Top 14 preview: After Toulouse win, Lyon seek more Tuisova magic in Paris

Image Top 14 Rugby / Twitter

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

Please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. And I round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.

Top 14 preview: Lyon threaten Toulouse control and Biarritz enter dark period as nights draw in

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

It’s the Top 14 weekend before France coach Fabien Galthie selects 42 players for Les Bleus’ first November international against Argentain – and one last chance for some players to make a good impression – but for some notable names, Louis Carbonel in particular, it might be too late this time.

The most difficult challenge of Toulouse’s winning season so far will be Sunday night, when they head to Lyon – in a match shown in the UK and Ireland on Freesports – while Toulon fans will get a brief view of their new star Cheslin Kolbe as a patched-up Toulon entertain Racing 92 at Stade Mayol.

Biarritz, meanwhile, enter a difficult run of three away games in four weekends after dropping to the foot of the table.

Freesports is also showing Brive-La Rochelle, followed by Montpellier-Clermont and then Toulon-Racing 92 on Saturday. All kick-off times here, remember, are French time – adjust accordingly, if you’re trying to watch.

Saturday, October 16

Perpignan v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Stade Francais’ win over Clermont last Sunday – their second of the season – eased the early pressure on head coach Gonzalo Quesada, as the Parisians moved from the bottom of the table to the heady heights of second-from-bottom. 

This week, general manager Thomas Lombard insisted in an interview with RMC Sport that Quesada’s future at the club was not at risk – though he did not rule out a ‘reinforcement’ joining the coaching staff sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, he pointed out the need for young players Arthur Coville and Joris Segonds to step up and show leadership potential in a young squad that – he said – was in phase two of a three-phase rebuild, while defending the slow start of Ngani Laumape’s Stade career. 

They certainly looked better in victory last week – though far from the finished article.

There’s no doubt that a win on the road at the side just above them in the table, Perpignan, would ease jangling Jean Bouin nerves further. But, after their hard-fought performance at Racing last weekend – they lost 17-14 in a match they were expected to ship a hatful of points – the hosts will be feeling confident right now.

Perpignan, meanwhile, should field Melvyn Jaminet and Tristan Tedder, having rested both for last week’s trip to Racing 92, as they look to set the home record straight after defeat against Pau the last time they were in front of their Aime Giral fans.

Pau v Bordeaux (kick off 3pm)

Stade du Hameau

The second week of a difficult three-week run for Sebastien Piqueronies’ Pau. They were blown off the park in the second half at Toulouse last week, entertain Bordeaux this week, and head to Clermont next Saturday.

The Bearn side this week announced prop Nicolas Corato and winger Aminiasi Tuimaba, currently suspended after his red card against Perpignan, have extended their stays through to 2024, and it was also reported that one of France’s brightest young talents, backrow Sacha Zegueur, will reunite with former national under-20s coach Piqueronies next season, from ProD2 side Oyonnax.

That was the limit of the good news out of Pau this week. On the flipside, the hosts will be without Guillaume Ducat for several months, after he suffered a cruciate ligament injury last week. Though home fans should see Antoine Hastoy and Clovis Le Bail reunited at the hinge, with Zack Henry launching orbit finders from fullback.

Louis Picamoles’ retirement at the end of the season is the big news out of Bordeaux this week. He’s injured and won’t be involved this weekend, anyway – nor will long-term infirmary residents Lasha Tabidze and Jules Gimbert.

But the visitors, second in the league and fighting to keep pace with leaders Toulouse, may be able to count on the services of Guido Petti and Santiago Cordero for what looks, on paper, as if it will be a thoroughly entertaining match-up. Maxime Lamothe, too, should start.

Castres v Biarritz (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

We need to talk about Biarritz. Six games into a hellish opening 10-game block, and the Basque Country side – despite their refusal to blame fatigue – are blowing. Unsurprisingly. They don’t have the player resources of other clubs, and squad rotation options are limited. 

Early on, the intention appeared to follow the accepted standard French rugby method. Build a fortress at home, rest certain players for road trips as possible and target key matches. For the record, they lost their two away trips so far this season by sizeable margins.

But, first Toulouse, then Lyon last weekend wrecked the early fortifications built with wins over Bordeaux and Racing 92 at Parc des Sports Aguilera. And – with three away days in the next four weeks, Biarritz are bottom of the table, and face a grim few weeks with few points. 

This weekend’s trip to Castres will be a canary game for the Basque Country side, though the hosts’ head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan was quick to remind journalist that Biarritz would, probably have beaten Toulouse a fortnight ago, but for the individual brilliance of former Castres’ prodigy Antoine Dupont.

The first season back in the Top 14 is tough for any club. The battle for survival runs to the dying weeks of the season. For Biarritz, it’s likely to get much darker quite quickly before any slow-arriving dawn.

With Mathieu Babillot, ink on a new three-year deal still drying, out for three months with a thigh injury, Rory Kockott is expected to take on captaincy duties, while Santiago Arata, fresh from helping Uruguay reach the World Cup could be on the bench. Tyler Ardron, returned from a call-up to Canada’s squad, should start in the back row.

Brive v La Rochelle (kick off 3pm)

Stadium de Brive

Brive have 14 points out of a maximum 15 on home soil this season, having beaten Perpignan, Pau, and Stade Francais at Stadium de Brive. 

They are fifth in the table, five places and four points ahead of their opponents, last season’s losing Top 14 and Champions Cup finalists (in France, that earns La Rochelle the honorific of ‘vice-champions’. It’s probably not one they want).

To add to the good news, the club announced contract extensions for props Daniel Brennan and Wesley Tapueluelu.

The equation for Brive head coach Jeremy Davidson, who also recently extended his stay in the Correze, is simple. Add La Rochelle to that list of the fallen and make it 18 or, if possible, 19 points out of 20 in four matches on home turf.

The visitors, then, face an uphill task: winning at fortress Brive to record successive wins for the first time this season, after their 29-10 victory at home last weekend over Castres. The good news for coach Ronan O’Gara is that Will Skelton is available for selection again, having served his five-week suspension.

And the coach wants to see something special…

Montpellier v Clermont (kick off 5pm)

GGL Stadium

Clermont, usually so good on the road, have not won away from Stade Marcel Michelin since March – though, in their defence, their opponents in that seven-match losing streak have been Lyon (twice) and Toulouse (twice), Racing, Bordeaux and Stade-Français.

The good news for head coach Jono Gibbes is that Jean-Pascal Barraque, Kotaro Matsushima, Morgan Parra and Apisai Naqalevu should be available for selection. Parra, now 32, is out of contract at the end of the season and has attracted the interest of Stade Francais according to reports. But the latest word is that Clermont are keen to keep their little general – along with experienced lock Sebastien Vahaamahina. 

The bad news, however, is that Tomas Lavanini will be out of action for three weeks, after suffering a jaw fracture in this tackle from international team-mate Marcus Kremer on his debut at Stade Francais last Sunday.

Barraque told reporters on Thursday: “We know we have to do better, especially away from home, and we hope to measure progress this weekend.”

Montpellier, meanwhile, have lost once at home – against Toulouse – already this season. Philippe Saint-Andre won’t want to see that record added to on Saturday evening.

Cobus Reinach was straight into the side last weekend, having been little used by South Africa in the Rugby Championship. He should start again this week, while transfer-rumour subject Handre Pollard may on the bench for what would be his first club appearance this season.

The skies are set to be clear in the Herault, with a light wind. Perfect conditions, then, for a match with plenty riding on it – and one that may get heated as a result. 

Toulon v Racing 92 (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

Cheslin Kolbe will be at Stade Mayol this weekend – but the grand pre-match introduction to the Toulon faithful is as much as they’ll see of their new star, who has a knee injury that still requires a fair amount of support, suggesting his return to action won’t be for some time.

Kolbe arrived at Toulon on Thursday, to a certain amount of excited ceremony, where his injury will be assessed by team doctors. Until they’re complete there wll be no confirmation on how long he’ll be unavailable for, despite reports it could be as long as six months.

As well as Kolbe, Toulon are also without Eben Etzebeth, Mathias Halagahu, Julien Hériteau, Facundo Isa, Matteo Le Corvec, Charles Ollivon, Sergio Parisse, Quinn Roux, Baptiste Serin, Lopeti Timani, Christopher Tolofua, and Jiuta Wainiqolo.

Anthony Belleau, a target for several clubs, is likely to start at 10, with Louis Carbonel on the bench, as under-pressure head coach Patrice Collazo – who faces some sort of job review after this weekend’s match – tries to keep him at the club.

Fourth-placed Racing, meanwhile, will be without new signing, combative French international lock Baptiste Pesenti, for about five months after he dislocated a shoulder last week in the gritty, lacklustre 17-14 win over Perpignan at La Defense Arena. 

But it doesn’t look like they’re sending a cannon-fodder side to the Mediterranean coast. It looks like Bernard Le Roux is expected to cover for Pesenti in the engine room alongside Boris Palu, with Beale, Taofifenua and Fickou among the likely starting backs. 

There’s been plenty of negotiating table action recently, with 22 players out of contract at the end of the season. Ibrahim Diallo is set to agree new terms, according to reports – following in the re-signing shoes of Henry Chavancy, Camille Chat, Baptiste Chouzenoux and Antoine Gibert

Sunday, October 17

Lyon v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade de Gerland

The record for winning starts to a French top-flight men’s rugby campaign in the professional era is currently held by Stade Francais, with nine wins from their opening nine games of the 2006/07 season. 

Toulouse head into this weekend on a six-from-six run – the club’s own record is eight from eight back in 2005/06. It’s a record no one at the club is talking about. Pointedly.

But third-placed Lyon will be formidable opponents at home, even for a side that has beaten La Rochelle, Montpellier and Biarritz away from home without actually hitting anything approaching top gear. Even if Toulouse win this week, they have to beat Castres at home and Racing away to equal the Parisians’ record. They’re already looking ahead to the derby against Castres.

If they get that far, expect a party atmosphere at Ernest Wallon the following weekend as they go for the perfect 10 against Perpignan.

What’s most remarkable about their early season form – after the fact that they have not played well – is that no defending champion has managed such an early winning run.

But Lyon – and, in particular hooker Guillaume Marchand, younger brother of Toulouse and France 2 Julien – will have their own plans for the game. Which will, inevitably, involve wrecking that record dream that Toulouse players and staff won’t speak of and will pretend not to know about.

A side with five bonus points from their first six games is likely to give the champions the sternest test of their mettle to date. For extra fun, they may unleash Josua Tuisova, if they believe he has fully recovered from the injury that has kept him on the sidelines since the second weekend of the season. Fans may get a first glimpse of Lima Sopoaga, too, possibly off the bench.

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 some match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

Please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. And I round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.

From Waisea to Belleau: Top 14 transfer rumours of the season so far

A contract storm at Racing, busy trading in fly-halves, and the prospect of contract releases – it’s early in the Top 14 season, but the transfer market waits for no one – especially with the financial clout of Japan rugby focusing attention on star players’ futures. Here’s a rundown of some of the big contract rumours so far

Anthony Belleau

Fly-half trading in the French rugby transfer market is hectic this year – I wrote about it here – with a number of players out of contract, some moving and plenty of clubs looking. Toulon’s Belleau (25), who returned from a long spell out with injury at the start of the season and found himself – until last week’s 13-9 win over Brive – mostly playing at centre, is one of the most sought-after. Clermont have declared an interest; Montpellier want him to replace Handre Pollard; and, according to Sud Ouest at least, Pau, are said to be making overtures, while Toulon coach Patrice Collazo has reportedly recently suggested he’s keen to keep Belleau in the Var.

Camille Lopez

Officially, Lopez (32) is contracted to Clermont until 2023, but accepted wisdom for some time has been that he will leave in June 2022. Reports said that he was homesick for the southwest of France, and that Biarritz were keen to offer him a contract … but the club’s possible switch from the far southwest to the far north of France – Lille – makes that ‘homesick’ line difficult to swallow. And everything depends on whether Clermont will let him go – there’s no news on that, yet.

Leo Berdeu

The CV of Lyon’s 23-year-old fly-half Berdeu is generating interest at Pau, according to several reports. He’s enjoyed a blistering start to the season – but now Lima Sopoaga has arrived in southeast France after an agreed extended break, he may find himself slipping down the pecking order. Not that Lyon will be willing to let him leave without a fight. But a number one slot may prove too tempting.

Matthieu Jalibert

A flurry of reports earlier this month suggested that Racing were keen to pry Jalibert (22) from Bordeaux a year before his contract ends. Meanwhile, Bordeaux boss Laurent Marti has made it perfectly clear he wants to keep his young star and build a team around him. So much so that he’s keen to start negotiations on a new deal now. And the player has said he has had no contact with Racing, and that he will honour his current contract, which runs to 2023. 

Teddy Baubigny

At least one of the 20 or so players at Racing 92 who is out of contract at the end of the season won’t be staying on. Hooker Baubigny (23) is leaving after contract talks hit salary demand buffers, according to reports. Where he’s going remains a mystery, after Toulon publicly denied reports he was heading Mayol-wards.

Georges-Henri Colombe

Another rising Racing star who’s leaving at the end of the season. The prop, who’s probably on the verge of a national call-up, is set to join La Rochelle next season.

Teddy Thomas

Thomas (28) has almost but not quite played this season because of injury – though it’s reported he could return to action before the end of October against. It’s also easily forgotten that he only signed a one-year contract extension at Racing after Gael Fickou joined the club late last season. That deal finishes at the end of June 2022 … but word is club boss Jacky Lorenzetti wants to tie him to a new one.

Lorenzetti has already extended deals with Henry Chavancy, Eddy Ben Arous, Camille Chat and Antoine Gibert and has – according to Le Figaro – new contract plans for Ibrahim Diallo, Maxime Machenaud, Kurtley Beale and Juan Imhoff.

Melvyn Jaminet

It’s long been assumed that French international fullback Jaminet (22) will head to Ernest Wallon at the end of the season, despite having another year on his contract at Perpignan, as Toulouse made merry with their Cheslin Kolbe windfall. But reports earlier this month that a deal was done have been dismissed by Perpignan president Francois Riviere – but in a way that suggests it’s going to be done at some point.

This is why Toulouse like him. And he kicks, too…

Henry Slade and Sam Simmonds

After Cheslin Kolbe, reports surfaced from the UK that Toulon were keen to add some prime English beef to their squads – in the shape of Exeter duo Slade (28) and Simmonds (26). Both would make some sort of sense, Simmonds particularly, but there are issues. They’re both contracted to 2023 – which would mean Toulon boss Bernard Lemaitre would have to search the back of the sofa again to release them from their contracts. And there are JIFF matters to consider.

Harry Williams

Another Exeter player attracting French interest, according to reports. Having lost Georges-Henri Colombe to La Rochelle, Racing 92 are said to be interested in the CV of Exeter and England tighthead Williams (30).

Pierre-Louis Barassi

Another of the current crop of young French internationals apparently heading towards Toulouse is Lyon centre Barassi (23). Currently recovering from an ankle injury that may or may not keep him out of contention for the November internationals, Barassi was namechecked by France coach Fabien Galthie after an impressive Australia tour. One to watch, whether he stays at Lyon, or heads to Toulouse. 

Arthur Vincent

Yet another young France international star that Toulouse are said to be eyeing covetously, while Racing 92 are waiting in the wings to attract his attention. But, as with Jaminet, reports of a done deal were premature. Montpellier coach Philippe Saint-Andre last week ended his vow of silence on the matter to say: “We are not used to parting with our best players. Arthur is trained in Montpellier, he is an international and a leader of our team. We intend to keep him.” He has, it’s claimed, slapped a three-year deal on the table in an effort to keep Vincent – out for most of the rest of the season with a knee ligament injury that prompted a rare response from France coach Fabien Galthie and officials at the FFR – at the GGL. Is it enough to persuade him to stay at his hometown club? Time will tell.

Jordan Joseph

This one could come sooner than the end of the season, if reports are accurate. Word is Racing want to loan out their 21-year-old phenom, who’s looking for gametime but struggling to break into the matchday squad at La Defense Arena. He started seven Top 14 games last season and has only featured twice this season, once as a 10-minute sub. Apparently, and unsurprisingly, several Top 14 rivals have indicated their interest.

Kitione Kamikamica

The Fiji international backrow has the advantage of being JIFF qualified, which adds value at contract time. The former Bordeaux and Vannes player has been at Brive since 2019 – but it seems his direct and powerful style has caught the eye of the staff at Racing 92, if reports are accurate. No deal has been done yet, but negotiations are described as ‘advanced’. Bordeaux, too, were reportedly keen to bring back their former academy player.

Reda Wardi

La Rochelle may have gained a tighthead Georges-Henri Colombe, but they look set to lose loosehead Wardi (25) – another player on France coach Fabien Galthie’s watchlist – to Montpellier. It would be something of a homecoming for the player, who grew up in the city and started his career less than an hour down the A9 in Beziers.

Thierry Paiva

La Rochelle have wasted no time looking for a replacement for Wardi… RMC reported last week that they are interested in Bordeaux’s Paiva (25), currently understudy to club captain Jefferson Poirot and keen to increase his playing time. Montpellier’s Mohamed Haouas is also an option, reports suggest.

Morgan Parra

It’s been an odd few years for Parra – who’s still only 32. The arrival of Sebastien Bezy and Greig Laidlaw’s stint in the Auvergne have lessened the aura of a player who was once untouchable, to the extent that – it’s reported – he may be inclined to leave at the end of the season. Again. You may remember he was given permission to talk to other clubs before eventually deciding to stay put in 2019. As for possible destinations – Stade Francais has been mentioned…

Kotaro Matsushima

Not much of a secret, this. The Japan star is set to sign a new deal with Clermont. Coach Jono Gibbes told La Montagne: “There are benefits on both sides. He’s a player who totally fits the DNA of the club. And on our side, we have been able to give him an environment where he can progress in order to prepare well for the next World Cup. We are optimistic about his extension.”

Mathieu Babillot

Babillot (28) has been a Castres player since joining the club’s mini ‘ecole de rugby’ section in 2003. But, reports in early October suggested that former coach Christophe Urios, under whom he won the Top 14 title in 2018, wanted to take him to Bordeaux. Babillot – out of action now until 2022 after picking up a thigh injury in the defeat at La Rochelle – had rejected Toulon’s overtures a season earlier to extend his stay in the Tarn. Now, word is he’s set to turn down Urios in favour of his current – and, so far, only – club.

Waisea Nayacalevu

After a decade in Paris, in which he has scored 60 tries (and counting), Waisea is said to be heading to Toulon in June, where he could end up operating on the other wing to Kolbe. That’s quite scary.

Antoine Hastoy

We know France international fly-half Hastoy (24) is leaving Pau a year early – the club has publicly confirmed as much. We don’t officially know where he’s going. But it’s La Rochelle.

Quentin Lespiaucq

The Pau hooker has been a regular rumour-generator. Two years ago, he was said to be on his way to one of Clermont, Castres or Montpellier but, in the end, he stayed in the Bearn. Now, however, it’s reported the 26 year old has agreed a three-year deal with La Rochelle, where he’ll be reunited with fly-half Hastoy.

Giovanni Habel Kuffner

The Samoan backrow (26) has been at Pau since 2015 – but it has been reported that he’s in talks with Stade Francais over a switch to Paris at the end of the current campaign.

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 some match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

Please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. And I round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.

Top 14 preview: Already, everyone’s scrambling to keep up with Toulouse

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

Six weeks into the Top 14 season, and it’s already clear which side is setting the standard by which all others must be judged. Toulouse have opened up a six-point gap at the top of a table that has that slightly unusual early-season look.

There are 20 rounds of the competition left after this weekend before the play-offs. More than enough time for Clermont, Toulon, La Rochelle and Stade Francais – even Racing and Bordeaux – to up their respective top-six challenges. But it’s going to get harder quickly if some of them don’t improve fast – and more than one coach is under early campaign pressure.

Premier Sports is broadcasting two live games in the UK and Ireland this weekend – Toulon-Brive and Stade Francais-Clermont are on Premier Sports 1 on Saturday and Sunday evening respectively, while there’s delayed coverage of Toulouse-Pau as a curtain raiser to Sunday’s live game.

Here, then, is a look ahead at the weekend’s seven matches in French rugby’s Top 14. Kick-off times are France time…

Saturday, October 9

Biarritz v Lyon (kick off 3pm)

Parc des Sports Aguilera

A little friendly sibling rivalry could add a little interest this Saturday. Brothers in Top 14 rugby are not that unusual. Brothers playing for opposing sides also happens. Brothers in the same position on opposing teams is slightly less common. 

And then two come along at once: It may happen when Lyon entertain Toulouse next Sunday, if the Marchand boys, Guillaume is on loan at Lyon, rub heads at hooker. This week, it’s highly possible – probable, even – that Barnabé and Baptiste Couilloud will face off at scrum-half for the first time as professionals. The former is set to start while the latter may come off the bench.

Lyon might just bring Josua Tuisova back. He’s recovered from injury, and is reported to be raring to go.

By all accounts, the brothers in nines are the best of friends off the pitch, and Barnabé  has more than proved his talent. In front of at least 20 family members at Parc des Sports Aguilera this Saturday, he’ll be out to prove a point. And both sides will want a bounceback win after losing at home last weekend. Could get spicy, this one.

Expect to see new arrival Baptiste Soury in action for the hosts, too. The hooker arrived midweek from Toulon on a short-term medical joker contract. He may even be thrown straight into the starting XV.

He was more tactful about his departure than his mother, who had some choice words to say about Toulon following her son’s move.

Biarritz have lost three front-row middlemen to long-term injury in the first five weeks of the season. Last Saturday in the defeat to Toulouse, Romain Ruffenach suffered an ACL injury in the tackle that saw Joe Tekori red carded. Lucas Peyresblanques (hamstring) and Francois Da Ros (biceps) were already sidelined.

Bordeaux v Montpellier (kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

Discussions have started to extend Bordeaux coach Christophe Urios’s contract beyond its current 2023 deadline – but his future at the club is not the most interesting.

Scrum-half Yann Lesgourges seems to have fallen out of favour since signing a contract extension of his own through to 2025 just over a year ago, with Maxime Lucu the undoubted number one in that position, prompting some speculation that Bordeaux may be willing to let Lesgourges go.

In fact, Lucu has been so impressive in partnership with Matthieu Jalibert that he is now being talked about in terms of national squad selection – by Fabien Galthie himself.

Lesgourges is likely to be on the bench again for the match against Montpellier, with Lucu starting alongside his lauded 10-buddy.

For Montpellier, losing Arthur Vincent for up to eight months was a major blow. For France, too, as evidenced by remarks on social media by coach Fabien Galthie and the official France Rugby account.

Thomas Darmon and Geoffrey Doumayrou are covering midfield – but losing Vincent means Philippe Saint-Andre is down to the last two of his five-strong captains’ club, with Guilhem Guirado and Benoit Paillaugue also both on the long-term injury list.

One of them, Yacouba Camara, is expected to take captaincy responsibility this week.

They are likely, meanwhile, to bring returning South African Cobus Reinach, fresh off the plane from Australia, straight back into the action given their own severe scrum-half shortage.

La Rochelle v Castres (kick off 3pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Ronan O’Gara isn’t the only coach this week breathing a little sigh of relief that his opponents are eminently beatable away from home – yes, despite their win over Clermont on the second weekend of the season. 

Although he is not under the kind of official pressure that Patrice Collazo or Gonzalo Quesada are under at Toulon and Stade Francais respectively, a win of any kind after four defeats in five would be a relief.

That said, though a home win really should be a foregone conclusion, La Rochelle are not in a happy place so far this season. 

Their breakdown work, a reliable strong suit in a difficult start to the Top 14, fell apart last week at Montpellier – and it’s a foregone conclusion that O’Gara’s opposite number this weekend, perennial rugby student Pierre-Henry Broncan, has watched that game repeatedly to see how Montpellier did it.

Only the most die-hard La Rochelle fan would predict a win as big as the one the last time the two sides met at Marcel Deflandre, when the hosts racked up 63 points against the Covid-depleted visitors. 

This will be closer. It should still end with a win for the hosts – but there might just be a scare or two along the way against a World Cup qualifiers-depleted side.

Racing 92 v Perpignan (kick off 3pm)

La Defense Arena

For all that they outscored Clermont two tries to one, Racing were, on the whole, disappointingly passive in defeat at Stade Marcel Michelin last Sunday that saw them drop from second to sixth in the early-season standings.

The coaches, led by Laurent Travers, will expect more from a slightly tweaked Racing side that should still feature the livewire Nolan LeGarrec at scrum-half. They should play with more freedom on their synthetic home turf, where they have won both of their matches to date.

Meanwhile, with Fabien Sanconnie out for the foreseeable, Racing have poached Victor Moreaux from Agen on a short-term medical joker contract. He’s unlikely to play this weekend – but expect him to add some much needed oomph at lock in the weeks to come. But Henry Chavancy, injured at the end of last season, could return – it’s believed he could be named on the bench.

Perpignan are expected to give Melvyn Jaminet – whose future is the subject of talks between the club and Toulouse – a rest for a match that most probably would not expect them to win. 

Toulouse v Pau (kick off 5pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

Five from five really should become six from six as Toulouse entertain Pau – and, if the hosts get that particular feeling, numbers could get big on the home side of the scoreboard.

This should not be seen as a slight on Pau, busy rebuilding under head coach Sebastien Piqueronies. Fifth place, with three wins from five – including a useful on-the-road victory at Perpignan last week classes as a decent start to the season.

But, eventually, every Top 14 side comes up against Toulouse. And, the mood they’re in right now, it’s hard to see any opponents getting the better of them. So far, La Rochelle, Toulon, Montpellier, Clermont and Biarritz have tried. All have failed. 

Toulouse will lose at some point this season, but it’s genuinely close to impossible to see Pau – likely to rest their key points scorers Antoine Hastoy and Zack Henry this week – changing that record.

Toulon v Brive (kick 0ff 9.05pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

Officially, Toulon’s Patrice Collazo still has the confidence of club president Bernard Lemaitre – which, naturally, is understood to mean he is a coach under huge pressure as his side face yet another primetime TV match – they have yet to play in any other timeslot this season, and won’t until October 30. 

Freddie Michalak is set to join his staff in a consultancy role from December, while Lemaitre said this week he be watching this match and next week’s visit of Racing 92 very closely – and will then make a decision on his coach’s future. He also fired a broadside at players on the club’s books.

On Collazo’s side is the length of his contract – not long ago he signed a deal through to 2025, meaning that it may be prohibitively expensive to buy him out of his contract. That said, Lemaitre demonstrated with the late-summer signing of Cheslin Kolbe that he’s willing to dig deep if he deems it necessary. Will he go that far? 

Much will depend on the result – and the performance – against Brive this week. A big win would be a fillip for fans, staff and players alike ahead of what promises, on paper at least, to be a much sterner test next weekend.

Brive – for all that they are rebuilding their home fortress, giving up only one try in three outings – have shipped eight tries in their two matches on the road. 

Perhaps this match, against this opponent, at this venue, could not have come at a better time for Toulon’s troubled top dog.

Sunday, October 10

Stade Francais v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

If Collazo’s under huge pressure at Toulon, then bottom-of-the-table Stade Francais’ Gonzalo Quesada has entered a whole new physical state of pressure in which new forms of metaphysical matter are created.

The Paris club have won just once in five matches, against Castres a fortnight ago at Stade Jean Bouin, and are conceding an average of 28 points a game, while scoring just over 16 in reply. 

They were beaten 19-12 at Brive last weekend, and have lost Yoann Maestri for six months with a ruptured tendon in his bicep, while Paul Alo-Emile has been suspended until the end of October for a dangerous tackle three minutes into that one highpoint match of the season.

Owner Hans-Peter Wild this week formally and publicly denied that he has been in contact with former Montpellier coach and current Canal Plus pundit Xavier Garbajosa.

There was speculation this summer that Garbajosa would join Quesada’s staff – but, obviously, that never came to pass. However, to link him with the top job seems odd, given the coach himself said that he found out he was not ready for the head coach job in the Herault.

However, in the same interview in which his denial about looking for a new coach was as close to a vote of confidence as Quesada looks like getting at the moment, Wild also didn’t even try to hide his frustration at Stade’s season. 

“I consider the start of the exercise a disaster,” he said. “I am still awaiting an explanation from the technical staff and management.”

It’s to be hoped that, by now, he’s received that explanation. And what he’ll be looking for on Sunday is something additional – and better. 

Sadly, they face a Clermont side buoyed by a recent uptick in their own performances, and set to feature a Damian Penaud who has rediscovered his joie de vivre following a temporary switch back to midfield. This match could also see the return of Morgan Parra and Wesley Fofana from injury. Who’d be Quesada right now?

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 some match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

Do please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. And I’ll round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.

Top 14 Preview: Clermont look to end home Racing hoodoo, and Brive plan centenary celebrations

Image: ASM Rugby / Twitter

Five weeks into the Top 14 season, and the LNR is undertaking a massive media push to promote the game, while the transfer market is already in overdrive. 

As well as this TV ad, local posters are going up all over the country as the game looks to attract new fans:

Three of the weekend’s games are broadcast in the UK and Ireland. Biarritz-Toulouse, Castres-Toulon, and Clermont-Racing are all on FreeSports.

Meanwhile in the recruitment world, Pau’s Antoine Hastoy is on his way to La Rochelle; and, if rumours are to be believed, Clermont’s Camille Lopez wants to leave despite having a year left on his contract; Stade Francais have their eyes on Morgan Parra; Lyon’s Pierre-Louis Barassi is heading to Toulouse, who have also grabbed Melvyn Jaminet from Perpignan … or, maybe they haven’t. Certainly, Perpignan president François Rivière has dismissed reports the long-predicted deal is as done as some may think. Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

But recruitment rumours are for another post. This one is all about this weekend’s matches in French rugby’s top flight. Remember kick-off times listed here are France time…

Saturday, October 2

Brive v Stade Francais (Kick off 3pm)

Stadium de Brive

In a nod to history, Brive entertain Stade Francais at ‘le Stadium’ almost 100 years to the day after the two sides played the first-ever match at the ground – on September 25, 1921.

The club and the town have arranged all sorts of celebrations to mark the centenary. There’s an exhibition of photographs from the 100 years of matches at the Stadium, and matchday will be marked by a series of events for fans – including demonstrations by the rugby, tennis and athletics sections of Club Athlétique Brive Corrèze Limousin, in homage to the events of the inauguration a century ago.

On the pitch, however, it’s Top 14 duty as standard for both sides. Brive have bonus-point home wins over Pau and Perpignan to thank for their 10 league points and current fifth-place standing in the league. Their goal – to remain undefeated at home, pick up another bonus point, if possible, and mark their home ground’s centenary match in style.

Stade, perhaps finally ready for the season after last weekend’s player-down win over Castres at home, will have other ideas.

Montpellier v La Rochelle (Kick off 3pm)

GGL Stadium

Two narrow defeats on the bounce – a 15-17 defeat at home to Toulouse, followed by a 23-22 loss at Pau – have left Montpellier 10th in the standings, while visitors La Rochelle are currently 12th, having picked up their first win of the season last Saturday – a 59-17 nine-try hammering of Biarritz at a sold-out Stade Marcel Deflandre.

This, then, is a battle between two ambitious sides who have found themselves in the lower reaches of the table, far from where they want to be even so early in the campaign.

Both are playing better rugby than their league position perhaps suggests – an indication as much of the exaggerated nature of new season tables as any given side’s form. This has all the hallmarks of an early afternoon bar-setter.

Perpignan v Pau (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime-Giral

Perpignan have a home record to maintain – and a target to beat against Pau this weekend. And after their ground-out win against Toulon at the same ground last Saturday, the odds of them making it three from three have to be in their favour.

The home fans will take more of the same, after their side last week equalled the number of wins – two – from their entire last, disastrous, Top 14 campaign in 2018/19 in just four games.

And all eyes are likely to be on home fullback Melvyn Jaminet, as the newly crowned ProD2 player of the year and Revelation of the year seeks to keep talk of a possible move to Toulouse to the back of his mind and focus on the here and now.

It won’t be easy. Perpignan president François Rivière publicly denied reports this week that a deal had been signed to allow Jaminet to head to Ernest Wallon in July despite having another two years on his contract. But the rumours, which have been swirling since the summer, are refusing to go away, such is the star power of the player right now. 

Pau boss Sebastien Piqueronies, meanwhile, is planning to pick up the pace of his squad rebuild. After last week’s one-point win over Montpellier at Stade du Hameau, he told reporters: “We are cruelly lacking in realism and efficiency in key areas, but we manage to create chances. We’re getting closer.”

He’ll want to see some improvement this weekend – if not, necessarily a win, then a better performance than they managed last time they were on the road, when they were well beaten at Brive. And maybe a few more touchdowns – Pau have been a bit tryline-shy so far.

Lyon v Bordeaux (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Gerland

Anything 10th v 12th can do – Montpellier v La Rochelle, in case you scrolled straight to this match preview – third v fourth – that’s this match – can do too … and, maybe, better. 

These two sides are heavy points scorers. Lyon have 13 tries in four outings, Bordeaux 11. The hosts, meanwhile, have the early advantage in defence. They have conceded just four tries – and three of those were in the first 13 crazy minutes at Racing 92’s La Defense Arena last week – to the visitors’ seven.

But Bordeaux have Mathieu Jalibert. He’s been in rare form this season – and, although he is under contract to 2023, there’s already been speculation about his future, with Racing 92 reportedly keen to pry him from Christophe Urios.

The player is keeping his counsel – a gnomic Instagram post stated only that he remains under contract at Bordeaux, while he told former player-turned-radio host Vincent Moscato in a statement that says nothing: “I have no contact with Racing. I take the time to reflect. For the moment I am focused on my season with the UBB.”

Lyon have home advantage – but this one looks like it will be close. Probably a relatively high-scoring close, too, which will be good for neutrals if not for fans of either side.

Expect to see this fellow, too, in the crowd. He’s been training with his new club this week – and may make his debut as early as next weekend.

Biarritz v Toulouse (Kick off 5pm)

Parc des Sports Aguilera

Strained relations between Biarritz the rugby club and Biarritz the resort on the southwest coast of France reached another low this week, if a series of tweets between club president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé and mayor Maider Arosteguy are anything to go by.

The staff and players have done well to ignore long-rumbling off-field issues, which may yet end up with the club relocating to Lille. And, they’ll be satisfied enough with their return to the Top 14 so far – having already dispatched Bordeaux and Racing 92 at home to pick up eight points from their four games to date.

This, however, is a whole new challenge. Toulouse are now the only unbeaten side in the Top 14. They have beaten La Rochelle and Montpellier on the road; and ripped Toulon a new one, then beat a fast-and-furious Clermont side determined to play the Toulouse way at home – all without actually hitting anything approaching top gear.

At this early stage, it’s hard to look beyond Toulouse for the title. It’s just as hard to look beyond them for who’ll win at Biarritz this weekend.

Castres v Toulon (Kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

Toulon’s fifth primetime kick-off in five games this season sees them head to the stadium where their play-off dreams last season were ended in the final outing of the campaign on June 5.

Castres, at the time, were on an unlikely mission for the play-offs themselves, having been 13th in the table at the turn of the year. Like their opponents, ultimately, they didn’t make it – but they did qualify for the Champions Cup, courtesy of Montpellier’s Challenge Cup victory.

Now, however, things are slightly different. Castres were embarrassed at Stade Francais last weekend, losing their unbeaten start to the season in the process. They will want nothing more than simply to get back to winning ways.

Toulon, meanwhile, lost a poor TV advert for the Top 14 at Perpignan to slip down to ninth in the table. 

Coach Patrice Collazo, meanwhile, is a coach under pressure. Toulon could – and, perhaps, should – have won last week. 

But they have not won on the road since February in any competition and – with a still heavily depleted squad (there were fitness concerns over centre Julien Hériteau and lock Brian Alainu’uese this week, with Baptiste Serin, Charles Ollivon, Facundo Isa, Sergio Parisse, Christopher Tolofua, Jiuta Wainiqolo, Mathieu Smaïli, and Duncan Paia’aua already in the infirmary) – will do well to get close at Stade Pierre Fabre, where Castres are unbeaten under coach Pierre-Henry Broncan.

“I do not ask for time. I ask that we win games. I do not want time. We took only one point at the weekend. There were four points at stake. The discontent, I can hear it,” Collazo told reporters this week.

The message is clear. The players on the pitch need to step up. As Gabin Villiere says here: “The main objective is to remain undefeated at home, but if we want to go higher, we have to win away.”

Sunday, October 3

Clermont v Racing 92 (Kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Coming off second best against Toulouse in what was, without doubt, the match of last weekend won’t have impressed Clermont coach Jono Gibbes much. 

For long periods of that game at Ernest Wallon, they had the beating of the defending champions – only to head back to the Auvergne with nothing to show for their efforts. 

He will want cooler heads and more clinical play as Clermont look for their first win over Racing at Marcel Michelin in four years.

Racing, perhaps with Jordan Joseph – the subject of loan speculation in recent days – selected for the first time this season on the bench, should expect a ferocious backlash in the Top 14’s flagship Sunday primetime match. 

It has, no doubt, been a busy week at Plessis-Robinson, the Nanterre club’s training complex. Last Saturday’s win was not so much a game of two halves as one of four quarters. The first, Racing were the only club in town, running in three unanswered tries to be 21-0 ahead in 13 minutes. Then they switched off, scoring just one more penalty in 65 minutes, and allowing Lyon to get within four.

Last week wasn’t good enough for Racing – and they won. Last week wasn’t quite enough for Clermont – and they lost. Both sides’ coaches will demand better. Clermont have already lost at home this season, and won’t want to make it two defeats in three in front of their fans. But for the weather – rain is forecast – this would have the makings of a decent match. It still could be…

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 some match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

Do please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. And I’ll round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.

Top 14 Preview: Must-win weekend for Stade Francais and La Rochelle

Image: Stade Francais / Twitter

The fourth week of the Top 14 is still very much in that early stage of the season when any points have an exaggerated effect on league positions.

Even so, there are hints at what the immediate future may hold. Toulouse already look strong contenders, Stade Francais and La Rochelle need to turn things around – as do Clermont, despite last weekend’s brief respite – and things look bumpy on the injury front at both Montpellier and Toulon.

Premier Sports TV live matches this weekend are La Rochelle-Biarritz followed by Racing 92-Lyon on Freesports on Saturday afternoon; then over on Premier Sports 2, Perpignan-Toulon on Saturday evening and Toulouse-Clermont on Sunday night.

Stade Francais v Castres (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

A win. It’s all that matters for Stade Francais. It doesn’t have to be pretty or clever. It doesn’t need to be convincing. But it must be a win.

Three defeats and 111 points conceded in three games: the Parisians’ campaign is careering towards the catastrophic. Only once before have they lost their first four in a row – back at the start of the 2003/4 season, when the Top 14 was a Top 16. 

If Stade are looking for optimistic signs from history, there is one: they recovered from that poor start, and went on to win their 12th French championship, beating Perpignan 38-20 in the final. Positives and all that.

But history, notoriously, is an unreliable guide to present form and blind to current needs. And the fact is Stade are the only pointless team in the league this season, and one of just two without a win to their name. 

Gonzalo Quesada has a malfunctioning attack to correct, and a porous defence to fill ahead of a match against the unlikeliest of the Top 14’s two undefeated teams this season.

And there’s another problem. The squad has had to deal with illness this week – James Hall, Paul Alo-Emile and Yoann Maestri are among a number of key players who have barely trained.

Castres  will do what they know – they will niggle, and they will scrap, and they will be generally annoying. In their current position, under their current pressure there’s a risk Stade may bite – and then things could go wrong very quickly.

For the visitors, this is a shot-to-nothing game, in which a win would be a bonus. It’s not impossible they could do it…

Pau v Montpellier (Kick off 3pm)

Stade du Hameau

The big news out of Montpellier this week involves a player who isn’t even at the club right now. Handre Pollard, currently on Rugby Championship duty with South Africa, may leave at the end of the season according to reports in France.

Meanwhile, another South African absentee, Cobus Reinach, can’t come back quickly enough. Montpellier are on the bones of a serious scrum-half shortage, with Benoit Paillaugue and Gela Aprasidze both injured in the opening three weeks of the season. 

Martin Doan did well coming off the bench last week in the 15-17 home loss to European and Top 14 champions Toulouse, in just his second Top 14 outing after being plucked from the third-tier Nationale  – but Pau will no doubt target the inexperienced 22-year-old on Saturday.

But it looks as if there may be some squad rotation, with Fulgence Ouedraogo, Geoffrey Doumayrou and Thomas Darmon among those who could be rested.

After two games without a touchdown, Pau finally broke their try-scoring duck after 180 minutes of game time at Brive last weekend. They may find it hard to breach Montpellier’s defence this week, and could end up relying on the boot of La Rochelle-bound fly-half Antoine Hastoy once again.

Ignacio Calles may return to the squad after being injured against Stade Francais back in April.

Bordeaux v Brive (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban-Delmas

A win, a draw, a defeat and mid-table mediocrity is probably not what Christophe Urios expected from his first three matches of the 2021/22 season, which featured trips to Biarritz and Castres and a home match against Stade Francais. 

He may have been working on the theory that he would have at least one win on the road already – but he took an undercooked team to the far southwest, and will have been disappointed to let a 10-point lead slip on the trip to the side he guided to the 2018 championship and against whom he had, until last weekend, enjoyed a perfect record at Bordeaux.

But reality and expectation do not necessarily meet – though seven league points from three games with a positive points difference is a decent enough start to the season. 

Urios will, however, want his side to make it 12 from four with a bonus-point home win over Brive. It might not be straightforward though.

The visitors looked good in attack and defence last time out against Pau at Amadee Domenech, when they welcomed Thomas Laranjeira back after a hip operation, and although all their 10 league points so far have come at home, they may well give their hosts a few scares.

La Rochelle v Biarritz (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Biarritz – fifth-placed Biarritz – have started their Top 14 return season in the right way. In beating Bordeaux and Racing 92 at home, they have ensured their current ground, Parc des Sports Aguilera, has an early reputation as a fortress, an unforgiving and brutal purgatory for visiting teams. 

Their one away day so far was a 33-20 loss at fellow top-flight returnees Perpignan, which offers no real clues as to their levels of performance on the road. This match, however, against winless La Rochelle at Marcel Deflandre almost definitely will.

Ronan O’Gara will have always targeted this match for a win. But victory – and the four or five points that come with it – are imperative now. It’s been a cruel opening for his tenure in charge, meeting Toulouse, then Racing 92, then Clermont. 

This should be an easier match – for a given Top 14 value of ‘easy’ – for the hosts, who could call on new signing Jonathan Danty for the first time this season. But we’ll also finally get a decent view of Biarritz away from the comforts of home against an established Top 14 opponent.

Racing 92 v Lyon (Kick off 5pm)

La Defense Arena

Teddy Thomas, with his new aerodynamic hairdo, was expected to make his first appearance of the season this weekend – but word is he has picked up a hamstring injury that looks likely to delay his return by several weeks.

It’s unfortunate timing – the France squad are due to meet around October 24 for the November internationals against Argentina, Georgia and New Zealand, and he’ll have little time, if any, to prove his form for the selectors. It now seems certain Fabien Galthie and Laurent Labit will be looking elsewhere for out-wide firepower.

This is nothing clubs aren’t used to – losing personnel to injury comes with the sporting territory. But it’s a shame for fans, as Thomas can be pure box office. There’s no Pierre-Louis Barassi for the visitors, either. He suffered a sprained ankle scoring a try in last week’s match, and will also be out for several weeks – to the frustration, no doubt, of Galthie.

Meanwhile, Lyon’s headline signing Lima Sopoaga was due to arrive in France this week after an agreed extended holiday before joining his new club. 

As for Saturday’s match: two try-scoring bonus points separate second-placed Lyon from sixth-placed Racing after three rounds of the Top 14.

Lyon have the best attack in the league, scoring 11 tries and 92 points in their matches to date – but it’s still difficult to see them winning at La Defense Arena: only one of those 11 touchdowns and 17 of those points came away from home.

Perpignan v Toulon (Kick off 9pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Two big defeats on the road – at Brive and Lyon – and a win at home over Biarritz. Perpignan’s return to the Top 14 has, apart from the scale of those away losses, gone pretty much according to neutral expectation so far.

This is the first big test of their home credentials. Toulon are a heavily wounded side, despite their big win over Stade Francais in the inaugural Trophee Christophe Dominici match last Sunday night. 

Sergio Parisse is out for three months with a wrist fracture, and Facundo Isa will miss six weeks with a broken finger. Both players join the likes of Charles Ollivon, Baptiste Serin and Jiuta Wainiqolo in a Toulon infirmary that’s already full to bursting.

Make no mistake, despite the number of missing players, Patrice Collazo will be able to field a formidable side. And this is the acid test for Patrick Arlettaz, Perry Freshwater and Christian Lanta under Saturday night lights. 

The standard expectation in the Top 14 is that sides will win their home games. The Catalans did their job against Biarritz a fortnight ago, but that was a ProD2 match in Top 14 clothing. 

This is the first real challenge of the season. Biarritz have passed both of theirs against established top-flight opponents. Now Perpignan, ProD2 champions last season, have to follow suit, or this will bear all the early hallmarks of another yo-yo campaign for the sang et or.

Toulouse v Clermont (Kick off 9pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

No Charlie Faumina. No Joe Tekori. No Pita Ahki. Toulouse have gone three for three this season – including two on the road – without this trio of experienced squad members. 

Clermont, who welcomed back their own big game threesome of Fritz Lee, Peceli Yato and Kotaro Matsushima for their first win of the season over La Rochelle last weekend, should probably be slightly concerned that at least one of those Toulouse stars – Ahki – is in the selection reckoning for the final game of the Top 14 weekend on Sunday night. The other two are near a return.

In their solo home game of the season so far, Toulouse hammered Toulon 41-10. They rode their luck a little early on, but it was a result and a performance that can have left no doubt in the minds of rival Top 14 coaches: this side will punish just about any error from just about anywhere. And then they’ll unpick your defence for the fun of it.

It’s safe to say there’s something about Toulouse. Despite the lack of preseason preparation, there’s even an early hint of a suspicion that the 2021/22 version might just be better than the double-winning 2020/21 squad. 

Of course, there’s a long way to go yet, and plenty that can go wrong – but this is by far the biggest challenge of Jono Gibbes’ brief Clermont DoR career, which counts one win from three attempts – that came last weekend at home to his former club, La Rochelle. A fourth win in a row for Ugo Mola’s Toulouse is the most likely outcome. The size of the home side’s victory may offer a clearer indication of the scale of the job that Gibbes’ faces at Marcel Michelin.

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 some match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

Do please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. This week I’m focusing on the troubles at Stade Francais – that seems to be a common late September topic for me – and I’ll round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.

Top 14 Preview: Third weekend’s biggest games are at the foot of the table

Image: ASM Rugby / Twitter

In the marathon-not-a-sprint stakes of the Top 14 season, it’s pointless being surprised by the early standings. 

Brive were top of the French pile after the opening weekend, but dropped to eighth after last weekend’s loss at Montpellier as the exaggerated effects of early season results bounced teams up and down the table.

This week, Toulouse are the leaders, followed by Racing 92 … with Castres third. But few would have expected Stade Francais, La Rochelle, Clermont and Toulon to be languishing at the bottom of the table – and, by a curious twist of fixture-scheduling fate, this weekend’s final two matches feature all four of those teams. 

Here are the matches on Premier Sports TV in the UK and Ireland, by the way

Brive v Pau

(Kick off 3pm) Stade Amedee-Domenech

It’s very early days, obviously, but these two sides have near-identical records this season. Both have won and lost one. Brive have scored a total 53 points and conceded 54, while Pau have scored 33 and conceded 33.

That suggests, vaguely, that Brive are better in attack, and Pau stronger in defence, again borne out by the statistics. The hosts have six tries to their name, while the visitors have yet to score one. Yet Brive have conceded five to Pau’s two, while the Bearn side won last week despite being a player down for 55 minutes.

The hosts will miss the services of prop Cody Thomas, who was replaced at Montpellier with a shoulder injury last week. He needs surgery and will be out for a few weeks.

But don’t let the stats grind you down. This has all the hallmarks of an end-to-end encounter. Pau probably should break end their try drought, but you have to reckon Brive will edge this one. It’ll be close – but there should be plenty to enjoy.

Biarritz v Racing 92

(Kick off 3pm) Parc des Sports Aguilera

Last week’s loss at Perpignan was something of a reality check for Biarritz after their grand opening-day home win over Bordeaux. To be frank, they caught Christophe Urios’s side cold – they looked a couple of weeks shy of campaign readiness.

Biarritz should not – and will not – expect the same generosity of spirit from Racing, who have won both their outings this season to sit second in the table behind Toulouse – producing a couple of pieces of magic along the way. Whether they can do anything about it remains to be seen.

What also remains to be seen is how well the fans are taking the news that Biarritz will play its two Challenge Cup pool games this season in far-off Lille. Problems between club and council go back a long way, and it seems almost certain now that Biarritz will move to the far north of France sooner rather than later.

Some good news for the Basque Country side, however. Argentine international Tomas Cubelli has resumed individual training and may be available from mid-October.

Castres v Bordeaux

(Kick off 3pm) Stade Pierre Fabre

He left at the end of the 2018/19 season, but Castres’ fans have not yet got over the manner of Urios’s departure for Bordeaux – at the end of a season in which the 2018 champions should have made the play-offs but didn’t. 

To frustrate them further, Urios has engineered a Bordeaux win in every meeting between the two sides since – though it has been close a couple of times. And his side looked to be on the match-winning money last week against an overwhelmed Stade Francais, following their dismal opening-weekend defeat at Biarritz. 

Expect another close encounter of the furious kind – Castres have won both games this season, and their winning streak at home now extends to nine games, bettered only by a club-record 11-game run from March to December 20112. But week’s win at Clermont will count for little if they do not follow-up with a victory at home. They just have to watch out for this sort of skill from their opponents.

Bordeaux, who have spent the past day or so in a hotel in Montauban, are expected to start with Francois Trinh-Duc at 10, and Mathieu Jalibert – fresh from his inspirational performance last week – on the bench.

Lyon v Perpignan

(Kick off 3pm) Stade Gerland

All the indications point to a big home win, as newly promoted Perpignan – fresh from their first win of the season at home to Biarritz – head from southwest to southeast France.

The hosts, on their newly installed synthetic pitch, were too hot for Clermont to handle on the opening day, and will have been more than disappointed to lose at Pau last week, when they had a numerical advantage for most of the game.

The players have spent the past few weeks getting used to the faster pace of the surface, working to tighten up their precision and keep their gameplan simple and speedy. They should win far more than they lose this season – and will expect a near-perfect home record. 

Clement Laporte looks set to get his first start of the season at 15 for Lyon – while the hosts may also welcome back Thibault Regard and Patrick Sobela to the matchday squad.

Montpellier v Toulouse

(Kick off 5pm) GGL Stadium

A major challenge for Montpellier after they fought back for a draw in their opener at Toulon, then blasted Brive aside in their first home game of the new season as they welcome France’s other European champions.

Toulouse looked like a side that had only trained together for four weeks when their opened the defence of their title at La Rochelle. But they still found a way to win, helped in part by Will Skelton’s dismissal for a dangerous tackle, as well as Jules Plisson’s wastefulness off the tee.

A week later, against Toulon, that first-game rust had mostly disappeared as Ugo Mola’s side won 41-10 at home, despite a fair few handling errors.

The defending champions are beatable. They may even lose this weekend against a Montpellier side that looks more dangerous and threatening than it did at any time last season – but they’ll go down swinging. A warm, dry evening is forecast in the Herault, so this match could swagger.

Clermont v La Rochelle

(Kick off 9.05pm) Stade Marcel Michelin

This is one of those ‘pattern’ matches that stick out like a sore thumb and excite weekly preview writers. It’s former coaching colleagues turned opponents, as Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara reunite for the first time since Gibbes left Marcel Deflandre for Marcel Michelin. 

And – double trouble – both sides have lost their opening two matches. Clermont have suffered for their ongoing inability to win consistently at the breakdown, while La Rochelle’s vaunted KBA philosophy has been worked out – at least by Toulouse and Racing 92.

No doubt Gibbes, with his inside knowledge, will have his own ideas on how to beat a system he was instrumental in developing. This has turned into a key early season match for both sides – and the hosts may have a couple of secret weapons. As well as Matsushima possibly making his first start, word is that Fritz Lee and Peceli Yato are close to a return, and may even make the 23 this weekend.

Toulon v Stade Francais

(Kick off 9.05pm) Stade Felix Mayol

League points and table position, unusually, won’t matter quite so much on an emotional Sunday evening as the first-ever Trophée Christophe Dominici match kicks off between the two clubs closest to his heart.

No trophy will be handed out here – it will be awarded to the team that scores the most points over both Top 14 meetings this season, so the first winners will be decided in January 2022. 

Both sides will want to break their win duck for the season, however, and with the mid-September weather set fair according to Meteo-France, we can hope to expect some decent running rugby in memory of Domi.

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 some match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

Top 14 review: No panic but concern for Stade Francais and Clermont after second Top 14 loss in a row

Two weeks and as many matches into a 10-month, 26-to-29-game, Top 14 campaign is way too early to even be thinking of hitting the ‘operation maintien’ panic button. But at least two top-six hopefuls who are currently in the table’s lower reachers have urgent issues to address quickly if they’re to avoid a problem season.

A total 35 tries were scored in this weekend’s seven games – Toulouse led the way, with six – while there was one red and 12 yellow cards. And a number of clubs welcomed back returning France internationals, with varying degrees of success.

Stade Francais have now shipped 73 points in just two games and lagged a long way behind a Mathieu Jalibert-inspired Bordeaux at Stade Chaban-Delmas on Saturday evening. 

The final 37-10, four-tries-to-one, scoreline could have been much worse for the visitors if Bordeaux had entered try-scoring mode in the opening half rather than waiting until the 53rd minute to cross the whitewash. 

Jalibert’s ever-threatening gamebreaking skill was a timely reminder to Fabien Galthie and anyone else watching that, not-so very long ago, he was heir apparent to the French 10 shirt ahead of Romain Ntamack. 

As well as the brilliance, he did the basics, too, notching 14 points with the boot – and was, unsurprisingly, heralded as Midi Olympique’s Top 14 player of the week.

As for Stade, the optimism prompted by last season’s late surge to the play-off has evaporated in the harsh light of a new campaign. Backs coach Julien Arias admitted: “We will go back to Paris with a big dose of humility. 

“Our work in attack was very poor: we lost the ball after two or three phases and against a good team like that, we paid in cash. We (the staff) are very worried, the players too.”

Meanwhile, Clermont’s own defensive woes are mounting. They have conceded 62 points in their opening two outings, and lost 30-34 at home to Castres on Saturday afternoon.

The hosts’ problems weren’t evident when Tani Vili came into the starting XV as a late replacement for Wesley Fofana. And they definitely weren’t evident when he scored the game’s opening try after eight minutes.

After that early success, however, Clermont found it increasingly difficult to match their opponents’ physicality at the breakdown. They should have gone in 20-11 ahead at the breakdown, after JJ Hanrahan scored his second try in as many games for the club – but conceded an avoidable penalty that the visitors took seven-point advantage of.

It was the first of two occasions that Castres’ players successfully ignored pitchside instruction. Pierre-Henry Broncan had called for a three-pointer that would have taken them to within six points rather than two.

They did it again, much later, opting for a tap penalty rather than David Darricarreres’ preferred scrum option. It worked, too, with Kevin Kornath bursting over for what would turn out to be the decisive score.

Afterwards, Clermont coach Jono Gibbes said his side had ‘no excuses’ after a second defeat, and first at home, under his stewardship. “After these 80 minutes, one team was able to manage the key moments and the other is asking questions,” he said. “Against La Rochelle, next week, it will be a challenge. But it’s the perfect challenge for this group – there is no more choice.”

Who could have predicted that Gibbes’ early-season reunion with his old club, La Rochelle, next Saturday evening would be a 12th v 13th battle at Marcel Michelin? But that’s how it has worked out, after Ronan O’Gara’s side lost 23-10 at Racing 92. 

Like Clermont and Stade Francais, La Rochelle have zero wins from two games – but they have hard the more difficult opening matches – at home to Toulouse and then at O’Gara’s old club Racing. 

Not that it will be any consolation to O’Gara, who has now lost three times at La Defense Arena since joining La Rochelle. What would be more galling to him is that the KBA merchants once again failed to break down a determined and organised defence. 

It’s almost as if Racing saw how Toulouse did it in the Top 14 final and copied the idea to let La Rochelle exhaust themselves pounding into a wall that failed to breach. It didn’t help that they were easily controlled in the lineout, confused in the scrum, slowed down in the rucks and clumsy when running the ball. 

Nor were out-half Ihaia West’s two missed penalties welcome. No wonder La Rochelle are reportedly in the market for a fly-half with proven goalkicking credentials.

On the few occasions Racing bothered to get hold of the ball, they were dangerous. They took an early lead through Virimi Vakatawa’s 11th-minute try.

They later took it beyond the visitors’ reach courtesy of a penalty try after a moment of wonder from Vakatawa’s midfield partner Gael Fickou. Frankly, it was all too easy. 

La Rochelle’s Michelin mission against former colleague Gibbes should make for interesting viewing.

After a promising, threatening start, Toulon, the fourth Top 14 side to have played two games without winning one of them, were scarcely in the hunt at Toulouse.

Gifting the defending champions two intercept tries is nearly guaranteed to end in defeat, and so it proved as the reigning champions ripped the heart out of their opponents’ young matchday squad to win 41-10.

It was a final score that, frankly, flattered Toulon who could have scored the game’s opening try in the first few minutes, but who finally made it into their hosts in-goal area after the final hooter.

It could have been even worse – but it seems someone was able to sneakily replace the Toulouse squad’s resin with Fry Light spray. That, or the use of a washing-liquid soaked matchball, is the only thing that could explain some of the spills made by the hosts’ otherwise rampant side.

Afterwards, Sergio Parisse – who retires at the end of the season – pointed out the youthfulness of Toulon’s squad. “I’m not going to tell you that when we have a full squad we will be stronger. I don’t like to say that. But it’s a fact: we played with young people. In some positions … we were perhaps not at the same level, it must be said,” he admitted. “But we should have done better. This match will be very useful for young players.”

Next week Toulon meet another winless side, Stade Francais, in a second unexpected battle of the bottom places.

Pau were not the only side to welcome a France international back into the fold – but while the likes of Castres’ Gaetan Barlot and Wilfrid Hounkpatin made an impact, and Anthony Jelonch a positive impression on his debut for Toulouse – none of them made the matchwinning mark of Pau’s Antoine Hastoy.

He scored all of his side’s points in a 21-17 win over Lyon at Stade du Hameau and was a bustling, busy danger throughout. There’s a reason so many Top 14 rivals are watching Hastoy with great interest.

It’s a defeat the visitors will rue, even if it’s one that, ultimately, they may not live to regret. Pau were a player down for nearly an hour after Lekima Tagitagivalu was sent off for a dangerous tackle – but a profligate Lyon were unable to make their numerical advantage count. 

Hence head coach Pierre Mignoni’s obvious frustration. “In games like that, you have to be patient, work together and blow your opponents away physically,” Mignoni continued. But our power didn’t take over, we didn’t blow them away at all. That’s what disappoints me the most.” 

Worse, Lyon were 11-9 ahead at halftime. But when they slipped behind, they became reckless in trying to regain the lead and gave Pau too many easy defensive options.

Montpellier followed up their hard-won draw at Toulon last weekend with an entertaining 39-17 win over Brive – a match that featured eight of the round’s total number of tries.

Truth be told, however, Montpellier really should have picked up a try-scoring bonus. Centre Thomas Darmon summed it up: “Last season, I think we didn’t put 40 points on a team. We wanted to show that it would be difficult to come and win with us, and we succeeded.

“We are more confident this season, we play a serious game, we respect the fundamentals … We have to continue like this, but work, because there are things to improve.”

Next weekend, Montpellier entertain Toulouse in a first major challenge to their new mental fortitude.

Perpignan came out on top against Biarritz in an early meeting of the Top 14’s two promoted sides – and thus avoided the nightmare of their last top-flight campaign when they had to wait until after Christmas for their first win.

In Melvyn Jaminet and Tristan Tedder it seems they have found a playmaking and point-scoring partnership to worry more than a few sides. They were certainly in match-winning mode on Saturday afternoon, for all that Perpignan were aided and abetted by some oddly reckless Biarritz defending – at one point the visitors were down to 13 players.

The France fullback, playing his first-ever Top 14 game, converted all three of Perpignan’s tries, and added a trio of penalties, while Tedder scored a five-pointer of his own as well as a drop goal.

There’s a long way to go to the end of the season, yet, and a great deal of rugby between here and now and there and then. Both promoted sides could yet find themselves at the relegation end of the table at the business end of the season – but, today, both are in the middle of the peloton, not that far off the head of the race.

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 some match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

Top 14 preview: Internationals return to boost clubs ahead of second round of games

Photo: Stade Francais / Twitter

ROUND two of the Top 14 season kicks off on Saturday, with those players who went to Australia with France now available for selection, while a number of overseas returnees and new arrivals could make their campaign bows.

France’s captain in Australia, Anthony Jelonch, is expected to make his debut for new side Toulouse, probably off the bench, while it’s hard to see Perpignan failing to select Melvyn Jaminet, or Castres not welcoming Gaetan Barlot back into the starting side at the earliest opportunity. Arthur Vincent and Anthony Bouthier may make the starting line-up for Montpellier’s match against Brive.

Kotaro Matsushima has returned to training at Clermont, but it might just be too early for him to make the squad. On the other hand, it’s not impossible that Toulon will select Fiji international Jiuta Wainiqolo for Sunday night’s trip to Ernest Wallon – with Louis Carbonel also likely to be in action. Meanwhile, Pau boss Sebastien Piqueronies has a choice at 10 – the returning Antoine Hastoy, or Zack Henry, who scored all his side’s points in their 16-12 loss at Castres last weekend.

In the UK and Ireland, Top 14 broadcasters Premier Sports TV are showing Perpignan v Biarritz, Bordeaux v Stade Francais and Racing 92 v La Rochelle on Saturday, as well as Toulouse v Toulon on Sunday.

Here, then, a look ahead to the weekend’s Top 14 matches.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 11

Montpellier v Brive
(kick off 3pm France time) GGL Stadium

Last week at Toulon, Philippe Saint-Andre’s Montpellier showed plenty of the grit that lifted them out of the Top 14 relegation zone and won the Challenge Cup last season, as Zach Mercer scored the after-the-hooter try that gave them a hard-earned draw. 

Now, in front of their home fans for the first time this season, it’s  time to add some style to the steel. Brive – who this week announced that head coach Jeremy Davidson had extended his stay in the Correze – are never easy opponents, however, and will be buoyed by their own big opening day win at home to Perpignan. 

Perpignan v Biarritz
(kick off 3pm France time) Stade Aime Giral 

After very different opening day experiences, the Top 14’s newly promoted sides meet for the first time since their ProD2 days. The hosts had the better of their three meetings last season, winning at home and – crucially – in the final at Montpellier. 

It was, however, Biarritz who landed the first blow with an early season 21-12 win, a year and a week ago. Perpignan will want to bounce back after being well beaten at Brive last weekend, but face a Biarritz side brimming with confidence after knocking the complacent stuffing out of a lackadaisical Bordeaux in the curtain-raiser to the Top 14 campaign.

Clermont v Castres
(kick off 3pm France time) Stade Marcel Michelin

Clermont expect Japan international Kotaro Matsushima to be back in action for the visit of Castres on Saturday. 

The second match of the season is a bit early to brand a must-win, but there’s no denying Jono Gibbes’ Clermont were second best by some distance in more areas than just the scoreboard at Lyon last weekend, and fans will expect better. 

Home turf and healthy support from a packed Marcel Michelin should be enough to beat what’s sure to be a dogged Castres side, even if some or all of their summer tourists return to the matchday squad.

Pau v Lyon
(kick off 3pm France time) Stade du Hameau

Pau’s new head coach Sebastien Piqueronies will have been quietly pleased with the losing bonus point his side picked up at Castres last weekend – it was the least they deserved for a gutsy performance on the road. 

But that point will have raised a few expectations – and heaped on the pressure for the first home outing of the campaign. Opponents Lyon, fresh from an impressive three-tries-to-one opening-day win over Clermont, will take some beating, however. 

Bordeaux v Stade Francais
(kick off 5.15pm France time) Stade Chaban-Delmas

Two sides in need of an immediate improvement following sub-par performances in their opening matches meet at what is sure to be a packed Stade Chaban-Delmas. 

The hosts’ ‘strongman’ coach Christophe Urios will not accept a repeat of his side’s performance in their 27-15 loss at newly promoted Biarritz, in which they appeared to be a preseason match or so shy or Top 14 campaign ready.

That could be bad news for Gonzalo Quesada’s Stade, still feeling the hurt from their own opening day heartbreak, a 36-21 home derby loss to Racing 92.

Racing 92 v La Rochelle
(kick off 9.05pm France time) La Defense Arena

It’s fair to say Ronan O’Gara was far from impressed with referee Jonathan Durfort’s decision to red card Will Skelton in last week’s opening round home defeat to Toulouse at Marcel Deflandre.

He said the game was ‘too big’ for a non-international referee to handle – the referee this week is Tual Trainini, an engineer by day and non-international referee at weekends. 

This match will be no easier. Racing impressed last time out, as centre pairing Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa made light of the high-expectations of their opposite numbers Ngani Laumape and Waisea Nayacalevu. Can’t help but admire the club’s social media operation, too…

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12

Toulouse v Toulon
(kick off 9.05pm France time) Stade Ernest Wallon

A second Sunday night kick off in as many weeks for Toulouse, who finally shift to Saturday rugby next week when they head to Montpellier. Their referee-assisted 20-16 win at La Rochelle last week will have blown away a few cobwebs, but there’s no doubting Ugo Mola’s side – who opted for only four weeks of preseason – looked short on preparation. 

That they were still able to find a way to win should be a concern for every other side in French and European competition – and it’s most immediately a concern for Patrice Collazo’s Toulon, who at least will welcome back a few internationals to their squad this week – new recruits Jiuta Wainiqolo and Leone Nakarawa have been making an impression in training. Expect, too, to see France’s touring captain Anthony Jelonch make his bow for the hosts.