Top 14 Preview: Europe weighs heavy as play-off race heats up

Image: Top 14 Rugby / Twitter

Three weekends and two European knockout rounds ago, the Top 14 table looked like this.

Usually, by now, at least some play-off places have been decided. This season, for the first time since 2011, all six play-off slots are still open, with nine sides mathematically in the running and eight close enough to consider themselves as having a serious chance. 

At the other end of the table, Perpignan could still avoid a relegation play-off match at the home ground of the losing ProD2 finalist if, over the closing two rounds of the season either side of next weekend’s European finals, they overtake Brive in the table.

The heavy ball bearing that is Europe currently weighs on the rubber sheet of French top flight – and not just because three sides with domestic play-off ambitions – Lyon, La Rochelle and Toulon – face difficult squad calculations either side of next weekend’s finals.

It’s also affected scheduling. This is why Sunday’s primetime choice is the eminently worthy but slightly bizarre Castres v Perpignan – the one live match that viewers in UK and Ireland will be able to see on Premier Sports this weekend, with Bordeaux-Lyon up broadcast Saturday night as an as-live match. 

The programme for this week was finalised on May 9th, when five French sides were still in contention for European finals weekend. That ruled out five of this week’s round-of-25 games as options for Sunday night, leaving already-relegated Biarritz v almost-out-of-it Clermont, or play-off ambitions v survival dreams at Castres. 

Here, then, let’s take a look at all seven matches on the penultimate weekend of the regular 2021/22 Top 14 season. Remember, all kick offs here are set to Paris time. I’ll leave you to make your own adjustments. 

One way or another, it’s going to be hot this weekend in the Top 14

Saturday, May 21

Bordeaux v Lyon (kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban-Delmas

A training ground injury this week means Louis Picamoles’ playing career could already be over. He is due to retire at the end of the season – but is now sidelined for at least four weeks, which would mean he may return if Bordeaux reach the final.

Right now, they’re second in the table, and hold a bye to the play-off semis in Nice. But by the skin of their teeth. Castres are level on points and – on paper – have a friendlier run-in.

READ ALSO Top 14 team-by-team guide to the end of the season

“If we lose, we’re out of the top two,” Jandre Marais reminded reporters this week. “And the top six  is not yet assured, because all the teams are close.” 

Bordeaux have lost their last four at home and have – as head coach Christophe Urios admitted – “no more margin” for error. “We could finish seventh,” he warned.

“I feel ashamed,” he said of their recent record in front of the Chaban-Delmas faithful. “I want everyone to feel ashamed. We have to face our responsibilities. We are capable of doing it.”

Their opponents, first-time Challenge Cup finalists Lyon, look in good shape, with only Kilian Geraci and Mathieu Bastareaud on their long-term injury list. 

This season’s big-name signing Lima Sopoaga isn’t far off a return from a knee injury picked up in the Challenge Cup round-of-16 win over Worcester, while Colby Fainga’a and Jordan Taufua may be in contention to return to the backrow at Bordeaux.

They’re likely to rotate their squad – given their matches to come – but they’re coming to Chaban-Delmas looking for as many points as they can get. Four won’t be beyond them.

Biarritz v Clermont (kick off 5.15pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

In this season, which is so tight the fact of Biarritz’s relegation is the only certainty heading into the final two weekends, this is something of an outlier match. 

It’s not quite a dead rubber – Clermont could still squeeze into the top six if the usually capricious and fickle rugby gods are in a generous mood for two Top 14 weekends on either side of the European finals – but it’s almost one.

Biarritz will want to sign off their last home match of the season and in the Top 14 with a first domestic  win in three months, and end a seven-match losing streak. “We will have to show Clermont that we are not here to give them five points,” head coach Matt Clarkin said this week. “The best tribute for our last home game is to put out a side that can win.”

That’s easier said than done – 17 players are out with injury heading into the penultimate game. Another eight are back in group training after injury. It’s been that sort of campaign for Biarritz. But, make no mistake, there’ll be a party atmosphere at Aguilera.

Clermont, meanwhile, made up for missing out on a quarter-final against Leinster in Dublin by climbing Puy de Dome. The two-week break that came from their round-of-16 defeat to Leicester has done them no harm as they embark on a top six mission impossible. 

Damian Penaud and Fritz Lee should be back from injury, while a few other infirmary fillers are also close to returning after a season in which Clermont have been repeatedly hit with the injury stick – especially in their backline.

Even so, Wesley Fofana, George Moala and Apisai Naqalevu are out for the remainder of Clermont’s campaign, along with Alivereti Raka, Peceli Yato and Kotaro Matsushima. 

To keep their hopes alive, Clermont need to win big. Biarritz have been broken down defensively relatively easily, so it’s doable, ahead of a final weekend match against current leaders Montpellier. But then they still need a helping hand from other teams…

La Rochelle v Stade Francais (kick off 5.15pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Seventh-placed La Rochelle could – like France’s other European finalists Toulon and Lyon – have done without having to play a must-win Top 14 match the weekend before their big final in Marseille. 

But that’s what all three sides face this weekend. Ronan O’Gara may have half his mind on next Saturday’s Champions Cup final against a frightening Leinster out, but he also won’t want to lose touch with the play-off peloton – which pretty much rules out the prospect of anything less than a win over Stade Francais in what could well be their last home match of this campaign. 

Officially, Stade Francais have nothing to play for. They’re out of the play-off race and safe from relegation. The Paris side have taken on France’s old cliche mantle of which Stade will turn up. One senior player has already said he ‘can’t wait for the season to end’, and Gonzalo Quesada has, perhaps unwisely, admitted that a squad without goals can be difficult to motivate. 

How about this, then? Play with freedom and energy. Play like a side with nothing to lose. Play like you enjoy what you do for a living. Maybe you’ll discover something about yourselves. Because you really should be better than 11th.

Toulon v Pau (kick off 5.15pm)

Stade Mayol

Toulon, like fellow European finalists Lyon and La Rochelle etc etc…

Toulon lost a lot of goodwill from fans early on this season when things were going from bad to worse. On the pitch, the players and Franck Azema are working something close to miracles to win some back – reaching the Challenge Cup final and being in the hunt for what was, not so long ago, an unimaginable play-off place, as they play their 17th match without a break. 

Off the pitch, however, president Bernard Lemaitre continues to lose friends and alienate people.

This week, in an interview with Midi Olympique, he described departing Springbok Eben Etzebeth as a ‘kid in the body of a colossus’ – which didn’t go down well in some quarters, especially among those in a rage over the impending departure of Louis Carbonel to Montpellier (he’s set to play his last Mayol match as a Toulon star this weekend, possibly off the bench).

But a return to the top 6 and/or a European title in Marseille next week would be a major step in the reconciliation of club and fans – almost despite the person in the president’s chair.

A win at home over Pau – playing what coach Sebastien Piqueronies has called ‘consolidation matches’ as he sets out his plans for next season and beyond.

“There’s no desire to relax in these [last] two games,” winger Elliott Roudil told reporters this week. “We want to continue to move forward and progress, with a view to next season, to perhaps one day hope to qualify in the top six.”

That’s the correct attitude. Stade Francais players take note.

Montpellier v Racing 92 (kick off 5.15pm)

GGL Stadium

Less than a year ago, Montpellier finished 10th in the Top 14 – their disappointing domestic campaign offset by Challenge Cup success, which gave them entry to the Champions Cup this season.

Mohed Altrad laid out the club’s very different ambitions for the final two games of this season. “The ideal would be to win the last two matches (Racing, then Clermont) to ensure direct qualification to the semi-finals.

“The median, which would be to win only one, would allow us to play the barrage match at Montpellier.”

While the hosts rested last week after losing what was, it’s fair to say, a surprise Champions Cup quarter-final at La Rochelle, Racing were losing their European semi-final against La Rochelle at Lens.

Altrad admitted his side were not ready for a serious challenge on the Champions Cup, but said they would ‘fight like lions’ to ensure their season reaches the Top 14 play-offs.

Racing, meanwhile, need to bounce back from last weekend’s disheartening defeat in sundrenched Lens. Gael Fickou said it best straight after that match. “It will be hard to face Montpellier, a team that has been able to rest for a few days. But we have no right to let go now … if we don’t want to get back on the pitch immediately and show what we can do, there’s a problem somewhere.”

Whether the spirit is willing, then, should not be questioned. Montpellier have stuttered in recent weeks, but Racing looked shattered last Sunday. Depleted. It may be the body is too weak to take advantage.

Brive v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Amédée-Domenech

The maths is simple for Brive. Beat Toulouse on Saturday evening in front of a sell-out home crowd, and then cheer on Castres against Perpignan on Sunday. 

The squad have been on a training camp in southwest France, and have trained mostly behind closed doors in preparation for this weekend’s match. And they think they know what to expect.

“Toulouse need to redeem themselves,” lock Andres Zafra told reporters this week. “They have only the Top 14 left. We expect a fierce battle on the ground, and also to face a team that will try to play – and pass – a lot. We must be ready to defend for long sequences.”

Brive have only conceded 11 tries at home this season, but routinely give up 13 penalties a match. Against a Toulouse side that they know are angry with themselves and out to prove a point, they will have to be more disciplined.

Even if they weren’t aware, Toulouse hooker Julien Marchand growled something of a warning in this week’s press conference. “We are going to set off again at full speed. It’s not over. We are not going to let go.”

Amédée-Domenech is a more intimate ground than the ones Toulouse have played at in recent weeks. Though the crowd – the match has been sold out for more than two weeks – will be hostile, it may be just what they need.

Sunday, May 22

Castres v Perpignan (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

Perpignan fans were unimpressed to discover, on May 9, that their season-defining trip to Castres – a generous two-and-a-half hours’ drive away – was scheduled for Sunday night. 

Supporters’ groups said that they had hoped “to bring 600 or 700 fans” for their do-or-die challenge at Stade Pierre Fabre – but said the schedule, the first time this season Perpignan had played the Sunday night game, had denied them that opportunity.

“We had 117 registered, two chartered buses. But now we are canceling a bus. We will be back at 3am on Monday, impossible for people who work. Sunday at 9pm is the worst time,” one told regional newspaper L’Independant.

Coach Patrick Arlettaz won’t prowl the touchline as he usually does. He has been handed a one-match ban for questioning some of the referees’ decisions in the crucial win over Brive last time out.

Third-placed Castres, level on points with Bordeaux and with a top-two finish in their eyes, start as favourites. They have not lost in the Top 14 at home since December 2020 and have won six of their last eight – but all is not completely lost for the visitors. 

Five of the 12 French sides to have not won at Pierre Fabre this season have headed home with a bonus point. One of those for Perpignan could be almost as good as a win, depending on what happens at Stade Amédée-Domenech 24 hours earlier.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.