Top 14 Preview: ‘Derby Day’ the prologue to European rugby’s return

Image: Stade Francais / Twitter

It’s the Top 14 ‘Fan Days’ derby weekend before the European fortnight – and, thanks to the vagaries of qualification for the knockout phase of the Champions Cup, for four teams it’s the first of a triple-header of domestic and Champions Cup matches that could seriously shape their seasons.

Here is the table heading into the 22nd round of the Top 14 – by close of play on June 5, we’ll know for definite which six teams are in the play-offs.

There are two matches, this week, for Top 14 followers in the UK and Ireland, with Premier Sports listing both Bordeaux-La Rochelle and Racing 92-Stade Francais. 

Lyon-Toulon might have been an interesting third option and, for distilled French rugby derby spirit, Castres-Toulouse really should have been a must. 

Saturday, April 2

Castres v Toulouse (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

This is not just any Top 14 derby match. This is a Top 14 derby match in which the fifth-placed side heading into the weekend entertains the one that jumped two places above them last week … at the business end of a season that looks for all the world as if it will go all the way to the wire.

Normally, the standard line in previews such as this is something along the lines of: ‘Forget the 41-0 result at Ernest Wallon earlier in the season. That was an outlier result, similar to Castres’ 52-7 win at Pierre Fabre in 2017 or the frankly insane 31-41 result at Ernest Wallon that ended the smalltown club’s 39-year losing streak’. 

Then, they’d go on to say: “These matches are routinely visceral, hard-tackling, tension-fuelled affairs, decided by small margins. A yypical derby, in other words. Especially at Pierre Fabre, where home fans turn out in force. This match – as always – is a sell-out.”

All of which is true. But the suspicion is the visitors could go all-in on their starting lineup, with a Dupont-Ntamack halfback partnership, Julien Marchand and Cyril Baille in the front row, and Rynhardt Elstadt and Sofiane Guitoune back from injury.

In which case, it’s probably right to worry a little for Castres, who defend their 15-month unbeaten run at home without Benjamin Urdapilleta after he suffered a hand injury late in the loss at Brive last week. They could still win – Castres routinely punch well above their weight – but it suddenly looks a whole lot more difficult.

Biarritz v Pau (kick off 5pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

Biarritz are in the odd position of all almost-officially relegated sides. There genuinely is little hope for a side that has managed just five wins all season – the last of those came back in early February with the double-ball victory over La Rochelle – and is 11 points adrift of 13th place, and a further eight from escaping the bottom two places, with their relegation curse.

But, freed from desire to survive, they are almost guaranteed to be a banana-skin side for other clubs, especially at home, where they face Pau, Castres and Clermont – all of whom need points. They proved as much at league leaders Montpellier last weekend, where they were excellent value for their 22-14 first-half lead, before eventually losing 37-22.

Which should, and will, put this week’s visitors Pau on high alert. Even with their long injury list – 18 or 19 players are currently filling the infirmary – the Basque side won’t run out of puff so quickly at home, driven on by their own fans. 

And the visitors are still just a little too close to 13th place for total comfort. An away win, after their victory at home against Perpignan last week will make the rest of the run-in much more comfortable.

Clermont v Brive (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Don’t be too surprised to see French international centre-turned-winger Damian Penaud back in the heart of Clermont’s midfield for the visit of Brive this weekend, as the hosts try to make up for last week’s pointless trip to Toulon.

The hosts’ young scrum-half Kevin Viallard, who’s likely to be on the bench on Saturday, this week told Rugbyrama that Clermont, “can’t even imagine a non-qualification” for the play-offs. Morgan Parra said last weekend that the Jaunards could not afford any more mistakes at home and needed at least one win away to reach the top six.

They would normally expect to beat Brive at Marcel Michelin – and they probably will. 

But the visitors are on something of a roll, with only one defeat in their last five matches – and will look to keep the scoreboard tight. 

If the visitors can turn this match into an arm wrestle, and if they are still inside a score in the final 15, this could turn into a shootout. Which won’t please new director of sports development Didier Retiere, who officially started his role on Friday after years behind the scenes at the FFR.

Lyon v Toulon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Gerland

Next season, Lyon’s Pierre Mignoni and Toulon’s Franck Azema will unite to form a Top 14 coaching dream team at Stade Mayol. 

But, right now, there are still five matches of the current campaign to go, and play-off places up for grabs. The former will want to take his Lyon side – currently sixth in the table – as far as possible, after missing out on the play-offs last season.

The latter has an outside shot at the top six, having flirted with relegation not so very long ago – but Toulon’s Champions Cup hopes rest more heavily on qualification via the Challenge Cup. 

That said, European quarter-final qualification is assured, one match ahead of schedule. So, Azema could rest a few players against Biarritz next week, ahead of the one-leg round-of-16 match the following week. So he could select a strong side this week just to test the waters of what would be a hugely unlikely Brennus push.

Finally, some good news: Mathieu Bastareaud has started training again. There’s no official news on his future – his contract is up at the end of the season – but it’s good to see him moving again.

Perpignan v Montpellier (kick off 5pm)

Stade Aime Giral

League leaders Montpellier are set to welcome Paolo Garbisi back for their short trip to Perpignan after the Italian was given a well-earned week off following his emotional Six Nations’ exploits in Cardiff.

They could feature the routinely good Bastien Chalureau, who’s also back from injury – it’s a toss-up whether he or Janse van Rensburg will start alongside Paul Willemse in the second row. Geoffrey Doumayrou is also expected to play for the first time since early November.

These returns are good news for coach Philippe Saint-Andre and his staff, as they stare at what could be busy few weeks, with two European matches against Harlequins, as well as Top 14 outings against Bordeaux, Lyon, Racing 92 and Clermont in their immediate futures. 

Perpignan, meanwhile, still have out-and-out survival in mind – even if Patrick Arlettaz has publicly admitted the relegation play-off is their best way out. In order to keep the pressure on Brive, Pau and Stade Francais – their nearest rivals – they need a win. Anything less, and it’s hard to see any route to survival outside that play-off.

Bordeaux v La Rochelle (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

Bordeaux ended a run of five matches without a win, dating back to January 29, when they beat Stade Francais 31-18 in Paris last weekend. That losing run saw them give up a 10-point lead at the top of the table and be overtaken by Montpellier.

They now face the first of three matches in a row against their Atlantic coast Top 14 – and European – rivals, who are just over two hours up the A10.

Jandre Marais could return to a Bordeaux second row that has been heavily patched up in recent weeks – Cameron Woki and Louis Picamoles both successfully filled in there for the first time for their clubs at Jean-Bouin last weekend.

Meanwhile, former Castres’ backrow Maama Vaipulu – who arrived on a medical joker contract last month – could make the bench. Matthieu Jalibert remains unavailable, but is expected to return for the second leg of the Champions Cup round-of-16 tie.

For the hosts, Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio and Jonathan dainty should start, while Romain Sazy is set to make his 300th appearance for the club. But head coach Ronan O’Gara may have some player juggling to do to maintain the club’s JIFF matchday average.

Sunday, April 3

Racing 92 v Stade Francais (kick off 9.05pm)

La Defense Arena

Racing 92 and Stade Francais are, like Bordeaux and La Rochelle, at the start of a three-week run of matches against one another in domestic and European competition. Which will be fun.

Unfortunately for Stade, they have been struck by injuries at completely the wrong moment. Waisea and Marcos Kremer were both injured in the loss against Bordeaux last weekend. The former, by far the best performing player for Gonzalo Quesada this season, is out for four to six weeks with a sprained knee. The latter is set to miss three weeks’ action with a calf injury.

Paul Alo-Emile, Julien Delbouis, Harry Glover and Mathieu De Giovanni are also recovering from injury, while JJ van der Mescht is suspended until April 10. 

Racing, meanwhile, are likely to keep Bernard Le Roux on ice until the European meetings over the next fortnight, and could well rest Donovan Taofifenua and Louis Dupichot. 

But with a backline that looks set to include Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou and Juan Imhoff, all launched by Finn Russell – who will hope for an improvement on last week’s performance in defeat at La Rochelle – it could be a long night at La Defense Arena for the visitors.

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