Officially, this is the 20th round of the Top 14 campaign, after which there’s a break in the campaign until March 26.
But postponements related to Covid 19 mean a number of teams are behind schedule – or, if you prefer, have games in hand. Those matches have been slotted into the two free weekends ahead.
So, in 400m parlance, when the scheduled Top 14 programme resumes later this month, the bend will have unwound, and we’ll have a much clearer picture of how things stand heading into the final six-match straight.
The current table, heading into this weekend, looks like this:
Top 14 watchers in the UK and Ireland will be able to watch Clermont v Lyon on Saturday evening, and Stade Francais v Toulouse in this season’s Classico II on Sunday night.
Saturday, March 5
Castres v Montpellier (kick off 3pm)
Stade Pierre Fabre
This is the definition of a something’s got to give match: fifth-placed Castres, unbeaten at home in the Top 14 in 17 matches – a run dating back to December 2020 – face second-placed Montpellier, unbeaten home or away in their last 10.
It’s the third match of a tough run for the hosts – who beat third-placed Lyon at home two weeks ago, then gave up their fourth-place to Racing last week, with a 45-25 loss at Lorenzetti’s Pleasure Dome.
The three-week break that follows this weekend’s match will be welcomed as the 2018 champions – who beat Montpellier in that final – brace for the final six-match race to the play-offs. It means they can throw if not the entire kitchen sink, then some meaningful utensils at this match.
Montpellier, two matches behind on the schedule because of Covid-19 postponements, don’t have that luxury. They entertain survival-chasing Toulon next week, and then travel to season-saving Toulouse on March 20, a week before the scheduled Top 14 season resumes.
Coach Philippe Saint-Andre needs to be more careful with his squad, and may choose to rest some key players for later challenges – Montpellier’s regular season ends with a run of Bordeaux-Lyon-Racing-Clermont – at a time of the campaign when defeats are more serious because there’s less time to iron them out.
Biarritz v Toulon (kick off 5pm)
Parc des Sports d’Aguilera
Bottom-of-the-table Biarritz still believe – have to believe – they can escape an immediate return to the ProD2, despite losing seven of their last eight matches.
“The players are going to be a little tense about our next meetings,” coach Matthew Clarkin told reporters midweek. “But it’s our job to relieve the pressure … We have to make sure that we master everything we can about our game.”
This match – against 12th-placed Toulon – is as crucial as it gets. “Toulon is a chance to show that we have progressed and that we have grown,” Clarkin added, which may or may not be code for ‘win-or-bust match’.
But that’s pretty much what it is. Lose, and no matter what happens elsewhere, and the relative safety of 12th place will be nine or 10 points away.
The question is: do Toulon, slapdash and uncontrolled in defeat at Brive last weekend, have it in them to all-but end the Basque side’s hopes? Sergio Parisse said this week that he had turned down a Six Nations swansong with Italy to help the club out of ‘a difficult situation’.
There’s still plenty going on behind the scenes at the Var side. The players and the coach have to find a way to put it out of their minds and perform like a team on the pitch.
La Rochelle v Brive (kick off 5pm)
Stade Marcel Deflandre
In common with a number of teams, La Rochelle are in an odd yet familiar Six Nations position. Some of their players – Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio, Jonathan Danty – are with the France squad and unavailable to Ronan O’Gara.
Others – Paul Boudehent, Brice Dulin, Jules Favre, Thomas Lavault – are available for selection, but will head to FFR headquarters at Marcoussis after this weekend’s match, having been called up to the squad for next Friday’s Six Nations match against Wales.
That leaves O’Gara – who has a rescheduled trip to Toulon on March 19 to factor into his thinking – with something of a selection headache. Does he give Dillyn Leyds, just returning from an ankle injury, some match time this week, or keep him for Toulon, for example.
Brive have injury worries of their own. After a successful February home run – when they won their two and drew one at Amadee Domenech, including last weekend’s win over Toulon – they head to Marcel Deflandre with a battered and patched-up squad.
Unlike their hosts, they are on schedule with their matches, so will have three weeks to recover from Saturday’s match before they next take to the pitch – at home to Castres on March 26.
Bordeaux v Pau (kick off 5pm)
Two weeks ago, after Top 14 leaders Bordeaux had lost their first home game of the season against Racing 92, their second defeat on the bounce manager Christophe Urios told his players: “I love these moments. We’ve got to come up with solutions.”
Last week, after a third consecutive loss, he was rather less well-disposed. “I was disappointed with our rugby, especially in the set piece where we either lost the ball or were penalised. It’s always the same evils: we’re not very efficient, we waste a lot. We need to sort this all out.”
Enter Pau. The only side to lose at home last week – a 22-16 defeat at the hands of La Rochelle. Urios was blunt in his assessment of Saturday’s match. “Today, the urgency and the priority is to beat Pau,” he said at Bordeaux’s midweek media session.
It’s true to say, their comfort zone has vanished over the past three Top 14 weekends. Just one point now separates them from Montpellier, at the head of the chasing pack.
Matthieu Jalibert – named in France’s extended 42-player squad for the Six Nations match against Wales on March 11 – may get a run-out at Chaban-Delmas this weekend, but Urios admitted his fly-half ‘won’t be 100 percent, necessarily’.
Perpignan v Racing 92 (kick off 5pm)
Stade Aime Giral
Perpignan, promoted as convincing ProD2 champions last season, find themselves in a similar precarious position to fellow promoted side Biarritz.
Currently 13th in the table, two points behind Toulon heading into the weekend, anything less than a win could see them further adrift from safety, in the relegation play-off spot – which comes with a winner-takes-Top-14-place trip to an ambitious ProD2 side’s packed home ground.
Their problem – visitors Racing 92 are on a six-match hot-streak, have climbed to fourth in the table, and have third place in their sights. From there, second – with its free pass to the Top 14 semi-final come the post-season play-offs – may be just a win away.
Expect them to bring a strong side – though concern over Baptiste Chouzenoux may see them opt to play lock Luke Jones at 7, while the non-selection of Bernard Le Roux by Fabien Galthie may be explained if, as expected, he’s absent from the Racing 23.
Laurent Travers was not expected to decide whether to start with Finn Russell at 10 until Friday morning, after this preview was published.
Clermont v Lyon (kick off 9.05pm)
Stade Marcel Michelin
Ninth in the Top 14 is not where Jono Gibbes and Clermont expected to be at this stage in the season. But it has been that sort of campaign.
They’ve had injuries: Fritz Lee, Alexandre Lapandry, Sebastien Bezy, Wesley Fofana, Peceli Yato, Yohan Beheregaray, Samuel Ezeala, Jacobus Van Tonder, Alexandre Fischer, Adrien Pélissie and Bastien Pourailly are all out, while Morgan Parra – who has played at 10 for the past couple of weeks amid a season-long fly-half consistency problem – is a doubt: a decision will be made as late as possible.
The good news, at least, is that Camille Lopez is fit again, which solves half of the halfback problem. The other half really could do with Parra. But Clermont have a Covid catch-up match against Bordeaux next week, so Gibbes has to juggle his options carefully.
Meanwhile, third-placed Lyon’s late-campaign plans have taken a knock with news that Charlie Ngatai – who’s set to sign a contract extension, reports suggest – will be out for a couple of months with a broken tibia.
Despite the absences, both sides still have the resources in hand to field strong sides, on paper. It’s set to be chilly but dry at Clermont on Saturday evening, and with the backs that these two sides can put out, that should equal some thrilling rugby.
Sunday, March 6
Stade Francais v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)
Stade Jean Bouin
The weekend closes with Classico II, just over three weeks after a Covid-delayed all-in Classico I, a match won for Stade Francais after the hooter by a Joris Segond penalty.
At the time of Classico I, Toulouse were four matches into a six-match losing streak that ended with Sunday’s hard-fought 12-11 win over Bordeaux at Ernest Wallon.
A few hours earlier, Stade Francais had lost 30-3 at Montpellier – a result that head coach Gonzalo Quesada insisted did not reflect the match that preceded it.
That win over Bordeaux will have done wonders for Toulouse’s confidence – but Ugo Mola will still be without eight or nine players who are away on France duty. Add-in injuries, and his options are severely compromised. Victory at Jean Bouin will be based on guts and grit and no small amount of determination.
Stade, meanwhile, have not lost at home since November – but they have not done the double over Toulouse since the 2006/07 season. The Paris side, currently outside the play-off places, went on to win the Brennus at the end of that season.
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.