It’s southwest semi-finals weekend in the southeast of France, as Occitanie teams Castres, Toulouse, Montpellier and Nouvelle Aquitaine representative Bordeaux face off in Nice for the right to travel north to Saint-Denis for next Friday’s showpiece final.
Nevermind the tense games situation, or the prize that awaits the two winners this weekend. Playing in Nice will be a relief of sorts for all four sets of players. The matches on Friday and Saturday evening will take place in temperatures a degree or so south of 30C.
In Castres and Toulouse, by kick-off time on Friday evening, the temperature is expected to have dipped to 36C, from highs during the day of over 40C.
The departments in which Castres, Toulouse and Bordeaux are among the 12 in the southwest of the country that have been placed on red weather alert – the highest available – for heat on Friday.
Similar temperatures are expected in Bordeaux on Saturday evening, with a 40km/h wind, while the mercury in Montpellier is due to hit a 40C high on Friday, before dipping 10C in 24 hours into the weekend.
So, Nice, in the relatively fresh southeast of the country, will feel relatively comfortable in comparison. Which is nice.
Both matches are live in Ireland and the UK on Premier Sports.
Friday, June 17
Castres v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)
The hype-legend of the Top 14’s opening semi-final sprang instantaneously and fully formed from the firmament on the final whistle of last Saturday’s barrage-round match. A Midi derby rivalry, top of the table versus the defending champions, Castres’ rugby David versus Toulouse’s Goliath.
Meanwhile, Toulouse coach Ugo Mola has spent much of his media time this week trying to sound convincing in claiming that Castres, rather than his star-spangled squad, are favourites. No one who saw their 41-0 thrashing of Friday’s opponents at Stade Ernest Wallon in November, or how close they came to victory in their 19-13 loss at Stade Pierre Fabre in April would make the same argument.
It’s true Castres have been consistent this season. They spent just two weeks outside the top six. Their longest losing run in the Top 14 lasted just two games – and they finished the domestic campaign with 12 wins from 15, including five on the bounce to close out the season. They climbed to first for the first and only time on the final whistle of the final round – which was also the first time they had held a top two position.
Castres hooker Gaetan Barlot put the season past into perspective ahead of Friday evening’s match. “Our first place rewards the fact that we are the only undefeated team at home, with a good record and wins on the road. But that doesn’t mean we are champions.
And he highlighted in two sentences the scale of the challenge and the scale of the ambition for the Tarn side. “In Nice, we are facing the French and former European champions so it will be very difficult but we are ready for the two big games that remain in order to go all the way,” he said. “If we lost in the semi-finals, we would have finished first in the regular season for nothing. That would be a shame.”
It’s true, too, Castres had a bye week while Toulouse faced La Rochelle in the barrage round. And that their season has been less affected by Covid-19 or a long European run.
But it’s also true that Toulouse, despite a ropey run from Christmas to the end of March when they were without key internationals, qualified fourth in the table, and beat new European champions La Rochelle in the barrage-round to book their place in the semis. They were top of the table for nine weeks and – like Castres – have been in the top six for all-but two rounds of the campaign.
Even so, Mola insists that Castres are in pole position for the final place at stake on Friday. “Castres are favorites and it’s not Ugo Mola who says so, it’s the league ranking.
“It’s hard for them to claim they are the underdog side: the facts are there, they finished first [in the Top 14]. They are also the leaders in terms of character and state of mind.”
It’s true, too, that Toulouse have more injury concerns. Francois Cros is out after picking up a knee injury in the victory over La Rochelle, while Charlie Faumina has completed a safe tackle course and returns after a ban to fill an fitness problem at tighthead. He starts, with Dorian Aldegheri – who’s been nursed through injury niggles recently – on the bench.
The truth, despite what Mola would have anyone believe is that Toulouse are, quite rightly, favourites. But he also knows that Castres could easily spring another surprise this season.
And it seems they do have a plan for dealing with Antoine Dupont…
It involves pizza.
Saturday, June 18
Montpellier v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)
We need to talk about Bordeaux. Something is, if not rotten, not entirely well in the former rugby utopia of Chaban-Delmas.
The comprehensive 36-16 barrage-round win over Racing 92 was played against a tense training ground background. Manager Christophe Urios had called out his players after their defeat at Perpignan a week earlier had seen them drop out of the top two for the first time in months – naming Matthieu Jalibert and Cameron Woki in particular.
Both scored in the barrage-round victory. But Jalibert told Canal Plus immediately after the match: “This week, it was tense. You saw it, there were statements in the press from our manager, that targeted players. I just want to say that we are not playing for Christophe (Urios). We are just on a mission for the players.”
And Woki gestured at the crowd after he scored, saying afterwards: “To whom were these gestures addressed? I think everyone understood.”
It has also been reported this week that Woki – whose contract is up in June 2023 – is hesitating about signing a new deal with the club.
Kane Douglas, meanwhile, told Le French Rugby Podcast how the team prepared for the match against Racing without Urios – who has since insisted “I am the boss, and no one else” – for most of the week.
President Laurent Marti and Urios have both appeared to describe the situation as “over” and liken it to a storm in a teacup. But it’s hardly a health position from which to mount a challenge for the Top 14 title.
In comparison, silence has been golden preparation for opponents Montpellier, who have enjoyed minimal coverage and – as a result – minimal pressure.
News, such as it is, has been limited to contract renewals for Florian Verhaege, and for defence coach Alexandre Ruiz, while Zach Mercer – surely one of the first names on the Top 14’s team of the season – has revealed he thought seriously about jacking rugby in when he was a teenager with Bath, in favour of heading to New Zealand and, according to Rugbyrama, dismissing reports about an imminent move back to the Premiership.
Montpellier, second in the table at the end of the season, despite – like Bordeaux and Toulouse – something of a second-half wobble, should expect to start as favourites. They don’t have the individual flair of Bordeaux, but they are well-organised, and smart, and clinical.
Even without the injured Paul Willemse and Cobus Reinach, Montpellier have the smarts to play their way into the final.
With Maxime Lamothe an injury concern, Bordeaux, may turn to Springbok international hooker Joseph Dweba, who has only played in nine matches all season – and hasn’t featured at all since the beginning of May. Jandre Marais’ injury, meanwhile, will have Urios scratching his head over second-row options. Guido Petti, Louis Picamoles, or Woki could get the nod.