend’s ‘derby’ trip to Brive.
The bad news is that Wesley Fofana’s long-expected return this weekend after three months out looks like it has been delayed. He is now not expected to feature against the league’s basement side.
Gibbes will also be without lock and walking sanction Tomas Lavanini, banned for five weeks following his red card against Ireland in the November internationals and will miss Clermont’s first two Champions Cup games.
Meanwhile, conditions could be interesting in volcano country…
Montpellier v Perpignan (kick off 3pm)
News that the currently injured centre Arthur Vincent had signed a two-year contract extension despite strong interest from Toulouse will have pleased Montpellier fans this week, after their awkward win over Castres left them with mixed emotions.
Vincent is due to begin rehabilitation work next week, starting with his upper body, after suffering a cruciate ligament rupture in October. He’s still a long way from a return to even serious training, but it’s a first step that will also please the fans, as they look to build on last week’s four-pointer against Occitanie coast derby rivals Perpignan.
The visitors, meanwhile, keep proving they are not the walkovers of their last Top 14 stint, and are determined to prove that they are not just here to make up numbers.
But, it would be a surprise if Philippe Saint-Andre’s side don’t win. He’s took a squad and built a team in a matter of months. And now, he’s taken a team and built a serious contender for the play-offs, one that now knows how to play a mediocre match and still win.
He’s supposed to return to the director of rugby’s office at some point – but he’s making it increasingly difficult for Mohed Altrad to boot him back upstairs.
Pau v Toulon (kick off 5pm)
Stade du Hameau
News came this week that Cheslin Kolbe had finally started taking part in group training at new club Toulon after recovering from a knee injury that had ruled him out of South Africa’s November northern hemisphere tour, while France captain Charles Ollivon has also resumed individual training as he recovers from an ACL injury.
Neither, obviously, will be involved in the trip to Pau – but the hope is that Kolbe will be ready to run out in Toulon colours for the first time in the Challenge Cup match against Zebre at Stade Mayol on December 17 – an early Christmas present for fans who are daring to dream again Toulon’s improved team performance in last weekend’s win over Lyon.
The players, too, have noticed a difference since Franck Azema took over from Patrice Collazo just before the international break. “I don’t know if we can talk about a psychological shift, but I believe the group needed to move forward, to start again on a new road,” centre Julien Hériteau said after the Lyon game.
“In the game we didn’t change everything, we kept the overall framework but Franck brought in small details. And it worked.”
Toulon, then, head to Pau, with a new positive attitude, and players on the road back from injury. It’s a heady mix that could cause the hosts a few problems. The win over Lyon was not a benchmark – but it was, perhaps, a seasonal turning point.
A victory on the road this week – ahead of a bye week in the Challenge Cup and almost unthinkable earlier in the season – would prove that theory.
Bordeaux v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)
Stade Chaban Delmas
The undisputed big match of the weekend sees second host first, with the Top 14 Christmas lead at stake, as the European break puts the French domestic top flight on hold until December 26-27.
Having rested almost all his French internationals for last weekend’s hard-fought and atypical win over Brive, in which Toulouse were kept tryless for the first time this season, Ugo Mola is expected to bring them the rest back on Saturday night. So expect to see Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Matthis Lebel, Anthony Jelonch, Francois Cros, Peato Mauvaka and – perhaps – Cyrille Baille in the starting line-up.
It all raises the glorious prospect of a fly-half battle for the ages, as Christophe Urios fights outrageous talent with outrageous talent by bringing back Matthieu Jalibert after a week off. He will have a point to prove after Ntamack regained the French 10 jersey for the win over the All Blacks, after switching out to inside centre for the earlier games against Argentina and Georgia.
Ntamack, meanwhile, who prefers wearing 10 to 12 these days, will want to prove again that he’s Dupont’s halfback partner for the long-term at club and country level.
Should be tasty at Stade Chaban Delmas, a ground that now seems certain to be Bordeaux’s for the foreseeable, after club president Laurent Marti firmly and publicly rejected overtures from the managers of the debt-ridden Matmut Atlantique to relocate there.
Sunday, December 5
Stade Francais v La Rochelle (kick off 9.05pm)
Stade Jean Bouin
A struggling Stade Francais against a momentum-building La Rochelle. It should be easy to call – the two sides are separated by 10 points and eight places…
Stade can pull it out of the hat on occasion. They did it with 14 players against Castres early in the season. They showed glimpses last week in defeat at Biarritz. But too few. Far too few.
This season has been mostly a raging disappointment for the big-money Parisians. Club owner Hans-Peter Wild and his rugby director Thomas Lombard are repeatedly keen to point out the positives, but there’s no denying league position. Stade are 12th. One place – and one point – out of the relegation zone.
Even the long-term commitment of Sekou Macalou, who signed a deal to stay at Stade until June 2027 this week, can’t hide that inconvenient truth.
Much depends on the result of this match. A win, and there will be a glimmer of a reason for optimism heading into the Champions Cup fortnight and matches against Connacht and Bristol Bears. Lose, and Stade will be perilously close to pushing the survival mode button.
This is definitely not a time to be playing a La Rochelle side that is starting to find its feet.
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.