What’s officially the 19th weekend of the 26-week Top 14 regular season – but, because of Covid-19, is the 17th for some teams and the 18th for a few more, kicks off this weekend, just after the final whistle of Scotland-France at Murrayfield, and half-an-hour before England-Wales gets under way at Twickenham.
For Top 14 watchers in the UK and Ireland, Premier Sports have picked what – on paper or, as the case may be, online preview – look to be the three biggest matches of the weekend: Brive-Toulon, Montpellier-Stade Francais, and Toulouse-Bordeaux.
Saturday, February 26
Lyon v Biarritz (kick off 5.15pm)
Biarritz head to southeast France hanging precariously over the relegation precipice following a 10-try 65-19 mauling in Paris by Stade Francais. They’re five points adrift of nearest rivals Perpignan at the foot of the table, and eight from safety.
The figures suggest that the visitors are in the closing stretch of a one-season return to the Top 14 – but that’s not what Lyon’s staff will be telling their players; or what Biarritz’s staff will be telling theirs.
There are enough points left in the season – a possible maximum of 40 – for Biarritz to engineer a late escape. But they need to string wins together. The closest they have come to two in a row is two in the first three games of the season, and they have never won away from home.
And they’ll be out to prove they are better than their last result – that humbling in Paris. Lyon know this. They know that Biarritz will come at them hard as they fight for survival. And Lyon know they will have to be ready.
Everything points to a win for third-placed Lyon. But they’ve slipped on banana skins like this before.
Pau v La Rochelle (kick off 5.15pm)
Stade du Hameau
Pau head coach Sebastien Piqueronies had no time to savour last week’s win over Toulouse – he had to start working, almost immediately, on how to fill his midfield after both centres Tamua Manu and Jale Vatubua were sent off, leaving 13 on the pitch to withstand the visitors’ fightback for nearly half-an-hour.
The fact is, injuries have left him short of options – with the wise money on Eliott Roudil, and Aminiasi Tuimaba or Mathias Colombet expected to face midfield might of play-off chasing La Rochelle – one place and four points above Pau in the table, with a game in hand.
A ray of good news for Pau is that Levani Botia is a doubt after picking up an ankle injury last week – half an hour his return from an earlier knock.
Both these teams like to attack. They like to keep the ball in hand. The weather is set fair in southwest France on Saturday, with sunshine and a light wind forecast. This could be a belter.
Clermont v Perpignan (kick off 5.15pm)
Stade Marcel Michelin
There’s plenty going on behind the scenes at Clermont, but there can equally be little argument that better was expected in this first season under Jono Gibbes – currently 10th and too close to those bottom two places for comfort.
There are hints of something to get excited about, however, as Clermont play in front of their home fans for the first time since mid-January. Injuries to senior players have forced Gibbes to blood raw academy talent and they have not let him down. Last week, at La Rochelle, a young pack – coached by Davit Zirakashvili – held their own against the hosts.
But, frankly, there’s no more room for error for Clermont. This is the start of a three-match run at Marcel Michelin after a month-and-a-half away from the comforts of home. Clermont really must win all three.
Anything less and this season will start to look an awful lot like a write off domestically.
Racing 92 v Castres (kick off 5.15pm)
La Defense Arena
A week after fourth-placed Castres beat third-placed Lyon in a hard-nosed streetfight at Stade Pierre Fabre, fifth-placed Racing entertain fourth-placed Castres at La Defense Arena. And the tactics for the hosts are simple. Racing cannot, will not, must-not let this descend into a breakdown scrap.
Trevor Nyakane has beefed up Racing’s front three and Baptiste Pesenti’s return last week after a four-month injury lay-off was welcome, but – despite Anton Bresler adding second row mullet menace since December – the hosts’ pack remains, as it has all season, something of concern.
But a more open game brings its own problems. A couple of weeks ago, Pau caused Racing more than a few problems with their willingness to run the ball at La Defense Arena, as the hosts tried to make up for some scrum creaking by flinging it around a bit. And Castres, while they’ll take a scrap if it’s on offer, can do that too – as they proved at Clermont early in the Top 14 season, and at Harlequins in the final pool match of the Champions Cup.
Chances are Racing will win this – and, if they get it right, they’ll win reasonably well to overtake the visitors in the table. But Castres, it bears repeating, are better than many like to think and are now willing and able to run it as much as they duke it.
They have an outside shot of winning for the first time at Jacky’s Pleasure Dome. Whether they can take it remains to be seen.
Brive v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)
Stadium de Brive
Brive is probably not a stadium you want to visit if, like Toulon, you lack confidence despite managing back-to-back wins for the first time this season. They may be 11th in the table, but have two wins – including a famous one over Clermont – and a draw from their last five.
But that’s the way the fixture list has fallen for Franck Azema’s 12th-placed side as they look to escape the gravitational pull of the relegation places on the first of three matches on the road.
Wins at home over Bordeaux and Perpignan have eased Toulon’s problems in the past fortnight, but they are far from out of the woods, and to describe their away form as dismal misses the perfect opportunity to say it has been abysmal.
On paper, Toulon will have the much stronger squad. On the pitch, they’ll need to match Brive’s team-spirit. That is difficult enough at the best of times – and these are far from the best of times for the visitors.
Sunday, February 27
Montpellier v Stade Francais (kick off 5.05pm)
Welcome to what could easily be the Top 14 match of the weekend.
Second-placed Montpellier, undefeated in nine, denied what admittedly would have been a scarcely deserved a win at Brive last week by less than the width of an upright, face a resurgent Stade Francais, who have shrugged off a disastrous start to the season and now sit on the brink of a place in the play-off zone.
After a slow start, Stade’s attack has been behind their drive up the table. Only once since the turn of the year have they scored less than 20 points – in a quagmire of a dogfight at a rain-soaked Castres on January 8.
But they come up against the best, arguably the most disciplined, defence in the league at the GGL. Montpellier averaged a card a game by this stage in the season last year. This time around they’ve had only eight, thanks in a big way to the work of former referee-turned-defence-coach Alexandre Ruiz.
Stade – hot off their 65-19 win over Biarritz last week – will have to find a way to pick holes in a solid defence that concedes an average of 18 points a game, while stopping an attack that scores 25 points. Even if they hit their season average of 22 points, it might not be good enough…
Toulouse v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)
Stade Ernest Wallon
Bordeaux have not won at Toulouse in more than a decade. That’s a record that could very easily change on Sunday, with their hosts’ reeling after six defeats in a row, and with nine key players on France duty.
It’s fair to say Christophe Urios’s side won’t get a better chance to end a losing run.
There’s no hiding the fact that there’s a serious crisis of confidence at Toulouse right now. They were on the road to being well-beaten at Pau last weekend – they weren’t even in the game before their hosts were reduced to 13; and were humiliated 36-13 at Perpignan. Only the rescheduled Clasico against Stade Francais was close, needing an after-the-hooter Joris Segonds’ penalty.
And yet… Bordeaux are also significantly ‘reduced’. Cameron Woki and Yoram Moefana are away with France. Federico Mori is with Italy. Matthieu Jalibert, Pablo Uberti and leading try-scorer UJ Seuteni are out injured.
This has the hallmarks of a survival match. Both sides are hurting – Toulouse on their six-match losing streak, Bordeaux have lost back-to-back matches, including their first at home, for the first time this season.
Both sides are stretched in certain positions – fly-half and midfield is a notable concern for the visitors; Toulouse have leant heavily on their academy since the start of the Six Nations.
If you were looking for an exhibition of the best of Top 14 rugby, probably don’t look here. But if it’s intense, all-in, desperate action you’re after, that could be another story…
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