The eighth weekend of the Top 14 season – and the last one before clubs’ France internationals head off to FFR headquarters at Marcatraz for the pre-November Tests training camp – which may or may not involve a few days with the Foreign Legion…
Toulouse are set to lose 10 players to Fabien Galthie, and another four to other national squads next month; while Lyon will to manage with at least 10 absentees, Racing will have nine international holes in their squad, and Bordeaux six, while Clermont and Castres will be without four each.
But that’s for coaches to worry about over the next couple of weeks. This is what they’re concerned about in the next day or so…
In the UK and Ireland, the Top 14 matches on Freesport this weekend are Stade Francais-Lyon, Racing 92-Montpellier, Toulouse-Castres, and La Rochelle-Toulon. Remember, too, all kick-off times here are Paris time. Adjust to your timezone accordingly.
Saturday, October 23
Bordeaux v Perpignan (kick off 3pm)
Stade Chaban Delmas
Christophe Urios, head coach of second-placed Bordeaux, warned against underestimating 13th-placed Perpignan, who head to Stade Chaban Delmas this week.
“You have to be wary of everyone [in the Top 14],” he said. “Perpignan is a promoted side in name only because it is a club that has been working well for a long time, it is a team composed of very good players. We have to be careful.”
Urios has reason to be wary, despite the fact Bordeaux have won five and drawn one of their seven games this season. Their one defeat was against the other promoted club, Biarritz, on the opening weekend of the season, when Bordeaux looked underprepared.
But that, at least, was away from home. To lose against a promoted side on the road is forgivable, to lose against both – and once at home – would be problematic, even for Urios. And, eight weekends in, there’s no preparation excuse this time around.
Three times in the past five weeks, and twice in the past two, his side threatened to lose games they were winning easily.
They gave up a 10-point lead to draw at Castres; allowed Montpellier to comeback from 27-6 down at Chaban Delmas to steal a defensive bonus and deny them a try-scoring bonus; and, thanks to 25 points from France-bound Matthieu Jalibert, escaped Pau’s Stade du Hameau with a 37-33 win after being ahead 27-9 at halftime last week.
One day, though probably not this Saturday, they’ll lose one of those closer-than-they-should-be games.
Stade Francais v Lyon (kick off 3pm)
Stade Jean Bouin
Lyon, hot off last week’s toppling of Toulouse, head to a rising Stade Francais, fresh off their own potentially crucial win at Perpignan – their first on the road, second in a row and third of the season.
It’s understandable that the visitors, third in the table heading into the weekend, will be brimming with confidence after their hard-fought dismantling of the champions last weekend – but they will not underestimate their opponents, who have reasons of their own to start believing their own hype once again after a difficult start to the season.
In the week that the hosts renamed their training ground after club legend Christophe Dominici, they have enjoyed the comfort of stepping away from the bottom of the table. Another win here could see them shoot up the ladder – but Pierre Mignoni’s visitors will have other ideas, and the visitors look like they could welcome back recent France call-up Kilian Geraci for a pre-France camp run-out after an injury break, along with Patrick Sobela.
Biarritz v Brive (kick off 3pm)
Parc des Sports d’Aguilera
Bad news dropped from Brive on Thursday, as it was revealed backrow Kitione Kamikamica’s season is pretty much done just seven weeks into the season, after he suffered a cruciate ligament injury in the narrow home defeat against La Rochelle last weekend.
He’s the latest to join Brive’s injury list, with fellow eightman So’otala Fa’aso’o out for 10 weeks following an operation on his hand; winger Wesley Douglas is out for at least a month with an ankle knock; and loosehead Hayden Thompson-Stringer has a shoulder injury that will keep him on the sidelines for three months. Prop Cody Thomas, too, is out for four months with a bicep injury, forcing the club into the market for a medical joker. Word is they’re close to signing Malino Vanai from ProD2 strugglers Agen.
Injury concerns apart, the visitors need to be aware of the kicking threat posed by the hosts’ outhalf Brett Herron. He’s scored 66 points this season – 61 of them with the boot. Even in the midst of last weekend’s six-try hiding by Castres, he caused problems for the hosts.
This will be an 80-minute duel. Biarritz were well beaten at Castres last weekend, while La Rochelle breached Brive’s fortress in a close encounter of the ugly kind. Both sides need a win – and the visitors will have targeted this roadtrip for points, given the hosts lack of strength in depth. But their own injury woes may mean their first-block plans have to be tempered.
Finally, a hat-tip to the Basque club’s marketing department, which has tapped a rich season-long vein to promote its home matches – reminding fans how long it has been since it played Top 14 opponents at home.
Clermont v Pau (kick off 3pm)
Stade Marcel Michelin
Clermont’s long-term scrum-half general returned from injury early in the second-half of last week’s win at Montpellier. But his welcome reappearance in the yellow of Clermont was tainted by the manner of it – he came on possibly earlier than anticipated following an injury to Sebastien Bezy that will keep him on the sidelines for eight weeks.
Bezy had been in livewire form for Jono Gibbes’ side in recent weeks. The new head coach will hope his injury-enforced absence will not derail a return to something approaching form for the 2017 Top 14 champions.
Pau, meanwhile, have struggled to start matches this season – conceding seven tries in the opening 20 minutes, including two at home against Bordeaux last week, of their matches and regularly go in at halftime behind on the scoreboard – and they have only won once in their last 10 visits to Marcel Michelin.
But they are routinely dangerous off first-phase ball, something the hosts will have to watch out for, and will be keen to end their Michelin hoodoo after their so-near, so-far loss at home to Bordeaux last weekend.
It’s probably a week too early to see Jordan Joseph in Pau colours following his loan move from Racing – but it will happen soon enough. Head coach Sebastien Piqueronies knows how to get the best out of his charges.
Racing 92 v Montpellier (kick off 5pm)
La Defense Arena
Racing winger Teddy Thomas returned to training this week, a post on the player’s Instagram revealed, ahead of the visit of Montpellier on Saturday.
After such a long absence, he probably won’t be fit to play this weekend against Montpellier – but his return is nothing but good news for Racing, who are about to lose several players to November international commitments.
With Jordan Joseph on loan to Pau, and 13 players currently on the injury list, it’s possible rising academy star Anthime Hemery – with five minutes Top 14 time to his name – could get his first start in Racing’s backrow, and don’t be too surprised to see 19-year-old Maxime Baudonne on the bench. There’s some debate, too, over whether to start with Antoine Gibert or Finn Russell at 10. We’ll find out what the decision is when the teamsheet is published.
Montpellier, who lost at home to Clermont last week – they ‘did not deserve to win’, according to head coach Philippe Saint-Andre – seem certain to reunite Cobus Reinach and Paolo Garbisi at nine and 10, while Vincent Rattez, called up to the France squad after Toulon’s Gabin Villiere withdrew, should start at 11. They, too, have a busy infirmary, with nine on the injury list.
This has all the hallmarks of a hard day at the office for the visitors, who start the weekend in ninth, but could find themselves slipping down towards the foot of the table.
Toulouse v Castres (kick off 9pm)
Stade Ernest Wallon
The table tells you this is first against fifth – but Castres’ backs coach David Darricarrere was absolutely sure of the scale of the challenge awaiting his side in the Top 14 champions’ sold-out backyard on Saturday night. “We are going to play the best team in France, in Europe, and perhaps in the world,” he told journalists at a press conference earlier this week.
Until such time as the proposed Club World Championship kicks off, there may be issues with that statement – Crusaders and Leinster are just two sides that could raise an objection – but there’s no arguing with the sentiment, or the scale of the task facing Castres at a hurting Toulouse.
This will be the visitors fourth awayday of the season. So far they have won one – their first at Clermont – and lost two – at Stade Francais and La Rochelle. The reasons for those defeats were very different, according to Darricarrere, who argued commitment cost them a shot at victory in the former, and strategy the latter.
“We are working hard on it and we know that on Saturday, the slightest mistake will be fatal to us. Teams like Toulouse will not forgive our errors,” he said.
He’s not wrong. Saturday night. A derby. At the champions’ home ground – a side pain after their first loss of the season at Lyon. In front of a baying, full-throated full-house. And, with their France internationals not due to leave for Marcatraz for the November Internationals training camp until Sunday, as close to full-bore as Ugo Mola can get away with.
But Lyon last week showed the way to beat Toulouse. It’s an all-in, non-stop, savagely brutal gameplan, but it worked. If Castres – likely with their trio of French internationals in action – can emulate that, they may give the hosts a tougher time than they expected.
Sunday, October 24
La Rochelle v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)
Stade Marcel Deflandre
Toulon are in a spot bother. Last week’s defeat against Racing, their fourth of the season and first at home – in front of new mega-signing Cheslin Kolbe – could not have come at a worse time.
No wonder they were quick to confirm the long-expected arrival of former hero Freddie Michalak to the coaching set-up in December. He will work on individual skills with the players on a consultancy basis.
Meanwhile, Facundo Isa’s surprising start last week, after he had been named on the injury list on Wednesday, was explained by reports that he had ignored medical advice and declared himself fit to play. Such is head coach Patrice Collazo’s desperate need for leadership on the pitch that he selected the Argentinian despite medical concerns.
Isa seems set to start this week, while Jiuta Wainiqolo has returned to training following a finger injury and may be fit to start on the wing.
La Rochelle’s 8-6 win at Brive on Saturday afternoon was far from pretty. But it was welcome for coach Ronan O’Gara. It moved the Rochelais up to the heady heights of seventh in the table, just outside the irrelevant-for-now-but-nice-to-be-in play-off places.
Another win – their third in a row – could see them climb into the top six for the first time this season. That would be something for the sell-out 16,000 crowd – the 59th in a row at Marcel Deflandre – to cheer about.
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, feel free to contact me