Top 14 Preview: Christmas Clasico the highlight of a Covid-hit fixture list

Three scheduled Top 14 matches have been postponed because of Covid on what should be one of the most lucrative rounds of the season for clubs.

Brive-Clermont was the last to be ruled out, news coming on Christmas Day that a number of positive tests were found in testing among the Clermont group. Racing 92-Pau and Toulon-Bordeaux had been called off to a later date late on Friday.

The match at Mayol had been in doubt for some time – the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, which operates the top two professional men’s leagues in France had, in conjunction with French pay-TV broadcaster Canal+, already decided to move La Rochelle-Lyon to the same time to ensure primetime live sports on Monday, December 27th.

The decision to postpone Brive-Clermont was quickly followed by news that the kick-off of Perpignan-Castres would be delayed two hours to fill the now-vacant 6pm slot.

That probably won’t have impressed Castres coach Pierre-Henry Broncan, who had already complained about training and travelling on Christmas Day, which is usually considered sacrosanct in France.

Broncan told Midi Olympique this week: “It bothers me to force my guys to train and travel on the 25th to prepare for our match against Perpignan. You can always argue that we need the TV money, but I regret that no one has stepped up to defend the sacred side of December 25th.”

In the UK and Ireland, Premier Sports expected to show the Brive-Clermont derby, and Toulouse v Stade Francais (unsurprisingly) on Sunday, as well as Toulon-Bordeaux on Monday. I’ve had no news, so far, on whether they’ll switch those two postponed games to Perpignan-Castres and La Rochelle-Lyon. But they might…

In case you’ve forgotten in all the European, Christmas, Covid excitement, here is the table heading into the 13th round of the season – halfway point…

And this week, there’s a mascots’ match to raise funds for Restos du Coeur…

Here’s a preview of the truncated Christmas programme, apart from the mascots’ game. All kick-off times are Paris time – and subject to late changes because of the spread of Covid-19. 

Sunday, December 26

Perpignan v Castres (kick off 6pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Castres’ coach Broncan may not be impressed with the Top 14 fixture list this week – but he and his staff will have long-targeted this trip as a potential win on the road, which is why the players will train and travel on Christmas Day to give the club the best chance of a second away win of the season.

But the Catalans have dealt with visitors’ overweaning ambitions before – they have already beaten Clermont, La Rochelle, Toulon and Biarritz on home soil, and aren’t about to go quietly into the night on Sunday. Far from it. In front of a packed Aime Giral, the ambition is not to avoid defeat, and not just to win, but to win well.

Toulouse v Stade Francais (kick off 9.05pm)

Stadium de Toulouse

The last match of an exceptional 2021 for Toulouse is, historically, one of its biggest – which is why the game will be played in front of a 30,000-plus crowd at Stadium de Toulouse, rather than Ernest Wallon.

But much will depend on their inconsistent opponents, 10th-placed Stade Francais, in the first half of a crucial Christmas programme, which concludes next weekend with the visit to Paris of Perpignan.

Stade can refer back to recent history, when they came back from 20-6 down against La Rochelle to win 25-20 at Stade Jean Bouin, but “We have to learn to be smarter, stronger, especially during weak periods,” Stade’s Alex Arrate admitted this week. “We cannot be consistent for 80 minutes, even though we work on it every week.”

Perhaps the best they can hope for is a strong performance in defeat this weekend to set them in good stead for next week and an assault on the second half of the league.

Monday, December 27

Biarritz v Montpellier (kick off 7pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

Fourteenth against third. It should be an easy call. But Biarritz’s four wins this season have come against Bordeaux, Racing 92, Brive and Stade Francais – sides that have underestimated their hosts.

Philippe Saint-Andre will be keen for his players not to fall victim to complacency and become another notable Biarritz scalp as they look to close the gap on the two sides ahead of them, Toulouse and Bordeaux. 

La Rochelle v Lyon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

A late schedule change because of the need for Covid-19 testing ahead of the Toulon-Bordeaux match means this match now kicks off at 9.05pm rather than the earlier announced 7pm. And a match that will be preceded by a bittersweet moment as Kevin Gourdon, forced to retire for health reasons, bids a fond and emotional farewell to the fans.

But the extra couple of hours won’t help the visitors solve their halfback issue. Baptiste Couilloud, Lima Sopoaga and Jean-Marc Doussain are all nursing injuries that have left the visitors looking very light at both nine and 10 – head coach Pierre Mignoni has even done a stint at his old position during training sessions in the week. But it should be Jonathan Pelissie and Leo Berdeu to start at Deflandre on Monday. The issue is if either of them get injured.

Despite climbing to fifth in the table, La Rochelle are a side in flux. Ronan O’Gara has been noticeably busy in the transfer market already – and has made a number of eye-catching player grabs for next season.

It won’t be properly ‘his’ side until next season. Until then, we’ll just have to put up with the side he helped build and helped guide to the finals of both the Top 14 and Champions Cup. Which isn’t at all a bad one, by any stretch of the imagination.

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