Top 14 Preview: Pressure mounts after monster opening weekend

Week two of the Top 14 has a lot to live up to after an opening weekend of close matches and late come-from-behind results.

If you missed last Saturday and Sunday’s action, here’s my round-up of Top 14 games from last week.

And, for what it’s worth, here’s a reminder of the Top 14 table heading into the second weekend of the season…

Viewers in UK and Ireland will be able to see Lyon v La Rochelle, Bayonne v Racing 92, Montpellier v Bordeaux, and Toulouse v Toulon. Saturday’s matches are all on Premier Sports 2, while the Sunday night game is on Freesports.

Hopefully, for fans of French rugby in America, streaming service FloSports has been able to sort its first day streaming issues in time for the Top 14’s big second weekend.

Saturday, September 10

Lyon v La Rochelle (kick off 3pm)

Stade Gerland

Still missing Demba Bamba, Francisco Gomez Kodela, Lima Sopoaga, Josua Tuisova, Killian Geraci, and Jordan Taufua, Challenge Cup holders Lyon should this week welcome fit-again experienced winger Noa Nakaitaci to their line-up for the challenge of European champions La Rochelle.

The club had a visitor this week – the pack trained for a while under the watchful eye of France forwards coach William Servat.

The visitors, meanwhile, came through their hard-fought win over Montpellier last week relatively unscathed and will be able to rely on the same group of players for their trip east. Which is good news, as their pre-season injury list is also pretty long.

Levani Botia – who trained with the group for the first time this week – has an outside shot of joining the 23, but it’s arguably still too soon for him to play anything more than a minor bit part, so Ronan O’Gara is much more likely to stick with the tried and successful for this intriguing weekend opener that promises plenty of free-flowing action on the artificial surface at Gerland.

Castres v Stade Francais (kick off 5pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

The hosts have not lost at home since December 2020, winning 12 and drawing once last season at Pierre Fabre. 

That’s not a record they’ll want to lose in front of their first home crowd of the new campaign, on their new hybrid pitch, which was only completed this week after three months’ work over the summer. 

On Tuesday, when the club held a meet-the-players event for season ticket holders, the posts were notably absent from images posted to the official website.

They’ll certainly want to improve on their game-closing plans, after giving up a lead late on at Racing last week, and then missing out on a chance to win the game. Word is that they could name surprise summer signing Leone Nakarawa in their squad for the first time, as head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan continues his successful rotation policy.

Morgan Parra is a notable absentee for the visitors, after suffering knee ligament damage in their win over former club Clermont last week that will keep him out for about a month.

He was hurt in a 51st-minute collision with team-mate Harry Glover but was not replaced – by young gun Arthur Coville – until the 68th. No matter how you cut it, 17 minutes is an awfully long ‘run-it-off’ period.

Bayonne v Racing 92 (kick off 5pm)

Stade Jean Dauger

For more than 40 minutes, Bayonne – a side tipped for heavy involvement in the relegation dogfight at the far end of the season – gave Toulon – a side expected to do rather well this year – something of a rugby lesson last week. 

And then, at 25-14 down, Toulon’s season started. The ended up winning 40-25.

It was a similar but decidedly different story for Racing. For nearly 80 minutes, they struggled to break free of Castres, despite winning the try count three-one. Their final – and game-deciding – try in a 25-19 win came just three minutes from time.

Three days later, the club confirmed that Virimi Vakatawa’s rugby career in France was over because of a “cardiological condition”

Reports – assisted greatly by a Tweet from Biarritz’s president – suggest the club has already found a replacement for Vakatawa in the Basque club’s wantaway midfield player Francis Saili.

Clermont v Pau (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Clermont are considering medical joker cover for injured tighthead Rabah Slimani, who ruptured a bicep tendon late in last weekend’s 24-18 loss at Stade Francais, and will be absent until early 2023.

It’s a mixed bag of news out of Clermont this week, who announced they had activated one-year extensions for both Slimani and scrum-half Sebastien Bezy.

Pau’s lack of finishing power was evident last week as they struggled to overtake Perpignan at Stade du Hameau. 

Their problems haven’t been eased by news that wingers Aminiasi Tuimaba and Vincent Pinto, who were injured in the France’s pre-season SuperSevens tournament, will both be out for several weeks.

Perpignan v Brive (kick off 5pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Perpignan picked up a bonus point on the road at Pau last weekend. But they would have been grossly disappointed at giving up a six-point lead in the closing minutes of a scrappy, disjointed match that they could easily – perhaps even should – have won.

Injury-ravaged Brive, too, picked up a losing bonus after finishing on the wrong end of a 31-27 scoreline at home against Lyon. This match, then, between two of the pre-season favourites for relegation, takes on additional early meaning. 

Both sides need a win to kick start their campaigns after opening day defeats – but the hosts are much better placed to claim four points in front of their raucous home support.

Montpellier v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

GGL Stadium

Madosh Tambwe – following his electric two-try performance on debut against Toulouse last week and news that he paid a sizeable portion of his release fee from Bulls to move to Bordeaux – dominated headlines from the club this week. 

And the good news kept on coming, with news that French international Yoram Moefana had signed a new deal to stay at the club until 2025.

The main question for Bordeaux boss Christophe Urios is whether to start Mathieu Jalibert this week.

The fly-half missed two crucial kicks at goal against Toulouse last weekend. Tani Vili, however, is set for his first start since moving from Clermont in the off-season, after Remi Lamerat picked up a chest injury at Chaban-Delmas.

Sunday, September 11

Toulouse v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

It’s a bit of a sideshow, but matches involving Toulouse have been scheduled for Sunday nights on three of the opening five weekends, with their other two matches in the TV schedule-friendly format booked in for primetime Saturday.

That won’t do anything for French broadcaster Canal Plus’s perceived Toulouse bias.

That aside – and, in Canal’s defence, Toulouse’s first five weeks include the opener against Bordeaux, this match against Toulon, and games against Racing 92 and Montpellier – the hosts will look to consolidate their dramatic 26-25 win at Bordeaux last week with a second win here.

Toulon, meanwhile, came from 25-14 down after 44 minutes to beat Bayonne 40-25 at home last week. The 2021 double winners 31-21 pre-season win at Felix Mayol on August 25 will be fresh in the memory of both sides. 

Matthieu Bastareaud, who suffered freak double-knee injuries while playing for Lyon in December, has been training with his former club all summer. Word is that he completed his first full week of group training this week – raising hopes that he will sign a deal with Toulon in the coming days.

For now, however, coaching dream ticket Pierre Mignoni and Franck Azema have more pressing concerns: Toulouse on their own turf.

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