Top 14 Preview: League’s Covid-19 fixture list tinkering may be in vain

Image: LOU Rugby / Twitter

Earlier this week, the LNR and French pay-TV broadcaster Canal+ tweaked the schedules of the Top 14 and the ProD2 for the next couple of rounds in a bid to guarantee TV coverage in primetime slots.

This was to be the first outing for a revamped weekly schedule – with several matches set for 5pm on a Saturday as opposed to 3pm as was the case before Christmas. But the LNR and the broadcaster moved things around again in the short-term as TV coverage insurance.

You can argue that Canal has too much power over French domestic rugby, after three of last week’s Top 14 matches were shifted back two hours to ensure a continuous 11 hours of rugby last Sunday. 

The league and the broadcaster will insist they have a strong – even a special – relationship lasting more than 25 years. They could point out, for example, that Canal maintained its payments to the LNR in the Covid-curtailed 2019/20 season, despite the absence of any matches and even as it held back money for Ligue 1 football, and then upped its bid from €97m to €113.6m a season to retain TV rights until 2027. 

This is not the place for that debate. Their fixture-tinkering efforts may be in vain, after all. Montpellier, Toulon and La Rochelle have all reported numerous cases in their ranks, which puts both matches scheduled for Sunday in doubt. Further tests on Friday will determine whether the matches can go ahead.

How the LNR and Canal when the results of those tests are known will reveal a lot. A couple of hours is one thing; a day at this late stage in the week is something else, especially in the final domestic weekend before the third and fourth rounds of European competitions.

Castres-Stade Francais, Brive-Bordeaux, and Toulouse-Montpellier – if it goes ahead – are scheduled by Premier Sports for viewers in the UK and Ireland this weekend.

And remember, listed kick-off times here are Paris time.

Saturday, January 8

Castres v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

Castres’ usually only quietly flappable head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan has been summoned to a disciplinary hearing after being reported for his touchline behaviour during last weekend’s all-in comeback 31-30 win over La Rochelle.

The hearing is set for Wednesday, so he will probably be on the sidelines this weekend as his unfashionable side, fourth in the league heading into the weekend, just three points behind Montpellier – who currently have a game in hand, and who may have two after this round of matches.

After the European break – with matches against Munster at home and Harlequins away – Castres have two difficult Top 14 awaydays in Bordeaux and Toulon. Broncan will demand a big performance on Saturday in front of a 5,000-limited crowd. 

A win is the minimum requirement – with a bonus point the preferred target, as Castres look to extend the unbeaten run at home in the Top 14 to 16 matches. 

Despite their early season woes, Stade will not be pushover opponents. Their 27-17 win over strugglers Perpignan at Jean Bouin last weekend moved them to ninth in the table, closer to the play-offs than the relegation zone.

Stade are something of a bogey side for Castres right now. They won at Pierre Fabre last season, and beat them with 14 players earlier this season in Paris. Broncan will want to set the record straight – but it won’t be easy.

Biarritz v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

Yes, Racing-Clermont, Toulon-La Rochelle, or Toulouse-Montpellier may be the more attractive TV fixtures – but, this match is where it’s at. Fourteenth versus 13th. Level on points in the automatic relegation and relegation play-off places, with Perpignan ahead courtesy of their win over Biarritz earlier in the season.

Despite being at the bottom of the table, Biarritz will be more confident of picking up a fifth win of the season. They roared back from 25-6 down with 70 minutes on the clock to claim a point at Bordeaux last week.

Meanwhile, Perpignan, deprived of seven players for last Saturday’s defeat at Stade Francais, when they also lost Shahn Eru to injury, they had to cancel Monday’s training because of new Covid-19 cases in their ranks. On the flipside, they should be able to welcome back Jeronimo De La Fuente, Melvyn Jaminet, Bautista Delguy, Tom Ecochard, Xavier Chiocci, Piula Faasalele, and Siua Halanukonuka.

This one may be bottom-of-the-table fare, but it could turn into something a bit special.

Brive v Bordeaux (kick off 5pm)

Stade Amedee-Domenech

Despite missing training on Wednesday because of a thigh injury that has not completely healed, Matthieu Jalibert is expected to start as Bordeaux look to condemn Brive – who played for the first time in a month last Saturday and haven’t won since November 6th – to a defeat that would see them drop into the relegation zone. 

Rémi Lamerat and Guido Petti should also make the always tricky trip to the Correze after missing midweek training, but Bordeaux are likely to be without Romain Buros, Louis Picamoles, Mahamadou Diaby, Jefferson Poirot, Cyril Cazaux and Ben Lam.

Head coach Christophe Urios, who recently signed a two-year contract extension, will be looking for a reaction from the league leaders after they stopped playing in the 70th minute of their match against Biarritz last week, giving up a try-scoring bonus and allowing the Basque side to claim a losing bonus of their own.

The big challenge for Brive in their quest to revive their season is their discipline. They’re copping an average of 14 penalties per game, and have picked up a card in every match since mid-September.

These are not the sort of figures that win matches – especially against the league leaders who have won 10 and drawn one of their 13 games so far.

Lyon v Pau (kick off 5pm)

Stadium Gerland

Lyon got back to winning ways last week with a pulsating 37-35 win over Racing 92 at Stadium Gerland. They’re back on home synthetic tuft this again for the visit of Pau – who were impressive in patches against Brive.

Pau this week announced they had tied experienced duo Luke Whitelock and Jale Vatubua to new two-year deals, and are reported to be keeping on-loan Jordan Joseph for one more season after he moved south from Racing 92.

But the player of the moment is Leo Berdeu. One of 10 players to be recently namechecked as a possible Six Nations’ selection bolter by Fabien Galthie, the 23-year-old is having a rare old season. He heads the Top 14 points list, scored 27 last week against Racing and has given head coach Pierre Mignoni more than enough breathing space to allow summer signing Lima Sopoaga to settle in at his own pace.

It’s not impossible to assume he’s overtaken the All Black, who has been injured, in the short term at least. Mignoni may be tempted to give Sopoaga a run at the weekend as Lyon look to double down on last week’s crucial win.

Racing 92 v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm)

La Defense Arena

Tenth in the Top 14 … a four-match losing streak… these are not phrases you’d expect to be included in sentences involving star-studded Racing 92, but here we are. 

The good news out of Plessis-Robinson is that the latest round of Covid-19 tests on Thursday ahead of the match against Clermont revealed no new cases, while a number of players who missed last week’s trip to Lyon have been cleared to play having recovered from the virus. 

Over the past two weeks, about 20 players and staff have had to isolate following positive tests, leaving Laurent Travers and his staff no option but to seek cover from academy ranks.

There may be a lesson from history – the last time Racing lost so many in a row was in the autumn of 2012, when they were beaten five times on the bounce. 

Back then, Jacky Lorenzetti had a three-hour clear-the-air meeting with players. The result? Nine wins and a run to the play-offs… Then again, maybe not. The Top 14 in 2021/22 is a very different beast from the 2012/2013 one. 

Perhaps, then, it’s the uncertainty at the club, with so many players at the end of their contracts. The club has confirmed 10 contract extensions, but Georges-Henri Colombe, Teddy Baubigny, Yoan Tanga-Mangene, Maxime Machenaud and Teddy Thomas are among those leaving, while another 24 – including 16 academy players – are at the end of their contracts.

Whatever the reason, Racing need a win. But Clermont, who won 16-13 at home against Toulouse last week will be difficult opposition – even though they don’t enjoy playing at La Defense Arena.

Sunday, January 9

Toulon v La Rochelle (kick off 6pm)

Stade Mayol

We’re not quite at the points in the bag being better than points in potentia stage of the season, but Franck Azema – in charge for two months and just four matches – could find himself having to manage a Toulon squad needing to play three important catch-up matches in an already packed second half of the season, possibly with international absentees. 

Covid has hit both clubs.

Toulon have missed their last two games because of the virus, and look increasingly certain to miss a third in a row. LNR Covid rules state that a team must field 23 players including six front rowers and 15 senior professionals, with the remaining slots filled by academy players. If they cannot, the match will be postponed.

On Tuesday, club president Bernard Lemaitre told L’Equipe that 26 players were unable to play, and that he believed this match should be postponed because the club only has four fit senior front row players – “I’m not going to have juniors play on the front row against internationals from La Rochelle,” he said, dismissing any discussion of a possible forfeit if the league instructs them to play. 

A final decision has yet to be made. It looks increasingly likely that the match will be called off. La Rochelle reported ‘a dozen’ cases on Thursday but, unlike Toulon, said in a statement that it was “doing everything in its power to help ensure the continuity of the Championship, pending the League’s sovereign decision on the holding of the match”.

That decision is due on Friday. 

Toulouse v Montpellier (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

This week, head coach Ugo Mola added his name to the rapidly lengthening list of Toulousains signing lengthy contract extensions with the club. 

Mola followed Antoine Dupont, Cyrille Baille and Francois Cros in signing on to remain at Ernest Wallon until 2027, while the ink is drying on a contract through to 2028 for club captain Julien Marchand. Australian Richie Arnold has also agreed a new deal to 2025.

But the match has been thrown into doubt by positive Covid cases at Montpellier. 

“We took all possible measures but things are blazing everywhere,” coach Philippe Saint-Andre said at a press conference. “We had a few cases last week, a few cases at the start of the week and this (Thursday) morning we have positive and symptomatic.

“We’re doing everything to play in Toulouse. We do not want to … play matches every four or five days for several weeks. We want to play but it will depend on the number of cases.”

As with Toulon-La Rochelle, a decision is due on Friday.

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