Top 14 Preview: Basta set for Toulon comeback after long injury lay-off

Week three of the 2022/23 Top 14 season kicks off with Bordeaux in bother, Brive breathing relatively comfortably for now, and top side Toulouse’s looking just a little stretched in the pack.

Here, in case you’ve forgotten, is the current table

And here, for the record, are the best tries of last weekend.

Unfortunately for Top 14 fans in the UK and Ireland, the return of the URC means that only Toulon-Clermont, on Sunday, is available to view on Premier Sports 1. In the US, FloSports streaming service has coverage of all seven matches.

Saturday, September 17

Bordeaux v Castres (kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

Two matches into a new season is not the time to cry crisis and let slip the dogs of panic – La Rochelle had only one win from their first five games last season, and ROG’s side ended up doing pretty well. 

Two losses from two is far from the end of the world for Bordeaux with 24 weeks of the season to go. But it’s hard to suggest that there’s nothing rotten in the state of Delmas. 

The poor early form of fly-half Matthieu Jalibert, hooker Clement Maynardier’s frustrated “you should like us more” outburst at assembled media this week, and Christophe Urios’s almost unheard of no-show at the post-match press conference after Sunday’s loss at Montpellier, all hint that the good-ship UBB is not a happy one.

Another change this week. Urios normally maintains a strict media silence in the lead-up to a match against his former club Castres. This week, he’s been noticeably present. “You don’t build on defeat,” he told a somewhat surprised pack of journalists on Tuesday. “To move on, we have to win. Castres will be a test of character.”

Bordeaux are the only Top 14 side that Castres have, so far, failed to beat under Pierre-Henry Broncan. That record could fall this week, if Bordeaux play with the indiscipline and lack of confidence they have shown so far. 

The visitors know what to expect. Hooker Gaetan Barlot said: “ Bordeaux lack confidence – and there is no secret to regaining that confidence, it’s through fighting. We know what to expect. They will want to find their competitive edge, on aggressiveness. We’ll have to respond in those areas, because if we’re not there, it could get very difficult very quickly. It’s going to hit hard.”

Ben Urdapilleta is away with Argentina and Ben Botica is nursing an injury, so the prodigiously talented Louis Le Brun is set for this third start at 10 for Castres. Fullback Julien Dumora could be rested this week, so the training wheels are off for Le Brun.

Brive v Montpellier (kick off 5pm)

Stade Amedee Domenech

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Brive’s bonus-point win at Perpignan last weekend – both in matters of cold, hard league points and in slightly fuzzier confidence terms – as third entertains fourth in the early-season table.

That win at Aime-Giral almost-but-not-quite wrote off the home defeat to Lyon on the opening weekend – manager Jeremy Davidson would probably quietly admit that Brive were lucky to escape with a losing bonus point via an after-the-hooter penalty try.

Now, the challenge for a side coping with a number of long-term absentees is to consolidate those five points with a rehabilitating home win over the defending champions, a side feeling good about their rugby after a convincing 29-19 win over Bordeaux last Saturday.

Their fitness situation wasn’t helped last week, with Lucas Paulos (concussion), Luka Japaridze (knee) and Tevita Ratuva (finger), all set to miss this week’s match.

Montpellier welcomed Paul Willemse back to the game fold last week – and not a moment too soon. 

The France international was called into action just five minutes in, after Bastien Chalureau suffered a shoulder injury that will keep him out for about five weeks. But, reports suggest he may be a doubt for this weekend. If he is fit, he’ll likely be named captain. If not, that job will go to Florian Verhaeghe.

Racing 92 v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

La Defense Arena

This week’s announcement that winger Christian Wade had joined Racing 92 until the end of the season – after guesting for the club in the summer’s SuperSevens tournament – has to be tempered slightly by the fact he is carrying a calf injury.

It was always hugely unlikely that he’d make this match, anyway, but it’s a given now that the closest he’ll get to the fast-paced surface at La Defense Arena is pitchside.

Racing remain far from full strength. Warrick Gelant, Juan Imhoff and Trevor Nyakane are on Rugby Championship duty, while Tongan second row Veikoso Poloniati is not due to arrive until November.

There’s some good injury news for Lyon – and they need it, amid speculation of something of a player exodus at the end of the season. Number 8 Jordan Taufua and lock Kilian Geraci are available for selection and could start.

However, Toby Arnold has suffered ruptured ankle ligaments in last weekend’s loss at home to La Rochelle, and will be out until the end of the year.

La Rochelle v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

There was something strange about La Rochelle’s squad for last Saturday’s trip to Lyon. The entire 23 was exactly the same as it had been the previous week for the opener against Montpellier – that hasn’t happened, according to Midi Olympique, since 1991.

So, of course, there are going to be changes this weekend. Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Antoine Hastoy are both likely to be rested. Pierre Popelin is likely to start at 10, with Ronan O’Gara set to choose between the back-from-injury Jules Le Bail or Thomas Berjon inside him.

Will Skelton, too, is set to start his season having served his suspension, while UJ Seuteni could feature having recovered from injury. Teddy Thomas is training again, but probably won’t make the 23 this week.

This is not the venue Perpignan, after two losses in their opening matches, would want to visit for their third game of the season – but they have been boosted by the return to training of hooker Lucas Velarte and loosehead Giorgi Tetrashvili, who could both start at Marcel Deflandre. 

Matthieu Ugena, Joaquin Oviedo, and Jeronimo De La Fuente are also closing in on a return to action, though probably not quite this week.

Watch out, too, for a recognisable name looming in the Perpignan squad as a Tuilagi returns to Catalan colours. Posolo, son of Henry, could be named on the bench for Saturday’s match. The explosive, near-150kg, 18-year-old backrow has, according to coach Perry Freshwater, “the same running syle [as his father] with his head tilting a little backwards.”

A future star is, perhaps, in the making. Freshwater, for one, reckons it will be hard for Perpignan to keep hold of Tuilagi junior for long.

Stade Francais v Bayonne (kick off 5pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

Kaminieli Rasaku finally arrived in Bayonne on Tuesday, two days after being named player of the Rugby World Cup Sevens as Fiji romped to the title in Cape Town. 

It’s far too early to see the winger on the pitch alongside Sireli Maqala – who, but for visa issues, would have been a sevens world champion too, and the injured Eneriko Buliruarua – so we’ll just have to imagine the havoc that trio will cause when they get together. 

And we’ll also have to probably wait at least one more week before experienced rookie Maxime Machenaud makes his debut.

As for Stade, their injury list grew by one more in defeat at Castres last weekend. Nadir Megdoud will sit this one out, while the club is still waiting for the paperwork to come through for Jeremy Ward to get the go-ahead to play. 

But the key decision looks like whether to start with Joris Segonds or Leo Barre at 10 in partnership with Arthur Coville.

Pau v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade du Hameau

Much was made in preseason of the summer’s high-class backs recruitment at Toulouse. Rightly so. Even without Romain Ntamack, out for about a month with a knee injury, they have talent to spare across the park. Expect Thomas Ramos to move from 15 to 10, this week.

Less was made about the forwards – with only Alexandre Roumat joining the rouge-et-noir, while Paulo Tafili, Joe Tekori, Rory Arnold and Antoine Miquel all left the playing ranks. Young academy players – notably Josh Brennan, Theo Ntamack, and Maxime Duprat – it was decided, could take up the slack.

This theory is being tested to destruction after just two weeks. Francois Cros, three minutes into his return from injury, was readmitted to the infirmary last weekend. He will miss the November internationals with a recurrence of the knee ligament damage that forced him to miss the end of last season. Loosehead Duprat, too, is a doubt after picking up a knock at home to Toulon.

France internationals Cyril Baille and Thibaud Flament are injured, David Ainu’u and Yannick Youyoutte are not quite ready to return to full training, and Julien Marchand has been rested early on. 

All the above could make this weekend’s trip along the A64 to Pau more difficult than probably it needs to be.

In good news for Ugo Mola, Alban Placines is available following his red card in Toulouse’s opening day win at Bordeaux after the disciplinary commission decided a one-week suspension was sufficient, while Rynhardt Elstadt – who has been on Rugby Championship duty – trained with the club this week.

Pau, meanwhile, announced the arrival of Yvan Reilhac this week on loan from Montpellier until the end of the season. He’s carrying a minor preseason knock, but should be available for selection in the coming weeks. Sebastien Piqueronies’ main decision this week is: Zack Henry or Thibault Debaes at 10.

Sunday, September 18

Toulon v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Mayol

In November, former France international Mathieu Bastareaud ruptured ligaments in both knees while playing for Lyon. 

On Sunday, the day after he celebrates his 34th birthday, Bastareaud could be on the bench for Toulon, having this week signed a contract with his former club until the end of the season.

He has been training at Toulon’s shiny new campus at Berg all summer and a decision on whether he is in the 23 this weekend will be made after the Captain’s Run. Jeremy Sinzelle and Jiuta Wainiqolo are also set to play, despite picking up knocks last week in the defeat at Toulouse.

After his one-man try in last week’s 33-24 win over Pau, Damian Penaud is set to miss this match with a shoulder injury. The pack has taken size hit, too, with locks Sebastien Vahaamahina and Miles Amatosero, and hooker Etienne Fourcade all out of action.

Meanwhile Jono Gibbes is reportedly deciding on whether to give France under-20s scrum-half Baptiste Jeaneau his first Top 14 start, or stick with Sebastien Bezy for a third match in a row, while Jules Plisson is set to get the nod at 10, with Anthony Belleau on the bench.

Giorgi Dzmanashvili, the 20-year-old Georgian prop on Clermont’s academy books, could also get his first pro outing in France.

In more good news for Toulon, Cheslin Kolbe and Facundo Isa returned to the Var this week. Kolbe has been out since July with a broken jaw, while Isa was not selected for the final phase of Argentina’s Rugby Championship campaign. It probably won’t be long before either are back on the Felix Mayol pitch.

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