Top 14 Preview: Montpellier big guns target rebuilt Brive fortress

Image: MHR Rugby / Twitter

After a week off – for those clubs up to date with their matches – following a tiring 11-week block, the Top 14 returns for a three-week run of games, before taking another three-week sabbatical … except, that is, for those still behind schedule because of earlier Covid-19-related postponements who have catch-up matches to play.

There were four matches last weekend – because they’re so far behind, Toulon effectively get no more breaks until the end of the season, a far-from ideal situation that will leave head coach Franck Azema with a player management headache like no other. 

Here are the results of those four matches in case you missed them.

You can read my review of last week’s action on Examiner Sport

And here’s the table heading into the latest set of seven games.

For those of you watching in the UK and Ireland, Premier Sports have picked the opening and closing games of the weekend, so Pau-Toulouse and Bordeaux-Racing will be on your screens.

Finally, and I know it’s been a while, but please remember that kick-off times here are Paris time. Please feel free to do your own maths to work out what time it will be wherever you are.

Saturday, February 19

Pau v Toulouse (kick off 3pm)

Stade du Hameau

Toulouse have not had the best of times recently. It can’t be called the worst of times, but it’s certainly not the easiest. 

As sure as the Six Nations follows Covid, things aren’t likely to improve quickly. Fabien Galthie has released all players for the Six Nations’ free weekend – but has, as per the agreement between the LNR and the FFR, insisted that 23 of them are rested.

Only Thomas Ramos, of the Toulouse contingent, is likely to be cleared to play on Saturday afternoon. It’s increasingly clear that Ugo Mola and his staff did exactly the right thing in chasing points in the pre-November block of matches.

So it is, with Ramos likely to start at 10, Toulouse look to end a five-match losing streak at difficult-to-beat Pau – who, as they did last week in a weird match at Racing, in which they outscored the hosts five tries to two but still lost – seem likely to start Antoine Hastoy at 15, with 20-year-old Thibault Debaes holding on to the 10 shirt.

The hosts have made a habit of late comebacks. They may not do much for head coach Sebastien Piqueronies’ blood pressure, but they’re mightily entertaining for neutrals. This could be a real good ‘un to kick start what’s officially the 18th round of the season.

Brive v Montpellier (kick off 5pm)

Stadium Municipal

Announcing the one-year contract extension of emblematic captain Said Hireche exclusively to a full-house at Amedee Domenech minutes before last weekend’s Covid-rescheduled 103rd derby against Clermont was a stroke of genius.

It gave the majority of the crowd a pre-match reason to be cheerful, and they responded with extra voice that was crucial during a match that edged one way and then the other before another crowd favourite, former Saracens’ prop Hayden Thompson-Stringer scored the crucial try shortly after the hour. 

Second-placed Montpellier, who joyfully announced the arrival of Louis Carbonel this week, are different gravy to a Clermont side struggling for consistency and finding points on the road hard to come by. 

They will likely have their Italian fly-half Paolo Garbisi back alongside either the no-need-for-introduction Cobus Reinach or the side’s current other halfback prodigy Gela Aprasidze behind a powerful pack.

But Brive did it last week. They beat the odds to win their biggest game of the season for the first time in six goes. They need to do it again this week if they are to pick up four points against Philippe Saint-Andre’s high-fliers.

Castres v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

Fourth hosts third in a play-off battle, with a shot – of different degrees of difficulty – at provisional second for both sides … depending on how the match at Brive plays out.

The hosts have been – as usual – relatively quiet on the recruitment front so far. Their arrivals next season have potential, and they’re working to keep good young players on their books. This week, they announced new contracts for France under-20 captain Louis Le Brun and young South African lock Ryno Pieterse.

It may be a little windy in Castres on Saturday afternoon, but this match still holds the promise of being an all-in affair between two sides that are up to date with their fixtures and were able to sit out last week’s four-match catch-up round.

Seven points out of 53 separated the two sides at Stade Gerland back in November in a genuine game of two halves, in which Lyon raced into a sizeable lead, only to be hanging on as Castres – in ambitiously risky mode – roared back.

Pierre-Henry Broncan and Toulon-bound Pierre Mignoni seem certain to name strong sides for a match that appears difficult to call – Broncan’s heavy rotation habit and evolving squad has made it difficult to identify Castres’ strongest 23 this season – and both are almost certain to make use of their French internationals before they head to Marcoussis to join the France squad ahead of next weekend’s Six Nations’ trip to Scotland.

Home advantage at a ground where the hosts have not lost in the Top 14 in more than a year could prove crucial, however.

Toulon v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

At the same time as Castres-Lyon but at the relegation end of the table, 13th-placed Toulon entertain 12th-placed Perpignan. At stake – the play-off relegation spot: Toulon hold on to it and don’t want it; Perpignan got rid of it, and don’t want it back.

Despite understandable pessimism among fans, Toulon’s survival bid is massively likely to succeed – they have two games in hand on more than half the league, including Saturday’s opponents – but it took a back seat this week, as president Bernard Lemaitre pulled a recruitment coup out of his hat to set the focus on the longer term.

News of the early departures of Eben Etzebeth and Louis Carbonel had upset fans who were already beginning to doubt their club. The press conference at which Lemaitre confirmed whispers that Lyon coach and Mayol alumni Pierre Mignoni will join the club to form a super-coaching partnership with Franck Azema until 2026 and denied a number of rumoured departures hasn’t silenced his numerous critics completely, but it reduced them temporarily to a surly mumble.

But now the focus shifts back to that survival effort. After a hard-fought win – Azema described it as a ‘foundation win’ – over league leaders Bordeaux in last week’s free-week catch-up games, Toulon should have more than enough to win back-to-back games for the first time this season, and move out of the bottom two. 

A bonus point – it would be just their fourth of the season – would be useful, too.

Stade Francais v Biarritz (kick off 5pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

Beating Toulouse – even a Toulouse shorn of its numerous internationals – in Toulouse last week will have done Stade Francais precisely no harm whatsoever, and moved them up to eighth in the table, closer now to the play-offs than the relegation zone.

They will be big favourites in front of their home fans for this match against basement side Biarritz – who were fined €20,000, with €10,000 of it suspended, for banners on display at the La Rochelle game. They didn’t take it well…

And that’s nothing compared to the public comments of president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé, who’s sniping on two fronts at the moment, against the league and the town council – with ground issues back at the forefront. 

The Basque side’s route to survival looks increasingly difficult – though they could welcome back Argentinian scrum-half Tomas Cubelli this weekend, having recovered from a shoulder injury. The visitors had survived the past couple of weeks with just one fit nine in Kerman Aurrekoetxea, who scored a crucial try against Ronan O’Gara’s Rochelais.

La Rochelle v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Two sides, both alike in dignity in fair Marcel Deflandre, where we lay our scene… Two league places and three points separate the two sides heading into the weekend. 

September 18: Jono Gibbes won the first round of the battle of the former coaching duo as Clermont beat La Rochelle 23-22 at Marcel Michelin. Despite the scoreline, Clermont – until Gregory Alldritt’s 79th-minute try – were always in control of the game, with La Rochelle relying on the boot of Jules Plisson to stay in touch.

Thirteen matches later, both sides now sit just outside the play-off places – La Rochelle are six points behind sixth-placed Toulouse after last week’s controversial last-gasp defeat at Biarritz, and Clermont are nine – and both need a win at a windswept and drying Deflandre to keep pace with the top six. 

To finish the Romeo and Juliet prologue-steal properly: The two hours’ traffic of our stage; The which if you with patient ears attend, What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

Sunday, February 20

Bordeaux v Racing 92 (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

LNR chiefs would have you believe this game – between the league leaders heading into the weekend, and the side in fifth – is the match of the weekend. 

Frankly, it’s hard to argue with that opinion or the Sunday primetime scheduling, even with the visceral rivalry of Castres-Lyon and La Rochelle-Clermont, or the desperate needs, desperate measures Toulon-Perpignan meeting.

Bordeaux lost for just the third time this season last week, going down 21-18 against Toulon at Mayol, and will be out to set the record straight, while Racing are four matches into a winning streak that has already offset a four-match losing streak they were suffering at the turn of the year – and won’t want to give that up easily.

The visitors’ discipline was near-perfect last time out against Pau – they conceded just two penalties all game.

Expect both sides to go full-fat in their backlines, minus – in Bordeaux’s case – the injured Matthieu Jalibert with conditions on the Atlantic coast set fair on Sunday, after a showery morning. 

But, with high-pace, high-skill parity in the backs, it’s in the pack that you’ll have to look for any on-paper advantages. 

And, given the visitors’ forward struggles this season, which have been eased somewhat by the arrival of Trevor Nyakane, the home side may well have the edge up front, though a backrow battle that could involve Picamoles, Roumat and Vergnes-Taillefer in burgundy and Diallo, Tanga-Mangene and Lauret in ciel-et-blanc is a mouth-watering prospect. 

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

And, 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.

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