Top 14 Preview: France’s Grand Slam stars return for final domestic dash

Image: ASM Rugby / Twitter

Six weekends to go in French rugby’s regular Top 14 season. Six Nations’ internationals back in the fold. All rescheduled matches played. One side as good as relegated. Three, possibly four, others in relegation play-off danger. Eight, maybe nine, with an ever-decreasing shot at the play-offs. Welcome to the start of the final straight of a long domestic season – split into short Top 14 blocks divided by European breaks. 

Here, now that all the teams have completed 20 of 26 matches, is the table heading into the weekend. 

The run-in slightly favours those sides already in the top six. Fifteen victories and somewhere around 65 to 70 points should be good enough for a play-off slot – but any late-season slip could prove disastrous, especially if chasing sides La Rochelle or Clermont get on a run.

It seems Premier Sports is broadcasting just one Top 14 match this weekend for supporters in UK and Ireland – Toulouse v Lyon, fifth against third, on Sunday. It has all the hallmarks of the game of the weekend, but a resurgent Toulon v Clermont or La Rochelle’s must-win match against Racing 92 might have been decent options, too…

Saturday, March 26

Toulon v Clermont  (kick off 3pm)

Stade Mayol

Suddenly, in last weekend’s rearranged 41-11 win over La Rochelle, Toulon looked a serious Top 14 side. Cheslin Kolbe scored his first and second tries for the club; Louis Carbonel discovered form he had struggled to find previously, kicking 21 points to show the Mayol crowd what they’ll miss when he joins Montpellier; Aymeric Luc – a consistent beacon all season – was his dangerously rapid self. 

That bonus-point win put eight useful points and two places between the three-time European champions and 13th-placed Perpignan. Mathematically, the play-offs are – just – within reach, but even after Clermont, Toulon’s run-in features trips to Lyon, Bordeaux and Racing, and home games against Toulouse and Pau. 

So their domestic ambitions probably rest more on consolidation, while they are likely to push harder into the Challenge Cup – a la Montpellier last season. Three wins from their last six in the Top 14 should be plenty. It seems logical that they’ll seek to reconnect with suffering fans with three strong home performances – along with a strong end-of-season run in Europe. 

Brive v Castres (kick off 5pm)

Stade Amedee-Domenech

After a fortnight with no matches, two rested teams with different goals meet in what could be a crucial match for their fortunes as Brive, 12th in the table, just three points above the relegation play-off spot, entertain fourth-placed Castres and their play-off ambitions. 

It’s been a good week in the backroom for Brive, according to reports, as lineout coach Arnaud Mela and backs coach Jean-Baptiste Péjoine agreed contract extensions to 2024 – but their more immediate concern is Top 14 survival. 

Their trip to Perpignan at the end of April will be vital, as three of their six remaining matches are against sides currently in the play-off places – Castres, Lyon and Toulouse – while they also face trips to Clermont and Stade Francais.

A win, no matter how close, against Castres this weekend will do Brive’s survival hopes no harm whatsoever. A repeat of last season’s late-campaign result at Amedee-Domenech, when the visitors won 33-28, would leave the hosts with a hard mountain to climb in the closing weeks.

Castres coach Pierre-Henry Broncan said recently the club would bring in six players for next season. On Thursday, Castres also revealed the currently suspended gold medal-winning centre Vilimoni Botitu had signed a two-year extension to stay at Pierre Fabre until 2025.

Montpellier v Biarritz (kick off 5pm)

GGL Stadium

Philippe Saint-Andre’s run as Montpellier coach was supposed to start and finish last season. But, after Mohed Altrad was unable to secure Franck Azema’s services, he agreed to extend his stay for one more campaign. This one. 

Now, it appears he’s about to sign on for another two more seasons, leaving his director of rugby office to gather dust. For now. 

There’s no denying his galvanising influence. Under PSA, Montpellier dragged themselves clear of relegation trouble last season and won the Challenge Cup. They are now top of the table and in the last 16 of the Champions Cup.

But they slipped up last week at Toulouse, and were fortunate a fortnight ago in a rainstorm against Toulon. Saint-Andre knows it. His players know it. Reinforced by their returning French internationals, at least, the boss will demand five points and a regalvanising performance against bottom-of-the-table Biarritz. Anything less simply won’t be good enough.

Pau v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Stade du Hameau

Eleventh versus 13th. Two teams separated by seven points and two places. But the expected return of former Leicester player Zack Henry – whether at 10 or 15 – to the hosts ranks could prove decisive. Pau have missed him while he has been out injured.

Pick your rugby cliche – a must-win match, a relegation dogfight, an eight-point game – all are valid. There’s a reason they’re cliches: because they describe the situation so perfectly, so succinctly they keep getting dragged out of the preview drawer.

Pau should have this, in front of their home fans on a warm, dry afternoon in the foothills of the Pyrenees. But, if the visitors can keep it tight, and returning fullback Melvyn Jaminet kicks his points, it could be closer than the home crowd want. 

La Rochelle v Racing 92 (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara admitted his side lacked speed, aggressiveness, and precision in defeat at Toulon last Saturday. “If this is our best representation of things, we are in danger,” he said of the four-tries-to-one loss at Stade Mayol.

Last weekend’s result has left his side – despite having the second-best attack and the fourth-best defence in the Top 14 – seventh in the table with 10 wins in 20 so far. 

O’Gara is expected to select internationals Gregory Alldritt and Uini Atonio, with both set to come off the bench at some point against Racing 92, a side one point, and one place above them in the table. 

Crucially, the visitors hold the last of the play-off spots. What La Rochelle need this weekend is maximum points – they’re joint top on that metric, with 10 bonus points to their name this season – but that’s not necessarily going to be easy against Racing, even with another sell-out crowd cheering them on.

Stade Francais v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

At the end of January, Bordeaux were 10 points clear at the top of the table. Then they went on a five-match losing streak. Now, they’ve been overtaken by Montpellier and seemed, over the Six Nations period, a little out of sorts.

There’s no wonder then that Christophe Urios described this final sprint in two competitions, including three matches in as many weeks against La Rochelle, with their internationals returned – though Matthieu Jalibert and Yoram Moefana are injured – as being akin to ‘a new season’.

Even so, it’s probably not the best time to face a rapidly improving – fresh off a few days at training camp in Saint-Tropez – Stade Francais, a side chasing an longshot at the play-offs on their own high-speed synthetic turf.

Urios recognised as much. “This phase is going to be important. There are nine teams that can qualify. From first to ninth, everyone can make the top six and obviously everyone can drop out. This is the final straight.”

Get it right, and Bordeaux will have a crucial win in the bag. But Urios and Bordeaux haven’t managed that recently.

Sunday, March 27

Toulouse v Lyon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

Romain Ntamack admitted in an interview with L’Equipe this week that France’s Grand Slam winners “would have liked to rest a little,” after a ‘very intense’ tournament.

“But the club needs us,” he added. “It is therefore important to get back into the swing of things as quickly as possible and to work to the Toulouse blueprint.” 

It’s likely all 10 of fifth-placed Toulouse’s returning French internationals will be named in the 23 to face third-placed Lyon, a side a point better off than their hosts.

Ugo Mola’s side took five points off Montpellier last week, and will be looking for another full-house here, against Lyon, to consolidate their play-off place before – perhaps – resting a few players in the final Top 14 outing before the Champions Cup round-of-16 double-header against Ulster in early April.

Then, there’s the small matter of the rest of the dash to the Top 14 play-offs and – perhaps – further matches in the defence of their European title.

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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