Top 14 Preview: Antoine Dupont’s back!

Image: Top 14 Rugby / Twitter

First versus third; sixth versus fourth; 13th at home to 14th – and who would have thought the inaugural Christophe Dominici trophy would be decided in a match between 10th and 12th as the Top 14 returns for a brief run between the European club competitions and the Six Nations? 

This two-weekend Top 14 session may be a mini-block before the long-awaited Six Nations break, for those clubs that have not had games postponed at least, but there’s no let-up in pressure in this two-week full fixture programme.

Premier Sports subscribers in the UK and Ireland can watch Toulouse-Racing on Saturday evening, as well as Pau-Clermont and Stade Francais-Toulon on Sunday.

Here, for the record, is the table heading into the weekend

Remember, too, all kick off times listed here are Paris time. I’ll leave you to do any maths.

Saturday, January 29

Bordeaux v Castres (kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

It’s that Six Nations, depths of winter time of year, as first entertains third in a Covid-skewed Top 14 – with the hosts nine points and a game in hand over their opponents.

An atypical Bordeaux side – shorn of France call-ups Maxime Lucu, Cameron Woki and Yoram Moefana, the injured Matthieu Jalibert (who’s expected to return in time for the Championship) Romain Buros, Pablo Uberti, Jules Gimbert, Mahamadou Diaby, Cyril Cazeaux, Nans Ducuing, and Guido Petti – returns to Top 14 action after qualifying for the knockout phase of the Champions Cup, despite forfeiting their last pool phase match against Leicester.

That doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean this is an away-win gimme. Far from it, as the hosts have only lost twice domestically all season, and their only loss at home was against Leicester in the Champions Cup.

There’s still plenty of talent in the likely 23 at a still crowd-limited Chaban Delmas. Teenage scourge of Scarlets, Louis Bielle-Biarrey, is likely to get his first Top 14 start at fullback, in a back three that will probably also feature Santiago Cordero and Geoffrey Cros. Halfbacks Yann Lesgourges and Francois Trinh-Duc know how to manage a game, and there’s plenty of oomph in a pack that should feature Louis Picamoles, Bastien Vergnes-Taillefer, Jefferson Poirot, Vadim Cobilas, and Maxime Lamothe.

Castres will do well – in this first-half of a double away-day mini-block of Top 14 matches before the Six Nations break – to pick up a point, let alone four.

The visitors may not have completely won over hearts and minds – entrenched opinions run deep – but their die-hard Champions Cup performance at Harlequins may have a few people at least revisiting their views of the unfashionable Top 14 club that keeps on punching above its weight domestically, if not in Europe.

Head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan has a heavy rotation habit, but centre Adrea Cocagi has been a near ever-present this season, after taking his time to settle in following his switch from Perpignan. Expect to see him on the outside of Vilimoni Botitu, while Julien Dumora and Benjamin Urdapilleta are expected to be back in the starting line-up after a European fortnight holiday, as is young scrum-half Jeremy Fernandez, who signed a new deal to stay at the club until 2025 earlier this week.

Brive v Biarritz (kick off 5pm)

Stadium de Brive

Mr Brive, club captain Said Hireche, may be entering what could be the final weeks of his playing career. It’s not impossible the 36-year-old backrow could be tempted into one more season, as reports have suggested, but he also hinted this week that a new role may await him at the club. It would only be right…

But that’s for the future. This weekend, he’ll be where Brive fans want him, in the backrow, for a must-win, no-room-for-error game between the 13th- and 14th-placed sides in the French top flight.

Enzo Herve could hang on to the starting fly-half slot that he has made his own this season, with 10 starts.

Visitors Biarritz, two points adrift of Brive – and Toulon for that matter – heading into the weekend, have major injury issues. After a hooker horror show early in the season, with all three senior players in the infirmary at the same time, the problem has shifted to scrum-half. 

Right now, Basque Country-born Kerman Aurrekoetxea, 21, is the only fit nine in the squad – and will make his Top 14 debut at Brive. 

He had been supposed to move to Bordeaux on a short-term deal to cover an injury crisis there, after colleague James Hart’s switch was cut short following a severe allergic reaction, but head coach Matthew Clarkin stopped the move just in time.

As well as long-term injured Andy Cramond, Romain Ruffenach, Yvan Watremez and Barnabe Couilloud, they’ll likely be without Lucas Peyresblanques, Johan Aliouat, Elliot Dixon, Guy Millar, Brett Herron, Tomas Cubelli,Clement Darbo, and Francois Vergnaud are out, while Mathieu Hirigoyen is a doubt.

For the Basque side, who are up to date with the fixture list, the Six Nations break cannot come soon enough … though duking out a first win on the road here would always be welcome.

La Rochelle v Montpellier (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Jules Favre’s early return from the France Six Nations camp – he was released on Wednesday – gave La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara something extra to think about as he focused on his options at 12, working to the assumption he would be without the services of 22-year-old, or fellow France call-up Jonathan Danty or the injured Levani Botia.

He had options, of course. Jeremy Sinzelle would do his Swiss Army Knife job. Pierre Boudehent, fresh from a stunning performance in the Champions Cup win at Glasgow, could move to inside centre, a position he has not played since 2017. Eneriko Buliruarua has done it twice this season – against Perpignan and the All Blacks – so it’s clearly one he’s more than capable of doing. But it’s not his favoured position. 

Favre’s return from France camp – along with backrow Paul Boudehent – is likely to solve that small problem for this weekend’s match against fourth-placed Montpellier, bubbling after their win over Exeter in the Champions Cup that – rightly or wrongly – got them into the knockout phase of the competition.

Importantly, La Rochelle, play a possession-heavy game that bears no small resemblance to Exeter. The visitors will know what to expect. But knowing and winning are two different things.

Perpignan v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Aime Giral

First Lyon, then Toulouse. In seven days before the Six Nations break, 12th-placed Perpignan face two of the top six sides in the country at home.

This week’s visitors are the best attacking side in the Top 14 this season, with 42 tries in 15 games, and they’re on a run of seven wins in eight matches. Even without the injured Guillaume Marchand, Loann Goujon, Kilian Géraci, Beka Saginadze, Mathieu Bastareaud, and Pierre-Louis Barassi, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

And they will likely have the services of fly-half Leo Berdeu, the league’s leading points-scorer, who was released by France on Wednesday.

The hosts, meanwhile, will be without the services of their own French international Melvyn Jaminet, who has been retained at Foreign Legion training camp by head coach Fabien Galthie.

But if they can get a win here, while Brive and Biarritz tear each other apart in the Correze, it would be a big step towards long wished-for survival.

Toulouse v Racing 92 (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

The big news of the week comes out of the Toulouse camp. And, no, it’s not the new Toulouse documentary. Barring late mishap, Antoine Dupont will start against Racing on Saturday – the first time he will have been seen on a rugby pitch since the Champions Cup win at Cardiff on December 11. 

A knee injury and illness – he had a nasty bout of ’flu – have kept him out, while Toulouse, hit by a series of Covid cancellations since that may have in part prompted club president Didier Lacroix’s recent outburst, have lost twice in their two outings without him, a fact that won’t help quell the belief that they have a Dupont dependency.

And it looks like he’ll be alongside regular France halfback partner Romain Ntamack, if pre-squad release reports are accurate.

The thing that may have been lost in all this Dupont talk, is that Toulouse are a frustrated, angry side, ready to release some of that pent-up energy on whoever stands on the other side of halfway. They haven’t actually played in front of their own fans since November 27. 

It seems likely that visitors Racing will give Trevor Nyakane his first outing in the ciel et blanc, but there’s uncertainty over the fitness of club captain Henry Chavancy, while winger Teddy Thomas is definitely out, Laurent Travers said this week, after he was released from France camp with an injury.

With Ibrahim Diallo and Yoann Tanga still with Les Bleus, Luke Jones will provide backrow cover, possibly off the bench, as the Nanterre side’s pack look to replicate the freedom and consistency that saw them cruise through to the Champions Cup knockout phase, but that they have struggled with in domestic competition.

Sunday, January 30

Pau v Clermont (kick off 6pm)

Stade du Hameau

The midweek player release from France’s Six Nations’ training camp was kind to La Rochelle – it was less generous to Pau, who could have done with Antoine Hastoy being allowed to rejoin his club.

As it was, his name was notably absent from the list of 14 players returning to their clubs in time for the weekend, leaving Sebastien Piqueronies with a fly-half problem.

First-choice Zack Henry is injured, as is Mike Harris. Alex Dumoulin, who can do a job there, is also out, and Thibault Debaes – their one remaining specialist 10 – spent much of the week on the sidelines, recovering from a thigh injury. It’s likely the latter will start, as heavily strapped as necessary. But a final decision will be left as late as possible.

The visitors, seventh heading into the weekend and who announced seven contract extensions this week, have a chance to pick up a more-than useful away win as they look to salvage a season from the pit of mediocrity. 

Qualification for the European knockout phase will be a fillip, but Clermont’s campaign so far has been a study in meh. 

If they want to mount a serious challenge for the top six, they need to win on the road. Here, against a side six points and two places behind in the table, would be as good a place to start as any.

Meanwhile, referee Laurent Cardona belatedly reaches his 150th Top 14 match in charge. He was due to mark the occasion at Lyon-Pau before the European break, but caught Covid so had to withdraw.

Stade Francais v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

Tolu Latu’s red card – and subsequent ban – against Connacht in the Champions Cup did not impress Stade Francais’ coach Gonzalo Quesada, who has been working hard to improve his players’ discipline this season. 

It was Latu’s first red, but he had already copped five yellows in the Top 14. He’s not the only offender in the Parisian side – but he’s one of the worst … and, with notable exceptions, it has cost the club. For Quesada, dog is nothing without discipline. 

Visitors Toulon have the advantage as the second half of the inaugural Christophe Dominici Trophy between the two sides kicks off. They won 38-5 at Stade Mayol back in September, and are likely to include France international returnees Louis Carbonel and Swan Rebbadj, as well as superstar signing Cheslin Kolbe.

But, while Fecundo Isa and Sergio Parisse are expected to start, questions remain over their future. Parisse hinted recently he may be ready to sign on for one more season, while Isa is being courted by at least two Top 14 clubs after it emerged he was probably surplus to requirements at Berg next season.

What to expect on Sunday night? Stade are more consistent than they were earlier in the season. They should win – but whether they will win by enough to overturn Toulon’s lead – picked up when the Paris side were in an early season slump – in the Christophe Dominici trophy is another question entirely.

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