Top 14 Preview: Stade’s unwanted reputation, Kolbe’s comeback, and Toulouse’s discipline paradox

Why Perpignan have put a big survival target on their Paris trip, Toulon’s long wait to get their Kolbe back is over, Castres aren’t out for revenge against Montpellier (honest), and why La Rochelle should be wary of a tricky Basque challenge

The Rugby World Cup kicks off this weekend in New Zealand, and anyone who follows the game should rugby geek all over that for the next few weeks.

The fact Eden Park is a sell-out for the opening match day on Saturday should tell you everything you need to know. 

Meanwhile, closer to home, the Top 14 season waits for no one – at least until next year, when it will pause after three matches for the 2023 tournament in France, resuming at the end of October.

The Top 14 table heading into the sixth round of 26 before the play-offs.

And here are the top five tries of last week courtesy of the Top 14.

Canal Rugby Club had other ideas and came up with its own top five. The Toulon maul try is a thing of terrible beauty.

For Top 14 fans in UK and Ireland, broadcaster Premier Sports is showing live coverage of Castres v Montpellier, and delayed as-live action from Bayonne v La Rochelle, Toulouse v Clermont and Lyon v Bordeaux.

In the US, all matches are available on the FloSports streaming service.

Saturday, October 8

Revenge is a dish best unserved

Castres v Montpellier (kick off 3pm), Stade Pierre Fabre

A lot of the talk around this match has focused on the idea of ‘revenge’ … with a certain amount of good reason. Montpellier were by far the better side in the Top 14 final back in June – winning the game inside the opening half-hour.

Not that the visitors remember much about that night in Saint-Denis, at all…

There’s little doubt, either, the Castres coaching staff will have used the unwanted memory of that bad night in June, St Crispin’s style, in their prep talks this week, despite comments in the media. As David Darricarrere said: “It’s another season, another group, another chapter. There is no feeling of revenge vis-à-vis Montpellier. In life you have to move forward and to move forward you have to look ahead.”

Head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan would be happier still with a generally improved performance: a reduction in penalties – Castres shipped 10 in 30 minutes at Perpignan last weekend – and much-improved handling and coordination among his side.

It was telling that Castres’ performance improved after Broncan made wholesale personnel changes on 43 minutes last week – bringing on his entire bench at once. It wasn’t quite enough, as Castres fought back from 14-0 to 14-10 and leave Aime-Giral with a scarcely deserved losing bonus. Five metres further forward at the death, they may even have escaped to victory.

This week they should be able to field veteran fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta, following his return from Rugby Championship duties with Argentina and Tyler Ardron is finally expected to return after a slightly premature media recall last week.

For the fans, another shot at the champions will have a near-tangible meaning, however, so Stade Pierre Fabre will be packed on Saturday. The club is using the match for a belated tribute to former scrum-half-turned-defence coach Rory Kockott, so it’ll be a passionate place, too.

It’s the law these days to mention that Castres have not lost at home in the Top 14 since December 2020. They put it on the line again against the defending champions, who sit third in the table and who this week confirmed the arrival of All Black prop Karl Tu’inukuafe. 

More importantly for the visitors, Cobus Reinach is set to start. Louis Foursans should be outside him at 10, as Philip Saint-Andre rests Paulo Garbisi, and eases the burden on Louis Carbonel, who should be on the bench.

Showers are forecast in Castres on Saturday afternoon, so perhaps don’t expect anything too thrilling. 

Stade youth could shake off poor reputation

Stade Francais v Perpignan (kick off 5pm), Stade Aime Giral

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Stade Francais were among French rugby’s apex predators.

Today? They’re also-rans – as evidenced by their relative satisfaction with a late, late losing bonus at Bordeaux last weekend. And, more importantly, by the fact that Perpignan have targeted this match as one they can win on the road to Top 14 survival.

In fact, it’s a not-at-all-kept secret among French top-flight clubs that Stade are currently considered big-budget also-rans. Things will likely change in the medium-to-long-term, with the academy firing up once more, producing the likes of Veresa Ramototabua and Sergy Abramishvili, Sione Tui, Leo Barre and Arthur Covile – who all played last Saturday.

It’s no wonder, then, that Perpignan, boosted by back-to-back Top 14 wins for the first time since 2009, according to Midol, have points in mind as they head to the fragile Parisians home ground – and do one better than Bayonne, who came pretty close before Stade’s late escape act.

But those academy players… Not to mention Nemo Roelofse, who has finally got to grips with the Top 14, the return of Julien Delbouis, the arrival of Jeremy Ward. Could it finally point to the start of Stade’s return to the upper echelons? 

Right now, it doesn’t necessarily look like it. A couple of seasons, maybe. But Perpignan will have to play out of their skins to take home four points.

Finally, those reports about France coaches Laurent Labit and Karim Ghezal joining Stade in 2024 are “just rumours” the club’s general manager Thomas Lombard has told AFP. So, we wait…

Cheslin’s back

Toulon v Brive (kick off 5pm), Stade Felix Mayol

Toulon fans rejoice! Cheslin Kolbe will make his long-awaited return to Toulon colours having recovered from a broken jaw suffered during Wales’ July tour of South Africa.

The player said a couple of weeks ago that he hoped to play for Toulon ‘within a month’. He trained on Tuesday at an open session with what looks to be the most-likely starting XV for Saturday’s match against Brive – making up a back three alongside Thomas Salles and Gaël Dréan.

Coach Franck Azema had struck a cautiously positive note on Kolbe’s fitness. “He is fine, he is participating in all the sessions,” he said, adding in response to questions about when the winger will return to the 23, “as soon as possible but we will respect the situation by what has been said in terms of contacts.”

News is less good on another international absentee this season. Gabin Villiere has undergone a second operation on his ankle and will be out of action until at least the end of November. 

Brive, meanwhile, have made a splash this week, with reports suggesting Scotland international Richie Gray is a priority target for next season, as they seek to beef up their lock stocks. 

Second rows are thin on the ground at the Correze club right now: Mitch Lees retired last week on medical advice because of a persistent ankle injury; Andres Zafra has missed the entire season so far with back problems; and Tevita Ratuva is out for three months with a broken finger. The club has moved 20-year-old German lock Oskar Rixen from the academy into the senior squad as a medical joker.

Brive were always going to be looking for second rows next season, but the investment of new main shareholder Ian Osborne at the end of August means they can set their sights higher as they plan for a bright new future. The club’s name has been mentioned in connection with reportedly departing France attack coach Laurent Labit – though it’s suggested that Stade Francais have the inside track on the former Racing 92 and Castres coach.

Whether Glasgow will be willing to let their man go is another question.

Fickou returns for Trophée match

Racing 92 v Pau (kick off 5pm), La Defense Arena

The first-ever Trophée François Moncla match kicks off at Racing’s La Defense Arena on Saturday in honour of the flanker who graced both clubs as a player in the 1950s and 60s, before becoming president of the Bearn side in the 1970s. 

Moncla, who died last November aged 89, won the Brennus once with each club, and was part of the France side that won the Five Nations in 1959, 1960 and 1961. He captained Les Bleus on 18 of his 31 international outings.

The annual destination of the new trophy will be decided on the total points scored in the two matches between the teams across the season. 

Racing will welcome international centre Gael Fickou back to the starting line-up for the first time this season – Laurent Travers won’t be the only one wanting him to hit the ground running. Less than a month to the November internationals Fabien Galthie, and especially Shaun Edwards, will want their captain of defence firing on all cylinders. Juan Imhoff, too, is set for a return.

And Regan Grace is on his way from Saint Helens – but won’t be available until the new year because of an achilles injury. 
Meanwhile, the club tweeted a number of images of a certain Christian Wade this week – and, contrary to earlier opinions, he will start on his Top 14 debut.

And, finally, Finn Russell has suggested that reports of his departure from Nanterre at the end of the season may be a little premature. A decision on his future will be made in the coming months, he told Midi Olympique.

Basque challenge

Bayonne v La Rochelle (kick off 5pm), Stade Jean Dauger

La Rochelle face Bayonne at a sold-out Stade Jean Dauger in the full knowledge that the promoted Basque side have beaten Racing 92 and Bordeaux at home – and, for that matter, given Toulon, Stade Francais, and Brive a scare on the road.

They’ll also be well aware that two of their four wins this season have been rather closer than they’d like. They had to come from behind to beat both Montpellier on the opening day and Racing 92 last weekend. 

With Antoine Hastoy still injured, Ronan O’Gara is likely to stick with UJ Seuteni at 10, following his impressive understudy performance against Racing 92 last weekend, with Harry Glynn on the bench. Dillyn Leyds should retain kicking duties after his perfect performance off the tee.

Levani Botia is expected to return to action, while Jonathan Danty and Gregory Alldritt should both be rested. 

Experienced halfbacks Maxime Machenaud and Camille Lopez should start for Bayonne, but a number of players remain unavailable, including Eneriko Buliruarua, Baptiste Heguy, Bastien Pourailly, and Jean Monribot – who won’t be back in action for several months. 

On the positive side, Peyo Muscarditz is on the road to recovery from an ankle injury and should be ready for selection sooner rather than later.

The discipline paradox

Toulouse v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm), Stade Ernest Wallon

Top 14 leaders Toulouse have four wins in five games. They also have all three red cards shown in the Top 14 this season. 

There was Alban Placines in the opening round win at Bordeaux, Richie Arnold in their sole defeat of the season so far at Pau, and Emmanuel Meafou’s 80th-minute card for a dangerous tackle in last Sunday’s victory at Montpellier. 

Arnold was due to appeal against his four-week suspension on Thursday. He has already missed two weekends. Meafou is suspended this week pending an appointment in front of the discipline committee on Wednesday.

Paradoxically, their discipline has been good. Their high red card count – already one more than they got in the whole of last season – can be offset against their low yellow card count. Rynhardt Elstadt – also last week – is the only Toulouse player to be sin-binned this season. No other team has so few. Perpignan, for the record, have received the most yellows, six in five matches. The penalty count against them won’t unduly worry the staff, either.

The rash of reds has left Toulouse acutely light on locks. There’s likely to be some shifting around, especially if Arnold’s appeal fails, as they’re down to the specialist bolts of Josh Brennan and Thibault Flament. Yannick Youyoutte can slip in, if needed, but it may be that Ugo Mola gives under-20 international Clement Verge his first senior start.

Away from discipline matters, the news is mostly good out of the Toulouse camp. Pierre-Louis Barassi has resumed training after missing the last four weeks with injury. He may make the squad this week, which would be useful as Pierre Fouyssac limped off the pitch last week with a knee injury.

Antoine Dupont, Peato Mauvaka and Anthony Jelonch all returned to training after being rested for the trip to Montpellier, so expect a more ‘typical’ Toulouse side.

Injury news is less good for Clermont – despite promising video footage of Peceli Yato training again after a long spell on the sidelines with a knee injury. Judicael Cancoriet will be out for up to four months with a foot injury, the club reported on Thursday.

Even so, Clermont – currently fourth in the table – have a fighter’s shot at a shock win over the current leaders on their own turf. They’re one of a very select list of sides that look as if they could spring such a surprise.

Sunday, October 9

Strategy sobriety

Lyon v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm), Stade Gerland

Bordeaux’s much-needed win over Stade Francais last weekend came with a high injury price tag. Christophe Urios revealed that Antoine Miquel, Clément Maynadier and Jean-Baptiste Lachaise – a late call-up to the starting line-up – will all be out for several weeks. 

Miquel and Maynardier are expected back no earlier than the end of November, while Lachaise, who suffered a hamstring tear, is out for up to three months.

Signing Italian international Renato Giammarioli as a medical joker will, in time, cover the current issues in the pack, but there’s a persistent rumour doing the rounds that centre Remi Lamerat may be drafted into the backrow in the short term. Urios still has options, but if the injury situation gets worse, that could look to be an increasingly tempting option.

On the plus side, Nans Ducuing, Santi Cordero, Zack Holmes, and Madosh Tambwe are all available for selection as Urios’s side look for a win on the road to kickstart their season.

It’s not impossible. Like Bordeaux, Lyon have lost three of their first five matches. And they have no one to blame but themselves – for being tactically naive and unrealistic.

“We lack precision,” flanker Patrick Sobela said recently. “It’s a bit of a recurrent theme since the beginning of the season, and we’re starting to know our faults, like our opponents. We need to get better.”

“We don’t respect the game as a whole,” said coach Kenny Lynn after last week’s calamity at Clermont, a mere week after Xavier Garbajosa’s ice-cold rage about his team’s indiscipline against Stade Français. 

“It’s not a question of character, because the group is hardworking. We lack lucidity under pressure and intelligence when things go wrong, and also we lack communication. We still have a lot of work to do in terms of leadership.” 

Baptiste Couilloud and Leo Berdeu are expected to reunite at halfback for only the second time this season and will have to put the flash away at first in favour of a little strategic sobriety. 

The fans may not like it, but maybe that will help because we all know what’s coming. We all know how Bordeaux will play against a side that’s open to mistakes. They’ll seek to outdiscipline Lyon and counter when those gung-ho errors inevitably happen.

My name is James Harrington. I’m a freelance sports journalist based in France, writing mostly about French club and international rugby. If, after reading this, you feel the urge to commission me for match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, click here to contact me

And, please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday, and my first-draft, from-the-hip, quick round-up on the Irish Examiner website late on Saturday. 

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