French rugby’s Top 14 enters its final three-week straight this weekend, with eight sides – nine if you’re a Clermont fan, and 10 if you’re marketing French rugby – in the running for the play-offs. To make matters more interesting still, six of them still have European interests.
The final positions aren’t set in stone yet. Last year, 69 points wasn’t quite enough for Castres to make the top six. This year, even Montpellier aren’t mathematically certain of qualification yet.
But it’s fair to say, the top two sides, Montpellier and Bordeaux, are as good as qualified and are strong favourites to get a potentially crucial week off by qualifying directly for the play-off semi-finals at Nice’s Allianz Riviera, on June 17 and 18.
So, rather than the usual match-by-match preview, I’ve looked at what’s left of the season – good, bad, and ugly – for every club in the Top 14.
First things first, here’s a rundown of this weekend’s fixtures, courtesy of the LNR:
1 Montpellier (69 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Lyon (A), Racing 92 (H), Clermont (A)
By coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s own admission, Montpellier blew their hard-earned advantage last weekend, when they lost by a single point at home against Bordeaux, allowing the second-placed side to close the gap at the top of the table.
The run-in is no longer quite as comfortable for PSA’s side, especially as they’re on the road twice and have lost nine-try scrum-half Cobus Reinach to injury at precisely the wrong time.
This weekend’s match at play-off chasing Lyon will be particularly tense. Selection for their Champions Cup quarter-final trip to La Rochelle on May 7 may well depend on the result at Lyon and elsewhere this weekend.
But even a losing bonus would go a long way to ensuring a top-two finish, and its handy bye.
Despite last weekend’s defeat, Montpellier would still expect to beat Racing at home on May 21, to effectively render their last match, at Clermont, as good as redundant.
2 Bordeaux (67 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Toulon (H), Lyon (H), Perpignan (A)
Last weekend’s win at Montpellier was a huge relief after eight losses in nine games, in all competitions, for Bordeaux. Prior to that result, they had picked up just nine league points since the end of January, lost their 10-point lead at the top of the table, and were knocked out of Europe.
“We have four matches, four finals… We’ve won one,” head coach Christophe Urios said after the confidence-returning win at the GGL. “We must continue to work. We are going to welcome a Toulon team who have everything to gain against us.
“We will have a very tough match against a solid team, full of confidence. But so are we.”
Better yet, fly-half Matthieu Jalibert is set to return for the run-in after a frustrating thigh injury that kept him out of the entire Six Nations. He could be on the teamsheet for the match against Toulon, but scrum-half Maxime Lucu is likely to keep kicking duties for the moment after his nerveless performance against Montpellier.
There may be some nervy moments ahead, but two home matches, and a rediscovery of the winning habit, makes Bordeaux strong shots for a top-two finish.
3 La Rochelle (62 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Toulouse (A), Stade Francais (H), Lyon (A)
They were slow out of the blocks, but Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle are about where they would want to be right now – firmly in the play-off mix, and involved in the business end of the Champions Cup.
That home European quarter-final against Montpellier on May 7, however, will have to wait, as the Top 14 play-off race gets tight from here. No slip-ups allowed.
La Rochelle have two trips to serious rivals for their place in the top six. By the time Lyon rolls around on the final weekend, things may be different, especially if La Rochelle win big against a Stade Francais side with little to play for. But they cannot afford to give up too many points to sixth-placed Toulouse on Saturday.
A win in Toulouse would be preferable, but unlikely. A bonus point will be useful, but giving a five-pointer to their hosts on Saturday could prove problematic.
The good news for La Rochelle, is that O’Gara was able to give numerous players some time off over the past fortnight – but they lost Will Skelton to a calf injury last weekend. It’s not yet certain how long he’ll be out, but his absence will be a blow.
The expectation, however, is for home advantage in the qualifying play-off round. Not many sides go to Marcel Deflandre and win.
4 Castres (62 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Biarritz (A), Perpignan (H), Pau (A)
The top six side with, on paper, the easiest run-in – against the sides currently 14th, 13th and 10th. Castres played the extreme weather conditions well in their 12-0 win over Clermont – leaving the visitors’ remaining play-off hopes on a knife-edge – last weekend.
Much has been made of the fact that the perennially unfancied Castres are unbeaten at home in the Top 14 in 20 matches – rather less of the fact that they have only been out of the top six for two weeks of the 23 weeks of the season so far, back in November when they slipped to seventh for a fortnight.
The final three-match stretch of their play-off race begins this weekend with a match against a Biarritz side that hasn’t won in the Top 14 since early February, and which was ultimately well beaten at Racing 92 last weekend. Then it’s Perpignan at home – Castres won by a single point at Aime Giral over Christmas, and will want the double – before Pau at Stade du Hameau on the final day.
Head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan has managed his side’s campaign well. Don’t expect them to slip-up now. The least he will demand is home advantage in the play-offs – and, if Bordeaux or Montpellier do slip up, Castres could even be sniffing round for what would be an unlikely top-two finish.
5 Racing 92 (61 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Pau (A), Montpellier (A), Toulon (H)
Racing have been oddly prone to surprise defeats this season. Their pack has been found wanting on more than one occasion and opponents have found it unusually possible to get to them. It’s not as if they’ve given the heart and lungs of their squad to France at key times, unlike Toulouse.
But when they have got it right, they have played some stunning rugby.
And that’s why their in the Top 14 play-off zone, and looking forward to a home Champions Cup quarter-final against Premiership side Sale.
Kurtley Beale’s knee injury means he won’t be available for this weekend’s trip to Pau. It’s likely, too, that the heavily used Teddy Thomas, Yoan Tanga and Gael Fickou will be rested this week, with European knockouts and those last two Top 14 matches in mind. But expect to see Bernard Le Roux back in action after struggling with a back injury.
Their Top 14 run-in isn’t the easiest. Pau are tough at home – and their coach is on a mission, while a trip to Montpellier is never the easiest these days, and now Toulon have found their mojo, that last-day match will be a humdinger for neutrals.
6 Toulouse (58 points)
Top 14 matches to play: La Rochelle (H), Brive (A), Biarritz (H)
Toulouse are going to have to defend their two titles the hard way.
They lost 19-15 against Toulon in front of a 65,000-strong crowd at Marseille’s Orange Velodrome last weekend, but it’s relatively easy to imagine Ugo Mola was – quietly – happy enough with the result and the bonus point.
He had decided to rest key players, including Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, for the trip to France’s second city, preferring to keep them back for this four-match run of games.
La Rochelle at Ernest Wallon will be a warm-up for next weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-final against the URC’s Munster in Dublin. If they win that, the semi-final a week later is most likely to be at the same venue – against Leinster – though it could be at Welford Road against Leicester.
And their route to the Top 14 final is more likely than not to include a qualifying play-off match. The inconvenient truth is that they may well fail to successfully defend either title – but their path to the domestic competition final in Paris is clearer than the one to the European showpiece in Marseille at the end of May.
After this week’s match, they have two very winnable games to qualify for the top six. It’s almost impossible to see them failing to make it. Europe, however, is another matter.
7 Lyon (58 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Montpellier (H), Bordeaux (A), La Rochelle (H)
Lyon slipped out of the top six – where they had been since the fifth round of the season – when they lost at home to Toulon at the beginning of April.
It’s not quite the worst time to drop out of the play-off places: ask Toulon about the 2020/21 season, when they lost it on the final day, but it could be better. And last week’s win at Brive won’t have done them any harm. Coach Pierre Mignoni described it as their best away match of the season
And they, at least, have a chance to fight their way back – but he’ll be looking enviously at Castres’ run-in.
Lyon’s final matches of the regular season are against the top three sides in the French top flight, and they also have a Challenge Cup game against URC side Glasgow confirmed on their books before the end of the regular season.
Don’t expect Lyon to let up in either competition. Mignoni returns to his favourite French club, Toulon, next season to form a dream coaching ticket with Franck Azema – but he’ll be determined to leave Lyon on a trophy-winning high if he can manage it.
8 Toulon (55 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Bordeaux (A), Pau (H), Racing 92 (A)
The Top 14 story of the season? A dreadful start. A change of manager. Reported player discontent. Definite fan discontent. A brief and actually not serious flirtation with relegation and, now, three points off the play-off places, and in Europe with a Challenge Cup quarter-final against London Irish at Stade Mayol.
Azema has turned the good ship Toulon around. They are now playing at least as well as a side of their individual qualities should – and they’re on a four-match winning streak heading into the final three games of the Top 14 campaign.
The coach’s issue is managing his players’ workload – because of Covid-19, Toulon did not get any time off during the Six Nations window, making this block of games very long. And he’s without Kieran Brookes, Facundo Isa, Cheslin Kolbe, Mathieu Smaili, Theo Dachary and Julien Ory for a crucial trip to Bordeaux.
Lose, and their play-off hopes are as good as over. In which case they’ll put their hopes into next weekend’s Challenge Cup basket. Win, and they’re still competing on two fronts…
9 Clermont (53 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Stade Francais (H), Biarritz (A), Montpellier (H)
No additional injury concerns – that was the only slice of good news following Clermont’s abject performance on a diluvian afternoon at Castres last weekend. But they still head to Stade Francais with a patched-up backline, with George Moala, Alivereti Raka, Damian Penaud, Apisai Naqalevu, and the departing Kotaro Matsushima all out.
That’s going to make their increasingly unlikely play-off challenge all the more difficult, bordering on the impossible if they fail to beat Stade Francais on Saturday – which they should, in reality, do.
They should also beat Biarritz when the Top 14 returns after the European break, so they could get close – but unless several other results go their way, the chances are Clermont will end up short.
10 Pau (50 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Racing 92 (H), Toulon (A), Castres (H)
Coach Sebastien Piqueronies has insisted that Pau’s season is not over – and not because of a faint hope of qualifying for the play-offs. He’s more than pragmatic enough to know that’s an unrealistic assessment that depends more on matches beyond his control.
The objective for the end of the season is to, “validate our work” on the project he laid out when he joined the club.
“It is a major project that we are undertaking with a certain vision. For all of us, it is very important to decide, to evaluate, to assess where we are going to finish in year one. These games are not meaningless. They are not three transition games. They are evaluation games.”
Intriguingly, Pau have a certain role as play-off kingmakers. They meet three clubs with top-six ambitions of varying strength, and they could help or hinder each one of them – notably Racing and Toulon.
“How we end this season, our position, the collective experience we have acquired will lay the foundations and standards for pre-season. Preparing for the future is simply a matter of consolidating these foundations,” Piqueronies said.
He’s got it. And with some canny signings lined-up for next season, Pau could increasingly become ones to watch…
11 Stade Francais (49 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Clermont (A), La Rochelle (A), Brive (H)
Disappointing isn’t anywhere near a powerful-enough word to describe Stade Francais’ season. Owner Hans-Peter Wild was blunt in his assessment of the club he’s invested over €100million in just two weeks ago in a brutal interview published by L’Equipe.
“We have no leaders,” and, “Stade Francais is not professional enough” are close to the kindest things he said in the lengthy Q&A, effectively writing off this season.
And that’s pretty much what Stade can do, too. Safe from relegation and nine points off the play-off places with trips to Clermont and La Rochelle looming, they’re also-ranning the rest of this campaign.
It will end with yet another turnaround of players – 11 senior squad members and two academy players will pack their bags in June, while another 16 mostly academy players are at the end of their contracts with no confirmed news on whether their staying or going.
This season is done for Stade Francais. Dr Wild will expect better next season.
12 Brive (42 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Perpignan (A), Toulouse (H), Stade Francais (A)
Nervous days at Amedee-Domenech, as Brive hope to avoid a late slip that could see them drop to 13th, the unwanted relegation play-off slot.
It could all be over this weekend. A win in Perpignan ends the doubts, and secures Top 14 rugby in the Correze next season, with no concerns over the last two matches.
But lose at Aime-Giral, and things suddenly get even more nervy. Perpignan would be just four, three – or, worst-case scenario, two – points back, with matches against play-off chasing Toulouse and Stade Francais to play.
The problem, of course, is winning on the road. Brive haven’t managed it in the Top 14 at all this season – Biarritz put 37 past them back in October. Which all points to a couple more nail-biting weeks in store.
13 Perpignan (35 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Brive (H), Castres (A), Bordeaux (H)
Coach Patrick Arlettaz conceded a few weeks ago that Perpignan’s Top 14 survival hopes rested most heavily on the relegation play-off against the losing ProD2 finalist.
But they’re not quite out of it yet. They host 12th-placed Brive this weekend, and a win would have the visitors looking very nervously over their shoulders.
Truth be told, however, even a bonus-point win this Saturday may not be enough for Perpignan. They’ll still have points to make up and it’s not easy to see where they’ll get them from at Castres and then against Bordeaux, even at home.
The unwanted play-off it most probably is, then, on June 12 – the weekend after the Top 14 campaign ends, at the home of the losing ProD2 finalist.
14 Biarritz (24 points)
Top 14 matches to play: Castres (H), Clermont (H), Toulouse (A)
It’s all over bar the shouting – much of it at the local council amid a bitter ongoing row over redevelopment plans for Parc des Sports d’Aguilera – for Biarritz.
They haven’t won in the Top 14 since the two-ball ending of the match against La Rochelle in early February, and are conceding an average of 31 points per match – rising to over 40 in their last four domestic matches, a period that has coincided with further off-field struggles.
An immediate return to the ProD2 has been inevitable for some time – it was evident even before the win over La Rochelle. And they head into this final three games with over 20 players in the infirmary – one, Scotland’s Andy Cramond this week confirmed his retirement at age 28 for health reasons, following repeated concussions.
The awesome majestic power of maths has kept reality from the door until last weekend, when all hope of climbing to 12th vanished. Even now, they could theoretically avoid an automatic drop – they’re 11 points behind Perpignan, so the relegation play-off spot is still in play. Just. But anything less than a win on Saturday and … Thanos.