Top 14 Week One Review: Promises, promises

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

Six matches decided by less than a converted try; four late come-from-behind wins; a promoted side 25-14 up after 44 minutes against one of the pre-season favourites for the title; and not one but two new rugby heroes to admire.

It wasn’t a bad first weekend of the new Top 14 season.

And here’s the table after the first of 26 rounds of the regular season.

There were some pretty decent tries, too…

Young Benmegal gives Racing a late, late getout

“He got us out of trouble.” That was the verdict of Henry Chavancy, after his 350th appearance for Racing, on 19-year-old Enzo Benmegal’s match-winning performance in just the second start of his career.

The teenage winger made two of Racing’s three tries at La Defense Arena, as they came from behind to beat last season’s losing finalists Castres Olympique 25-19. 

Benmegal set up Ibrahim Diallo for the first shortly before the half-hour, then started the move that ended with Olivier Klemenczak going over in the corner for the match-winning score three minutes from time.

In between, prop Cedate Gomes Sa practised his try-scoring moves. Needs work, perhaps.

Laurent Travers, too, was full of praise for the youngster with Teddy Thomas-sized scoring boots to fill. “He has incredible acceleration, he knows how to play rugby,” Racing’s next president said. 

“At his age, when you get a chance, he knows it, you have to seize it because you don’t get three. You have to take it – and then do it again.”

Castres head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan regretted heading back to southwest France with nothing to show for his side’s efforts. They had a chance to head home with what would have been a deserved losing bonus point, but opted for a shot at glory – and a first win in 14 attempts at Racing – rather than the posts. 

But, he added: “On the performance, the intensity, it would not have been a scandal if we had won this match.”

He’s not wrong.

Stade rookie Parra wins … and loses

Thirty-three-year-old Stade Francais rookie Morgan Parra guided his new-look club to a 24-18 opening-day win over his former club – before leaving the pitch 12 minutes from time with a knee ligament injury that will keep him out of action for up to six weeks.

But it was a close-run thing. “If you have heart problems, you should not come to Jean-Bouin,” captain Paul Gabrillagues admitted afterwards.

When the clock ticked past the 80, Clermont’s pack won a penalty in Stade’s 22. A kick to touch later, they were less than 5m from a win at Stade Jean Bouin. But young scrum-half Kevin Viallard fumbled the ball, and was engulfed by Sekou Macalou, who won the turnover, to the delight of the 11,000 or so crowd.

The win won’t hide from defence coach Paul Gustard the scale of the task still ahead of him. 

As Gabrillagues admitted: “Discipline … played tricks on us last season and it could have cost us dearly, today … If we don’t correct these mistakes, we won’t progress.”

Bayonne shock Toulon into action

According to Toulon’s South African backrow Cornell Du Preez, the club’s new sporting director Pierre Mignoni told the players at halftime in their opening day match against Bayonne at Stade Mayol to “keep their heads up, stay calm, and not be negative”.

That’s, no doubt, an entirely truthful comment. How honest it was is another question. There were, arguably, greater volumes in Du Preez’s preceding words – “At halftime, Pierre spoke.” 

Bet he did.

At the time, Toulon were 18-14 down. Within four minutes of the restart, they were 25-14 down. 

Four minutes after that, Toulon’s season started. Du Preez, Teddy Baubigny, Charles Ollivon and Gervais Cordon scored tries in a 15-minute blitz that blew away Bayonne hopes of an awayday shock.

No one is about to pretend that second-half turnaround erases a poor first half performance that was greeted by jeers from the Felix Mayol crowd as the players headed back to the changing rooms at halftime. 

Captain Ollivon said: “We knew it would be hard. We showed character and solidity. We have defensive mistakes to correct, but a lot of positives to come out.”

Joseph saves Pau

Jordan Joseph opted for another season on loan at Pau – under the watchful eye of his former international under-20s coach Sebastien Piqueronies – rather than return to Racing 92 in July.

And he proved just how invaluable he is to this young Pau side that’s being moulded in its head coach’s image as they came back to win 16-14 at home against Perpignan. Joseph came on as a replacement early in the second half of a match short on highlights, and bullied his way through three defenders six minutes from time to give the hosts a sniff of a win they scarcely deserved.

Pau were still behind – as they had been since the 49th minute. But a Zack Henry penalty after 78 minutes took them into the lead.

“We wanted to be very disciplined … we were not able to do it,” Piqueronies admitted. “It’s up to us to be much cooler and more precise … Our ambitions, our goals, are absolutely not at that level.”

Four points, though. He’ll take that.

Lyon kick of Garba era with win on road

After seven years of Pierre Mignoni ended with Challenge Cup success, the Xavier Garbajosa era at Lyon kicked off with a 31-27 win on the road at Brive.

Garbajosa, returning to management after his first head coach job ended in January 2021, described his new club’s start as, “a satisfaction”.

“The players were keen to start the season well,” he said.  “I knew they were ready.”

He admitted there was still plenty for his side to work on, but added: “It’s only the first day – you don’t have to draw plans on the comet but it’s a satisfaction to start like this.”

It was the very model of a first game of the season. Lyon were more powerful in the scrum, but struggled in touch. The game was played at a feverish pace, but broken by handling errors. 

Joel Kpoku’s 52nd-minute interception try pretty much sealed the deal, allowing Lyon to snap clear in a match that neither side could, until then, get hold of. It was entirely appropriate this kind of score should prove so decisive.

Even then, there was still time for the two sides to share three more tries – Brive’s after-the-hooter bonus point-winning penalty try reward for unstinting effort more than cohesion and gameplan.

Advantage European champions

La Rochelle’s new fly-half Antoine Hastoy nailed five out of six at goal, kicked cleverly out of hand, delivered a try-scoring pass, saved what would have been a 50:22, and caused Montpellier problems all evening. 

It was, by any metric, a decent first day at the office for the former Pau 10, sweetened by the 26-22 final score in the home side’s favour.

“Antoine did well,” backs coach Sebastien Boboul said. “It will give him confidence.”

First-time Top 14 champions Montpellier suffered the fate of their five predecessors in losing their first game back after a shortened pre-season. 

But La Rochelle needed a late comeback to take the points – a penalty try two minutes from time with the visitors down to 14 after prop Mohamed Hoauas took a yellow for the team following repeated infringements at a 5m scrum.

It was the second time Montpellier had been reduced to 14 – and the second time it had cost them. Dillyn Leyds scored five minutes after Montpellier lock Bastien Chalureau was sin-binned for one offside too many. 

Defence coach Alexandre Ruiz, a former referee, won’t have been impressed.

The visitors also experimented with right-footed new arrival Louis Carbonel at 10, and left-footed Paolo Garbisi at 12. With Anthony Bouthier also coming into the line, they were able to mix and match their positions on a whim. 

The one downside – a certain defensive frailty that straight-running Jonathan Danty exploited joyfully…

Toulouse rain on Tambwe parade

It seems as sure as Jalibert follows Ntamack that new Bordeaux winger Madosh Tambwe is going to enjoy the Top 14. 

The former Bulls player needed just 27 minutes to become a local hero with his first try at Chaban Delmas – against Toulouse – and another seven to cement his reputation with his second.

He touched down a third time early in the second half – but his hat-trick score was ruled out for an earlier knock-on. Cue rueful smile.

And the turnaround. Bordeaux were 22-9 ahead at the time. Tambwe’s hypothetical hat-trick score, if converted – and it was under the posts – would have made it 29-9. 

As it was, the hosts scored just three more points, while Toulouse scored 15 in the closing 24 minutes to snatch the game 26-25. They were aided and abetted by some uncharacteristic nerves from replacement Mathieu Jalibert, who missed two late penalties, and scrum-half Maxime Lucu, who missed one.

With France team manager Raphael Ibanez watching from the stands, Jalibert – who has made no secret of the fact he covets Ntamack’s 10 international 10 shirt – failed to score a point after coming on for Zack Holmes in the 51st minute.

The Toulouse fly-half, by contrast, scored the try that got them back into the game, before new signing Melvyn Jaminet ended the scoring with a difficult 45m penalty from out wide.

Christophe Urios said afterwards: “Losing is cruel. Today with a not easy preparation we were able to come out with a high level match. I retain the positive, the pride of having made a great match”

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: New US audience for French rugby as campaign kicks off

French rugby’s 2022/23 Top 14 season kicks off this weekend.

Racing 92 and last season’s losing finalists Castres get the whole campaign under way at La Defense Arena.

But there’s no doubting the big matches of the first round. Champions Cup winners La Rochelle host Top 14 title holders Montpellier at a full Stade Marcel Deflandre on Saturday evening, 24 hours before Bordeaux entertain Toulouse at an equally crammed Stade Chaban Delmas. 

For fans in UK and Ireland, Premier Sports has four games on the opening weekend – Racing 92 v Castres, Stade Francais v Clermont, and La Rochelle v Montpellier on Saturday, and Bordeaux v Toulouse on Sunday. All are on Premier Sports 2.

And the Top 14 is heading to America this season – US streaming service Flo Sports has done a deal to show Top 14 rugby, as well as European and URC matches. It lists all the opening weekend’s matches.

Here, then, a preview of the weekend’s matches. If you want an in-depth club-by-club look at the coming campaign, I wrote this Top 14 season preview for Rugby World a couple of weeks ago.

Saturday, September 3

Racing 92 v Castres Olympique (kick off 3pm)

La Defense Arena

Vice-champion is an objectively awful whimsical title bestowed in France, like a millstone, round the neck of losing finalists. Castres are saddled with the Top 14 version of it this season, and – 10 weeks and one day after Montpellier fairly pounded them at Stade de France – they return to the outskirts of Paris to face Racing in the opening match of the 2022/23 campaign.

The hosts are without international centre Gael Fickou, who sprained a knee in a pre-season match at Brive and will be out for about a month. 

Absent, too, are summer arrival Asaeli Tuivuaka, injured in the same match, Baptiste Chouzenoux, and Fabien Sanconnie – who’s about three weeks from a return; while the club is waiting on the arrivals of Juan Imhoff, Trevor Nyakane, Veikoso Poloniati, and Warrick Gelant from the southern hemisphere. 

Nolan Le Garrec is likely to start, as is big signing Cameron Woki – though whether he’s in la cage or in the backrow remains to be seen.

Castres, who announced a contract extension for local hero lock Tom Staniforth this week, are close to full strength. Tyler Ardron is missing with injury and Ben Urdapilleta, who’s with Argentina. Summer arrivals Adrien Seguret, Leone Nakarawa – who seems to have recovered from a knock in pre-season – and Aurélien Azar should make their first serious appearances for the club.

Stade Francais v Clermont (kick off 5pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

It had to happen. Morgan Parra joins Stade Francais after 13 years at Clermont, and the fixture setters pull the sides together on the opening day of the new season. Parra is set to bring his much-needed on-pitch experience to the squad, with Joris Segonds expected to make up the other 50 percent of the halfback pairing. 

It’s in midfield, in the absence of the departed Ngani Laumape and Waisea Nayacalevu, where the greatest interest will lie. It’s too soon for late signing Jeremy Ward to make a first appearance, leaving Stade with a choice of Harry Glover, Theo Dachary, Alex Arrate and Julien Delbouis – with the possibility also of Sefe Naivalu moving in to 13.

Parra wasn’t the only experienced player to leave Clermont in the summer. Wesley Fofana retired; Camille Lopez and Bastien Pourilly joined Bayonne; JJ Hanrahan left for Dragons; Kotaro Matsushima returned to Japan; Sipili Falatea switched to Bordeaux, along with 21-year-old France prospect Tani Vili.

Expect to see, then, Alex Newsome, Irae Simone, Anthony Belleau, Loic Godener and Jules Plisson in a side that shows numerous changes from last season – but still holds a certain easy familiarity.

Toulon v Bayonne (kick off 5pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

Ihaia West – the only specialist senior 10 on the books at Toulon – has been training separately from the squad as he recovers from a niggling thigh injury. 

It’s long been recognised that fly-half could be a problem position for the Pierre Mignoni-Franck Azema dream coaching ticket this season – and it seems certain, now, that self-admitted troubleshooter solution Baptiste Serin will kick off his season on the outside of summer arrival Benoit Paillaugue in patched-up hand-me-down second-to-next-best halfback duo.

Bayonne, however, have troubles of their own heading into their Top 14 return season under new management. Experienced Maxime Machenaud, who joined from Racing 92 in the summer, will miss the opening weekend with a calf injury; another new arrival, Bastien Pourilly, has a hamstring injury and will be absent for up to eight weeks. 

Emblematic flanker Jean Monribot has undergone surgery on a thigh injury and won’t be available for several months, while Fijian duo Sireli Maqala and Kaminieli Raisaku are away with the sevens squad in South Africa, prepping for the World Cup.

Could be a tough opener for them at a newly confident Stade Mayol.

Pau v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Stade du Hameau

Irish winger Eoghan Barrett could move from the summer SuperSevens competition into the full side for the opener against Perpignan. 

But the club’s successful tournament – they reached the final three times and won once – took its toll. Vincent Pinto ruptured a ligament in his thumb and Aminiasi Tuimaba suffered a sprained ankle. Both are therefore unavailable. 

Nathan Decron and Daniel Ikpefan are also out, as well as the young third row Josselin Bouhier are also out of the reckoning with injury, while Zack Henry steps up as the side’s senior fly-half following Antoine Hastoy’s departure.

Perpignan, meanwhile, have – where possible – stuck to the tried and tested as they enter their difficult second season back in the top flight, without either Melvyn Jaminet or Bautista Delguy. 

Summer signings Kelian Galletier and Victor Moreaux are likely to be on the bench, while Dorian Laborde could start following his arrival from Toulon. 

Another summer signing, Exeter’s Will Witty, will miss the first three weeks of the season with injury. Shahn Eru, meanwhile, is suspended following a dangerous tackle in the promotion-relegation match against Mont-de-Marsan in June.

Brive v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Amedee Domenech

Brive head into the new season with a new main shareholder and the promise of a bright future – but with several key players out injured, notably Mitch Lees, Said Hireche, Hayden Thompson-Stringer and Wesley Douglas.

Ex-Connacht player Abraham Papali’i could get his first Top 14 start since moving from Galway in the summer, while compatriot Sammy Arnold may come off the bench.

Lyon’s entry injury problems are just as serious. Props Demba Bamba and Francisco Gomez-Kodela are both long-term absentees, as is fly-half Lima Sopoaga. Last week, the club confirmed Josua Tuisova would be out for a month, and medical joker prop Feao Fotuaika has yet to arrive. 

Internationals Baptiste Couilloud and Dylan Cretin aren’t expected back until next week – so Saturday looks like it could be a difficult one for the visitors against their gnarly hosts.

La Rochelle v Montpellier (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Antoine Hastoy should be straight into the fray for new club La Rochelle at a packed Marcel Deflandre, having joined from Pau in the summer, while Yoann Tanga, Georges-Henri Colombe, Quentin Lespiaucq, Thierry Paiva and Ultan Dillane could all make their first Top 14 starts for Ronan O’Gara’s Champions Cup winners against the Top 14 champions. 

Other new arrivals, including Teddy Thomas and the injured UJ Seuteni may be kept back, with O’Gara likely to stick to a trusted backs division for the first of the weekend’s two big matches.

Montpellier, who follow this tough opener with a match against Bordeaux next weekend, are also likely to hold back internationals Paul Willemse and Arthur Vincent – but Enzo Forletta could return to the squad having recovered from a neck injury. 

Cobus Reinach is away with the Springboks Rugby Championship squad, so Leo Coly could make his Top 14 bow, inside another new arrival, Louis Carbonel. Montpellier played Paolo Garbisi at inside centre during pre-season – he may make his third appearance at 12 in a Top 14 match this weekend, with Ben Lam expected to start at 14. Zach Mercer’s long Montpellier goodbye, meanwhile, should start here…

Sunday, September 4

Bordeaux v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

Toulouse manager Ugo Mola announced on Thursday that Pita Ahki had surgery on a troublesome injury on Wednesday and would miss the first six weeks of the season. 

The centre – routinely one of the best players in rouge-et-noir – joins a list of absentees: Cyril Baille, David Ainu’u, Joel Merkler, Yannick Youyoutte, Thibaud Flament, François Cros, Rynhardt Elstadt, Santiago Chocobares, Paul Graou, Lucas Tauzin, and Juan Cruz Mallia.

Even so, with new signings Ange Capuozzo, Melvyn Jaminet, Pierre-Louis Barassi, and Alexandre Roumat all set to feature – the latter against his old team-mates – and Josh Brennan set for his first Top 14 start, Toulouse are expected to field a strong side at Chaban-Delmas as they look to get their season off to a roaring start.

Mola also discussed improving squad rotation this season to ensure the club’s international stars were not overworked in the Top 14 before the long World Cup run next summer.

Hosts Bordeaux are also expected to field a strong squad, with few absences to report. Maxime Lucu and Matthieu Jalibert’s halfback bromance continues, with Toulouse old boy Zack Holmes likely filling a bench slot first-up. 

Tani Vili, too, probably won’t start. Manager Christophe Urios is expected to stick to what he knows, with old head Remi Lamerat and young gun Yoram Moefana expected on the pitch for the opening whistle – though he may be in the squad.

Another ex-Toulouse player, Antoine Miquel will have a point to prove if he gets an expected start at eight. Caleb Timu could also feature in the match that rounds off the opening weekend.

Top 14 Preview: Final four escape red heat zone for semi-final stand-offs

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

It’s southwest semi-finals weekend in the southeast of France, as Occitanie teams Castres, Toulouse, Montpellier and Nouvelle Aquitaine representative Bordeaux face off in Nice for the right to travel north to Saint-Denis for next Friday’s showpiece final.

Nevermind the tense games situation, or the prize that awaits the two winners this weekend. Playing in Nice will be a relief of sorts for all four sets of players. The matches on Friday and Saturday evening will take place in temperatures a degree or so south of 30C.

In Castres and Toulouse, by kick-off time on Friday evening, the temperature is expected to have dipped to 36C, from highs during the day of over 40C.

The departments in which Castres, Toulouse and Bordeaux are among the 12 in the southwest of the country that have been placed on red weather alert – the highest available – for heat on Friday.

Similar temperatures are expected in Bordeaux on Saturday evening, with a 40km/h wind, while the mercury in Montpellier is due to hit a 40C high on Friday, before dipping 10C in 24 hours into the weekend.

So, Nice, in the relatively fresh southeast of the country, will feel relatively comfortable in comparison. Which is nice.

Both matches are live in Ireland and the UK on Premier Sports.

Friday, June 17

Castres v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Allianz Riviera

The hype-legend of the Top 14’s opening semi-final sprang instantaneously and fully formed from the firmament on the final whistle of last Saturday’s barrage-round match. A Midi derby rivalry, top of the table versus the defending champions, Castres’ rugby David versus Toulouse’s Goliath. 

Meanwhile, Toulouse coach Ugo Mola has spent much of his media time this week trying to sound convincing in claiming that Castres, rather than his star-spangled squad, are favourites. No one who saw their 41-0 thrashing of Friday’s opponents at Stade Ernest Wallon in November, or how close they came to victory in their 19-13 loss at Stade Pierre Fabre in April would make the same argument.

It’s true Castres have been consistent this season. They spent just two weeks outside the top six. Their longest losing run in the Top 14 lasted just two games – and they finished the domestic campaign with 12 wins from 15, including five on the bounce to close out the season. They climbed to first for the first and only time on the final whistle of the final round – which was also the first time they had held a top two position.

Castres hooker Gaetan Barlot put the season past into perspective ahead of Friday evening’s match. “Our first place rewards the fact that we are the only undefeated team at home, with a good record and wins on the road. But that doesn’t mean we are champions.

And he highlighted in two sentences the scale of the challenge and the scale of the ambition for the Tarn side. “In Nice, we are facing the French and former European champions so it will be very difficult but we are ready for the two big games that remain in order to go all the way,” he said. “If we lost in the semi-finals, we would have finished first in the regular season for nothing. That would be a shame.”

It’s true, too, Castres had a bye week while Toulouse faced La Rochelle in the barrage round. And that their season has been less affected by Covid-19 or a long European run.

But it’s also true that Toulouse, despite a ropey run from Christmas to the end of March when they were without key internationals, qualified fourth in the table, and beat new European champions La Rochelle in the barrage-round to book their place in the semis. They were top of the table for nine weeks and – like Castres – have been in the top six for all-but two rounds of the campaign.

Even so, Mola insists that Castres are in pole position for the final place at stake on Friday. “Castres are favorites and it’s not Ugo Mola who says so, it’s the league ranking. 

“It’s hard for them to claim they are the underdog side: the facts are there, they finished first [in the Top 14]. They are also the leaders in terms of character and state of mind.”

It’s true, too, that Toulouse have more injury concerns. Francois Cros is out after picking up a knee injury in the victory over La Rochelle, while Charlie Faumina has completed a safe tackle course and returns after a ban to fill an fitness problem at tighthead. He starts, with Dorian Aldegheri – who’s been nursed through injury niggles recently – on the bench.

The truth, despite what Mola would have anyone believe is that Toulouse are, quite rightly, favourites. But he also knows that Castres could easily spring another surprise this season.

And it seems they do have a plan for dealing with Antoine Dupont…

It involves pizza.

Saturday, June 18

Montpellier v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

Allianz Riviera

We need to talk about Bordeaux. Something is, if not rotten, not entirely well in the former rugby utopia of Chaban-Delmas.

The comprehensive 36-16 barrage-round win over Racing 92 was played against a tense training ground background. Manager Christophe Urios had called out his players after their defeat at Perpignan a week earlier had seen them drop out of the top two for the first time in months – naming Matthieu Jalibert and Cameron Woki in particular.

Both scored in the barrage-round victory. But Jalibert told Canal Plus immediately after the match: “This week, it was tense. You saw it, there were statements in the press from our manager, that targeted players. I just want to say that we are not playing for Christophe (Urios). We are just on a mission for the players.”

And Woki gestured at the crowd after he scored, saying afterwards: “To whom were these gestures addressed? I think everyone understood.”

It has also been reported this week that Woki – whose contract is up in June 2023 – is hesitating about signing a new deal with the club. 

Kane Douglas, meanwhile, told Le French Rugby Podcast how the team prepared for the match against Racing without Urios – who has since insisted “I am the boss, and no one else” – for most of the week. 

President Laurent Marti and Urios have both appeared to describe the situation as “over” and liken it to a storm in a teacup. But it’s hardly a health position from which to mount a challenge for the Top 14 title. 

In comparison, silence has been golden preparation for opponents Montpellier, who have enjoyed minimal coverage and – as a result – minimal pressure. 

News, such as it is, has been limited to contract renewals for Florian Verhaege, and for defence coach Alexandre Ruiz, while Zach Mercer – surely one of the first names on the Top 14’s team of the season – has revealed he thought seriously about jacking rugby in when he was a teenager with Bath, in favour of heading to New Zealand and, according to Rugbyrama, dismissing reports about an imminent move back to the Premiership.

Montpellier, second in the table at the end of the season, despite – like Bordeaux and Toulouse – something of a second-half wobble, should expect to start as favourites. They don’t have the individual flair of Bordeaux, but they are well-organised, and smart, and clinical. 

Even without the injured Paul Willemse and Cobus Reinach, Montpellier have the smarts to play their way into the final.

With Maxime Lamothe an injury concern, Bordeaux, may turn to Springbok international hooker Joseph Dweba, who has only played in nine matches all season – and hasn’t featured at all since the beginning of May. Jandre Marais’ injury, meanwhile, will have Urios scratching his head over second-row options. Guido Petti, Louis Picamoles, or Woki could get the nod.

Top 14 Preview: Europe weighs heavy as play-off race heats up

Image: Top 14 Rugby / Twitter

Three weekends and two European knockout rounds ago, the Top 14 table looked like this.

Usually, by now, at least some play-off places have been decided. This season, for the first time since 2011, all six play-off slots are still open, with nine sides mathematically in the running and eight close enough to consider themselves as having a serious chance. 

At the other end of the table, Perpignan could still avoid a relegation play-off match at the home ground of the losing ProD2 finalist if, over the closing two rounds of the season either side of next weekend’s European finals, they overtake Brive in the table.

The heavy ball bearing that is Europe currently weighs on the rubber sheet of French top flight – and not just because three sides with domestic play-off ambitions – Lyon, La Rochelle and Toulon – face difficult squad calculations either side of next weekend’s finals.

It’s also affected scheduling. This is why Sunday’s primetime choice is the eminently worthy but slightly bizarre Castres v Perpignan – the one live match that viewers in UK and Ireland will be able to see on Premier Sports this weekend, with Bordeaux-Lyon up broadcast Saturday night as an as-live match. 

The programme for this week was finalised on May 9th, when five French sides were still in contention for European finals weekend. That ruled out five of this week’s round-of-25 games as options for Sunday night, leaving already-relegated Biarritz v almost-out-of-it Clermont, or play-off ambitions v survival dreams at Castres. 

Here, then, let’s take a look at all seven matches on the penultimate weekend of the regular 2021/22 Top 14 season. Remember, all kick offs here are set to Paris time. I’ll leave you to make your own adjustments. 

One way or another, it’s going to be hot this weekend in the Top 14

Saturday, May 21

Bordeaux v Lyon (kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban-Delmas

A training ground injury this week means Louis Picamoles’ playing career could already be over. He is due to retire at the end of the season – but is now sidelined for at least four weeks, which would mean he may return if Bordeaux reach the final.

Right now, they’re second in the table, and hold a bye to the play-off semis in Nice. But by the skin of their teeth. Castres are level on points and – on paper – have a friendlier run-in.

READ ALSO Top 14 team-by-team guide to the end of the season

“If we lose, we’re out of the top two,” Jandre Marais reminded reporters this week. “And the top six  is not yet assured, because all the teams are close.” 

Bordeaux have lost their last four at home and have – as head coach Christophe Urios admitted – “no more margin” for error. “We could finish seventh,” he warned.

“I feel ashamed,” he said of their recent record in front of the Chaban-Delmas faithful. “I want everyone to feel ashamed. We have to face our responsibilities. We are capable of doing it.”

Their opponents, first-time Challenge Cup finalists Lyon, look in good shape, with only Kilian Geraci and Mathieu Bastareaud on their long-term injury list. 

This season’s big-name signing Lima Sopoaga isn’t far off a return from a knee injury picked up in the Challenge Cup round-of-16 win over Worcester, while Colby Fainga’a and Jordan Taufua may be in contention to return to the backrow at Bordeaux.

They’re likely to rotate their squad – given their matches to come – but they’re coming to Chaban-Delmas looking for as many points as they can get. Four won’t be beyond them.

Biarritz v Clermont (kick off 5.15pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

In this season, which is so tight the fact of Biarritz’s relegation is the only certainty heading into the final two weekends, this is something of an outlier match. 

It’s not quite a dead rubber – Clermont could still squeeze into the top six if the usually capricious and fickle rugby gods are in a generous mood for two Top 14 weekends on either side of the European finals – but it’s almost one.

Biarritz will want to sign off their last home match of the season and in the Top 14 with a first domestic  win in three months, and end a seven-match losing streak. “We will have to show Clermont that we are not here to give them five points,” head coach Matt Clarkin said this week. “The best tribute for our last home game is to put out a side that can win.”

That’s easier said than done – 17 players are out with injury heading into the penultimate game. Another eight are back in group training after injury. It’s been that sort of campaign for Biarritz. But, make no mistake, there’ll be a party atmosphere at Aguilera.

Clermont, meanwhile, made up for missing out on a quarter-final against Leinster in Dublin by climbing Puy de Dome. The two-week break that came from their round-of-16 defeat to Leicester has done them no harm as they embark on a top six mission impossible. 

Damian Penaud and Fritz Lee should be back from injury, while a few other infirmary fillers are also close to returning after a season in which Clermont have been repeatedly hit with the injury stick – especially in their backline.

Even so, Wesley Fofana, George Moala and Apisai Naqalevu are out for the remainder of Clermont’s campaign, along with Alivereti Raka, Peceli Yato and Kotaro Matsushima. 

To keep their hopes alive, Clermont need to win big. Biarritz have been broken down defensively relatively easily, so it’s doable, ahead of a final weekend match against current leaders Montpellier. But then they still need a helping hand from other teams…

La Rochelle v Stade Francais (kick off 5.15pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Seventh-placed La Rochelle could – like France’s other European finalists Toulon and Lyon – have done without having to play a must-win Top 14 match the weekend before their big final in Marseille. 

But that’s what all three sides face this weekend. Ronan O’Gara may have half his mind on next Saturday’s Champions Cup final against a frightening Leinster out, but he also won’t want to lose touch with the play-off peloton – which pretty much rules out the prospect of anything less than a win over Stade Francais in what could well be their last home match of this campaign. 

Officially, Stade Francais have nothing to play for. They’re out of the play-off race and safe from relegation. The Paris side have taken on France’s old cliche mantle of which Stade will turn up. One senior player has already said he ‘can’t wait for the season to end’, and Gonzalo Quesada has, perhaps unwisely, admitted that a squad without goals can be difficult to motivate. 

How about this, then? Play with freedom and energy. Play like a side with nothing to lose. Play like you enjoy what you do for a living. Maybe you’ll discover something about yourselves. Because you really should be better than 11th.

Toulon v Pau (kick off 5.15pm)

Stade Mayol

Toulon, like fellow European finalists Lyon and La Rochelle etc etc…

Toulon lost a lot of goodwill from fans early on this season when things were going from bad to worse. On the pitch, the players and Franck Azema are working something close to miracles to win some back – reaching the Challenge Cup final and being in the hunt for what was, not so long ago, an unimaginable play-off place, as they play their 17th match without a break. 

Off the pitch, however, president Bernard Lemaitre continues to lose friends and alienate people.

This week, in an interview with Midi Olympique, he described departing Springbok Eben Etzebeth as a ‘kid in the body of a colossus’ – which didn’t go down well in some quarters, especially among those in a rage over the impending departure of Louis Carbonel to Montpellier (he’s set to play his last Mayol match as a Toulon star this weekend, possibly off the bench).

But a return to the top 6 and/or a European title in Marseille next week would be a major step in the reconciliation of club and fans – almost despite the person in the president’s chair.

A win at home over Pau – playing what coach Sebastien Piqueronies has called ‘consolidation matches’ as he sets out his plans for next season and beyond.

“There’s no desire to relax in these [last] two games,” winger Elliott Roudil told reporters this week. “We want to continue to move forward and progress, with a view to next season, to perhaps one day hope to qualify in the top six.”

That’s the correct attitude. Stade Francais players take note.

Montpellier v Racing 92 (kick off 5.15pm)

GGL Stadium

Less than a year ago, Montpellier finished 10th in the Top 14 – their disappointing domestic campaign offset by Challenge Cup success, which gave them entry to the Champions Cup this season.

Mohed Altrad laid out the club’s very different ambitions for the final two games of this season. “The ideal would be to win the last two matches (Racing, then Clermont) to ensure direct qualification to the semi-finals.

“The median, which would be to win only one, would allow us to play the barrage match at Montpellier.”

While the hosts rested last week after losing what was, it’s fair to say, a surprise Champions Cup quarter-final at La Rochelle, Racing were losing their European semi-final against La Rochelle at Lens.

Altrad admitted his side were not ready for a serious challenge on the Champions Cup, but said they would ‘fight like lions’ to ensure their season reaches the Top 14 play-offs.

Racing, meanwhile, need to bounce back from last weekend’s disheartening defeat in sundrenched Lens. Gael Fickou said it best straight after that match. “It will be hard to face Montpellier, a team that has been able to rest for a few days. But we have no right to let go now … if we don’t want to get back on the pitch immediately and show what we can do, there’s a problem somewhere.”

Whether the spirit is willing, then, should not be questioned. Montpellier have stuttered in recent weeks, but Racing looked shattered last Sunday. Depleted. It may be the body is too weak to take advantage.

Brive v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Amédée-Domenech

The maths is simple for Brive. Beat Toulouse on Saturday evening in front of a sell-out home crowd, and then cheer on Castres against Perpignan on Sunday. 

The squad have been on a training camp in southwest France, and have trained mostly behind closed doors in preparation for this weekend’s match. And they think they know what to expect.

“Toulouse need to redeem themselves,” lock Andres Zafra told reporters this week. “They have only the Top 14 left. We expect a fierce battle on the ground, and also to face a team that will try to play – and pass – a lot. We must be ready to defend for long sequences.”

Brive have only conceded 11 tries at home this season, but routinely give up 13 penalties a match. Against a Toulouse side that they know are angry with themselves and out to prove a point, they will have to be more disciplined.

Even if they weren’t aware, Toulouse hooker Julien Marchand growled something of a warning in this week’s press conference. “We are going to set off again at full speed. It’s not over. We are not going to let go.”

Amédée-Domenech is a more intimate ground than the ones Toulouse have played at in recent weeks. Though the crowd – the match has been sold out for more than two weeks – will be hostile, it may be just what they need.

Sunday, May 22

Castres v Perpignan (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

Perpignan fans were unimpressed to discover, on May 9, that their season-defining trip to Castres – a generous two-and-a-half hours’ drive away – was scheduled for Sunday night. 

Supporters’ groups said that they had hoped “to bring 600 or 700 fans” for their do-or-die challenge at Stade Pierre Fabre – but said the schedule, the first time this season Perpignan had played the Sunday night game, had denied them that opportunity.

“We had 117 registered, two chartered buses. But now we are canceling a bus. We will be back at 3am on Monday, impossible for people who work. Sunday at 9pm is the worst time,” one told regional newspaper L’Independant.

Coach Patrick Arlettaz won’t prowl the touchline as he usually does. He has been handed a one-match ban for questioning some of the referees’ decisions in the crucial win over Brive last time out.

Third-placed Castres, level on points with Bordeaux and with a top-two finish in their eyes, start as favourites. They have not lost in the Top 14 at home since December 2020 and have won six of their last eight – but all is not completely lost for the visitors. 

Five of the 12 French sides to have not won at Pierre Fabre this season have headed home with a bonus point. One of those for Perpignan could be almost as good as a win, depending on what happens at Stade Amédée-Domenech 24 hours earlier.

Top 14 rugby run-in: Team-by-team guide to the end of the season

Image: Stade Francais / Twitter

French rugby’s Top 14 enters its final three-week straight this weekend, with eight sides – nine if you’re a Clermont fan, and 10 if you’re marketing French rugby – in the running for the play-offs. To make matters more interesting still, six of them still have European interests.

The final positions aren’t set in stone yet. Last year, 69 points wasn’t quite enough for Castres to make the top six. This year, even Montpellier aren’t mathematically certain of qualification yet. 

But it’s fair to say, the top two sides, Montpellier and Bordeaux, are as good as qualified and are strong favourites to get a potentially crucial week off by qualifying directly for the play-off semi-finals at Nice’s Allianz Riviera, on June 17 and 18.

So, rather than the usual match-by-match preview, I’ve looked at what’s left of the season – good, bad, and ugly – for every club in the Top 14.

First things first, here’s a rundown of this weekend’s fixtures, courtesy of the LNR:

Image: LNR

1 Montpellier (69 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Lyon (A), Racing 92 (H), Clermont (A)

By coach Philippe Saint-Andre’s own admission, Montpellier blew their hard-earned advantage last weekend, when they lost by a single point at home against Bordeaux, allowing the second-placed side to close the gap at the top of the table. 

The run-in is no longer quite as comfortable for PSA’s side, especially as they’re on the road twice and have lost nine-try scrum-half Cobus Reinach to injury at precisely the wrong time. 

This weekend’s match at play-off chasing Lyon will be particularly tense. Selection for their Champions Cup quarter-final trip to La Rochelle on May 7 may well depend on the result at Lyon and elsewhere this weekend. 

But even a losing bonus would go a long way to ensuring a top-two finish, and its handy bye.

Despite last weekend’s defeat, Montpellier would still expect to beat Racing at home on May 21, to effectively render their last match, at Clermont, as good as redundant. 

2 Bordeaux (67 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Toulon (H), Lyon (H), Perpignan (A)

Last weekend’s win at Montpellier was a huge relief after eight losses in nine games, in all competitions, for Bordeaux. Prior to that result, they had picked up just nine league points since the end of January, lost their 10-point lead at the top of the table, and were knocked out of Europe.

“We have four matches, four finals… We’ve won one,” head coach Christophe Urios said after the confidence-returning win at the GGL. “We must continue to work. We are going to welcome a Toulon team who have everything to gain against us. 

“We will have a very tough match against a solid team, full of confidence. But so are we.”

Better yet, fly-half Matthieu Jalibert is set to return for the run-in after a frustrating thigh injury that kept him out of the entire Six Nations. He could be on the teamsheet for the match against Toulon, but scrum-half Maxime Lucu is likely to keep kicking duties for the moment after his nerveless performance against Montpellier.

There may be some nervy moments ahead, but two home matches, and a rediscovery of the winning habit, makes Bordeaux strong shots for a top-two finish.

3 La Rochelle (62 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Toulouse (A), Stade Francais (H), Lyon (A)

They were slow out of the blocks, but Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle are about where they would want to be right now – firmly in the play-off mix, and involved in the business end of the Champions Cup. 

That home European quarter-final against Montpellier on May 7, however, will have to wait, as the Top 14 play-off race gets tight from here. No slip-ups allowed.

La Rochelle have two trips to serious rivals for their place in the top six. By the time Lyon rolls around on the final weekend, things may be different, especially if La Rochelle win big against a Stade Francais side with little to play for. But they cannot afford to give up too many points to sixth-placed Toulouse on Saturday. 

A win in Toulouse would be preferable, but unlikely. A bonus point will be useful, but giving a five-pointer to their hosts on Saturday could prove problematic.

The good news for La Rochelle, is that O’Gara was able to give numerous players some time off over the past fortnight – but they lost Will Skelton to a calf injury last weekend. It’s not yet certain how long he’ll be out, but his absence will be a blow. 

The expectation, however, is for home advantage in the qualifying play-off round. Not many sides go to Marcel Deflandre and win.

4 Castres (62 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Biarritz (A), Perpignan (H), Pau (A)

The top six side with, on paper, the easiest run-in – against the sides currently 14th, 13th and 10th. Castres played the extreme weather conditions well in their 12-0 win over Clermont – leaving the visitors’ remaining play-off hopes on a knife-edge – last weekend.

Much has been made of the fact that the perennially unfancied Castres are unbeaten at home in the Top 14 in 20 matches – rather less of the fact that they have only been out of the top six for two weeks of the 23 weeks of the season so far, back in November when they slipped to seventh for a fortnight.

The final three-match stretch of their play-off race begins this weekend with a match against a Biarritz side that hasn’t won in the Top 14 since early February, and which was ultimately well beaten at Racing 92 last weekend. Then it’s Perpignan at home – Castres won by a single point at Aime Giral over Christmas, and will want the double – before Pau at Stade du Hameau on the final day.

Head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan has managed his side’s campaign well. Don’t expect them to slip-up now. The least he will demand is home advantage in the play-offs – and, if Bordeaux or Montpellier do slip up, Castres could even be sniffing round for what would be an unlikely top-two finish.

5 Racing 92 (61 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Pau (A), Montpellier (A), Toulon (H)

Racing have been oddly prone to surprise defeats this season. Their pack has been found wanting on more than one occasion and opponents have found it unusually possible to get to them. It’s not as if they’ve given the heart and lungs of their squad to France at key times, unlike Toulouse.

But when they have got it right, they have played some stunning rugby. 

And that’s why their in the Top 14 play-off zone, and looking forward to a home Champions Cup quarter-final against Premiership side Sale.

Kurtley Beale’s knee injury means he won’t be available for this weekend’s trip to Pau. It’s likely, too, that the heavily used Teddy Thomas, Yoan Tanga and Gael Fickou will be rested this week, with European knockouts and those last two Top 14 matches in mind. But expect to see Bernard Le Roux back in action after struggling with a back injury.

Their Top 14 run-in isn’t the easiest. Pau are tough at home – and their coach is on a mission, while a trip to Montpellier is never the easiest these days, and now Toulon have found their mojo, that last-day match will be a humdinger for neutrals.

6 Toulouse (58 points)

Top 14 matches to play: La Rochelle (H), Brive (A), Biarritz (H)

Toulouse are going to have to defend their two titles the hard way. 

They lost 19-15 against Toulon in front of a 65,000-strong crowd at Marseille’s Orange Velodrome last weekend, but it’s relatively easy to imagine Ugo Mola was – quietly – happy enough with the result and the bonus point.

He had decided to rest key players, including Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, for the trip to France’s second city, preferring to keep them back for this four-match run of games.

La Rochelle at Ernest Wallon will be a warm-up for next weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-final against the URC’s Munster in Dublin. If they win that, the semi-final a week later is most likely to be at the same venue – against Leinster – though it could be at Welford Road against Leicester.

And their route to the Top 14 final is more likely than not to include a qualifying play-off match. The inconvenient truth is that they may well fail to successfully defend either title – but their path to the domestic competition final in Paris is clearer than the one to the European showpiece in Marseille at the end of May.

After this week’s match, they have two very winnable games to qualify for the top six. It’s almost impossible to see them failing to make it. Europe, however, is another matter.

7 Lyon (58 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Montpellier (H), Bordeaux (A), La Rochelle (H)

Lyon slipped out of the top six – where they had been since the fifth round of the season – when they lost at home to Toulon at the beginning of April. 

It’s not quite the worst time to drop out of the play-off places: ask Toulon about the 2020/21 season, when they lost it on the final day, but it could be better. And last week’s win at Brive won’t have done them any harm. Coach Pierre Mignoni described it as their best away match of the season

And they, at least, have a chance to fight their way back – but he’ll be looking enviously at Castres’ run-in. 

Lyon’s final matches of the regular season are against the top three sides in the French top flight, and they also have a Challenge Cup game against URC side Glasgow confirmed on their books before the end of the regular season.

Don’t expect Lyon to let up in either competition. Mignoni returns to his favourite French club, Toulon, next season to form a dream coaching ticket with Franck Azema – but he’ll be determined to leave Lyon on a trophy-winning high if he can manage it. 

8 Toulon (55 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Bordeaux (A), Pau (H), Racing 92 (A)

The Top 14 story of the season? A dreadful start. A change of manager. Reported player discontent. Definite fan discontent. A brief and actually not serious flirtation with relegation and, now, three points off the play-off places, and in Europe with a Challenge Cup quarter-final against London Irish at Stade Mayol.

Azema has turned the good ship Toulon around. They are now playing at least as well as a side of their individual qualities should – and they’re on a four-match winning streak heading into the final three games of the Top 14 campaign.

The coach’s issue is managing his players’ workload – because of Covid-19, Toulon did not get any time off during the Six Nations window, making this block of games very long. And he’s without Kieran Brookes, Facundo Isa, Cheslin Kolbe, Mathieu Smaili, Theo Dachary and Julien Ory for a crucial trip to Bordeaux.

Lose, and their play-off hopes are as good as over. In which case they’ll put their hopes into next weekend’s Challenge Cup basket. Win, and they’re still competing on two fronts…

9 Clermont (53 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Stade Francais (H), Biarritz (A), Montpellier (H)

No additional injury concerns – that was the only slice of good news following Clermont’s abject performance on a diluvian afternoon at Castres last weekend. But they still head to Stade Francais with a patched-up backline, with George Moala, Alivereti Raka, Damian Penaud, Apisai Naqalevu, and the departing Kotaro Matsushima all out.

That’s going to make their increasingly unlikely play-off challenge all the more difficult, bordering on the impossible if they fail to beat Stade Francais on Saturday – which they should, in reality, do. 

They should also beat Biarritz when the Top 14 returns after the European break, so they could get close – but unless several other results go their way, the chances are Clermont will end up short.

10 Pau (50 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Racing 92 (H), Toulon (A), Castres (H)

Coach Sebastien Piqueronies has insisted that Pau’s season is not over – and not because of a faint hope of qualifying for the play-offs. He’s more than pragmatic enough to know that’s an unrealistic assessment that depends more on matches beyond his control.

The objective for the end of the season is to, “validate our work” on the project he laid out when he joined the club. 

“It is a major project that we are undertaking with a certain vision. For all of us, it is very important to decide, to evaluate, to assess where we are going to finish in year one. These games are not meaningless. They are not three transition games. They are evaluation games.”

Intriguingly, Pau have a certain role as play-off kingmakers. They meet three clubs with top-six ambitions of varying strength, and they could help or hinder each one of them – notably Racing and Toulon.

“How we end this season, our position, the collective experience we have acquired will lay the foundations and standards for pre-season. Preparing for the future is simply a matter of consolidating these foundations,” Piqueronies said.

He’s got it. And with some canny signings lined-up for next season, Pau could increasingly become ones to watch…

11 Stade Francais (49 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Clermont (A), La Rochelle (A), Brive (H)

Disappointing isn’t anywhere near a powerful-enough word to describe Stade Francais’ season. Owner Hans-Peter Wild was blunt in his assessment of the club he’s invested over €100million in just two weeks ago in a brutal interview published by L’Equipe.

“We have no leaders,” and, “Stade Francais is not professional enough” are close to the kindest things he said in the lengthy Q&A, effectively writing off this season.


And that’s pretty much what Stade can do, too. Safe from relegation and nine points off the play-off places with trips to Clermont and La Rochelle looming, they’re also-ranning the rest of this campaign.

It will end with yet another turnaround of players – 11 senior squad members and two academy players will pack their bags in June, while another 16 mostly academy players are at the end of their contracts with no confirmed news on whether their staying or going. 

This season is done for Stade Francais. Dr Wild will expect better next season. 

12 Brive (42 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Perpignan (A), Toulouse (H), Stade Francais (A)

Nervous days at Amedee-Domenech, as Brive hope to avoid a late slip that could see them drop to 13th, the unwanted relegation play-off slot.

It could all be over this weekend. A win in Perpignan ends the doubts, and secures Top 14 rugby in the Correze next season, with no concerns over the last two matches.

But lose at Aime-Giral, and things suddenly get even more nervy. Perpignan would be just four, three – or, worst-case scenario, two – points back, with matches against play-off chasing Toulouse and Stade Francais to play.

The problem, of course, is winning on the road. Brive haven’t managed it in the Top 14 at all this season – Biarritz put 37 past them back in October. Which all points to a couple more nail-biting weeks in store.

13 Perpignan (35 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Brive (H), Castres (A), Bordeaux (H)

Coach Patrick Arlettaz conceded a few weeks ago that Perpignan’s Top 14 survival hopes rested most heavily on the relegation play-off against the losing ProD2 finalist.

But they’re not quite out of it yet. They host 12th-placed Brive this weekend, and a win would have the visitors looking very nervously over their shoulders. 

Truth be told, however, even a bonus-point win this Saturday may not be enough for Perpignan. They’ll still have points to make up and it’s not easy to see where they’ll get them from at Castres and then against Bordeaux, even at home.

The unwanted play-off it most probably is, then, on June 12 – the weekend after the Top 14 campaign ends, at the home of the losing ProD2 finalist. 

14 Biarritz (24 points)

Top 14 matches to play: Castres (H), Clermont (H), Toulouse (A)

It’s all over bar the shouting – much of it at the local council amid a bitter ongoing row over redevelopment plans for Parc des Sports d’Aguilera – for Biarritz. 

They haven’t won in the Top 14 since the two-ball ending of the match against La Rochelle in early February, and are conceding an average of 31 points per match – rising to over 40 in their last four domestic matches, a period that has coincided with further off-field struggles.

An immediate return to the ProD2 has been inevitable for some time – it was evident even before the win over La Rochelle. And they head into this final three games with over 20 players in the infirmary – one, Scotland’s Andy Cramond this week confirmed his retirement at age 28 for health reasons, following repeated concussions.

The awesome majestic power of maths has kept reality from the door until last weekend, when all hope of climbing to 12th vanished. Even now, they could theoretically avoid an automatic drop – they’re 11 points behind Perpignan, so the relegation play-off spot is still in play. Just. But anything less than a win on Saturday and … Thanos.

Top 14 Preview: ‘Derby Day’ the prologue to European rugby’s return

Image: Stade Francais / Twitter

It’s the Top 14 ‘Fan Days’ derby weekend before the European fortnight – and, thanks to the vagaries of qualification for the knockout phase of the Champions Cup, for four teams it’s the first of a triple-header of domestic and Champions Cup matches that could seriously shape their seasons.

Here is the table heading into the 22nd round of the Top 14 – by close of play on June 5, we’ll know for definite which six teams are in the play-offs.

There are two matches, this week, for Top 14 followers in the UK and Ireland, with Premier Sports listing both Bordeaux-La Rochelle and Racing 92-Stade Francais. 

Lyon-Toulon might have been an interesting third option and, for distilled French rugby derby spirit, Castres-Toulouse really should have been a must. 

Saturday, April 2

Castres v Toulouse (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

This is not just any Top 14 derby match. This is a Top 14 derby match in which the fifth-placed side heading into the weekend entertains the one that jumped two places above them last week … at the business end of a season that looks for all the world as if it will go all the way to the wire.

Normally, the standard line in previews such as this is something along the lines of: ‘Forget the 41-0 result at Ernest Wallon earlier in the season. That was an outlier result, similar to Castres’ 52-7 win at Pierre Fabre in 2017 or the frankly insane 31-41 result at Ernest Wallon that ended the smalltown club’s 39-year losing streak’. 

Then, they’d go on to say: “These matches are routinely visceral, hard-tackling, tension-fuelled affairs, decided by small margins. A yypical derby, in other words. Especially at Pierre Fabre, where home fans turn out in force. This match – as always – is a sell-out.”

All of which is true. But the suspicion is the visitors could go all-in on their starting lineup, with a Dupont-Ntamack halfback partnership, Julien Marchand and Cyril Baille in the front row, and Rynhardt Elstadt and Sofiane Guitoune back from injury.

In which case, it’s probably right to worry a little for Castres, who defend their 15-month unbeaten run at home without Benjamin Urdapilleta after he suffered a hand injury late in the loss at Brive last week. They could still win – Castres routinely punch well above their weight – but it suddenly looks a whole lot more difficult.

Biarritz v Pau (kick off 5pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

Biarritz are in the odd position of all almost-officially relegated sides. There genuinely is little hope for a side that has managed just five wins all season – the last of those came back in early February with the double-ball victory over La Rochelle – and is 11 points adrift of 13th place, and a further eight from escaping the bottom two places, with their relegation curse.

But, freed from desire to survive, they are almost guaranteed to be a banana-skin side for other clubs, especially at home, where they face Pau, Castres and Clermont – all of whom need points. They proved as much at league leaders Montpellier last weekend, where they were excellent value for their 22-14 first-half lead, before eventually losing 37-22.

Which should, and will, put this week’s visitors Pau on high alert. Even with their long injury list – 18 or 19 players are currently filling the infirmary – the Basque side won’t run out of puff so quickly at home, driven on by their own fans. 

And the visitors are still just a little too close to 13th place for total comfort. An away win, after their victory at home against Perpignan last week will make the rest of the run-in much more comfortable.

Clermont v Brive (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Don’t be too surprised to see French international centre-turned-winger Damian Penaud back in the heart of Clermont’s midfield for the visit of Brive this weekend, as the hosts try to make up for last week’s pointless trip to Toulon.

The hosts’ young scrum-half Kevin Viallard, who’s likely to be on the bench on Saturday, this week told Rugbyrama that Clermont, “can’t even imagine a non-qualification” for the play-offs. Morgan Parra said last weekend that the Jaunards could not afford any more mistakes at home and needed at least one win away to reach the top six.

They would normally expect to beat Brive at Marcel Michelin – and they probably will. 

But the visitors are on something of a roll, with only one defeat in their last five matches – and will look to keep the scoreboard tight. 

If the visitors can turn this match into an arm wrestle, and if they are still inside a score in the final 15, this could turn into a shootout. Which won’t please new director of sports development Didier Retiere, who officially started his role on Friday after years behind the scenes at the FFR.

Lyon v Toulon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Gerland

Next season, Lyon’s Pierre Mignoni and Toulon’s Franck Azema will unite to form a Top 14 coaching dream team at Stade Mayol. 

But, right now, there are still five matches of the current campaign to go, and play-off places up for grabs. The former will want to take his Lyon side – currently sixth in the table – as far as possible, after missing out on the play-offs last season.

The latter has an outside shot at the top six, having flirted with relegation not so very long ago – but Toulon’s Champions Cup hopes rest more heavily on qualification via the Challenge Cup. 

That said, European quarter-final qualification is assured, one match ahead of schedule. So, Azema could rest a few players against Biarritz next week, ahead of the one-leg round-of-16 match the following week. So he could select a strong side this week just to test the waters of what would be a hugely unlikely Brennus push.

Finally, some good news: Mathieu Bastareaud has started training again. There’s no official news on his future – his contract is up at the end of the season – but it’s good to see him moving again.

Perpignan v Montpellier (kick off 5pm)

Stade Aime Giral

League leaders Montpellier are set to welcome Paolo Garbisi back for their short trip to Perpignan after the Italian was given a well-earned week off following his emotional Six Nations’ exploits in Cardiff.

They could feature the routinely good Bastien Chalureau, who’s also back from injury – it’s a toss-up whether he or Janse van Rensburg will start alongside Paul Willemse in the second row. Geoffrey Doumayrou is also expected to play for the first time since early November.

These returns are good news for coach Philippe Saint-Andre and his staff, as they stare at what could be busy few weeks, with two European matches against Harlequins, as well as Top 14 outings against Bordeaux, Lyon, Racing 92 and Clermont in their immediate futures. 

Perpignan, meanwhile, still have out-and-out survival in mind – even if Patrick Arlettaz has publicly admitted the relegation play-off is their best way out. In order to keep the pressure on Brive, Pau and Stade Francais – their nearest rivals – they need a win. Anything less, and it’s hard to see any route to survival outside that play-off.

Bordeaux v La Rochelle (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

Bordeaux ended a run of five matches without a win, dating back to January 29, when they beat Stade Francais 31-18 in Paris last weekend. That losing run saw them give up a 10-point lead at the top of the table and be overtaken by Montpellier.

They now face the first of three matches in a row against their Atlantic coast Top 14 – and European – rivals, who are just over two hours up the A10.

Jandre Marais could return to a Bordeaux second row that has been heavily patched up in recent weeks – Cameron Woki and Louis Picamoles both successfully filled in there for the first time for their clubs at Jean-Bouin last weekend.

Meanwhile, former Castres’ backrow Maama Vaipulu – who arrived on a medical joker contract last month – could make the bench. Matthieu Jalibert remains unavailable, but is expected to return for the second leg of the Champions Cup round-of-16 tie.

For the hosts, Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio and Jonathan dainty should start, while Romain Sazy is set to make his 300th appearance for the club. But head coach Ronan O’Gara may have some player juggling to do to maintain the club’s JIFF matchday average.

Sunday, April 3

Racing 92 v Stade Francais (kick off 9.05pm)

La Defense Arena

Racing 92 and Stade Francais are, like Bordeaux and La Rochelle, at the start of a three-week run of matches against one another in domestic and European competition. Which will be fun.

Unfortunately for Stade, they have been struck by injuries at completely the wrong moment. Waisea and Marcos Kremer were both injured in the loss against Bordeaux last weekend. The former, by far the best performing player for Gonzalo Quesada this season, is out for four to six weeks with a sprained knee. The latter is set to miss three weeks’ action with a calf injury.

Paul Alo-Emile, Julien Delbouis, Harry Glover and Mathieu De Giovanni are also recovering from injury, while JJ van der Mescht is suspended until April 10. 

Racing, meanwhile, are likely to keep Bernard Le Roux on ice until the European meetings over the next fortnight, and could well rest Donovan Taofifenua and Louis Dupichot. 

But with a backline that looks set to include Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou and Juan Imhoff, all launched by Finn Russell – who will hope for an improvement on last week’s performance in defeat at La Rochelle – it could be a long night at La Defense Arena for the visitors.

Top 14 Preview: France’s Grand Slam stars return for final domestic dash

Image: ASM Rugby / Twitter

Six weekends to go in French rugby’s regular Top 14 season. Six Nations’ internationals back in the fold. All rescheduled matches played. One side as good as relegated. Three, possibly four, others in relegation play-off danger. Eight, maybe nine, with an ever-decreasing shot at the play-offs. Welcome to the start of the final straight of a long domestic season – split into short Top 14 blocks divided by European breaks. 

Here, now that all the teams have completed 20 of 26 matches, is the table heading into the weekend. 

The run-in slightly favours those sides already in the top six. Fifteen victories and somewhere around 65 to 70 points should be good enough for a play-off slot – but any late-season slip could prove disastrous, especially if chasing sides La Rochelle or Clermont get on a run.

It seems Premier Sports is broadcasting just one Top 14 match this weekend for supporters in UK and Ireland – Toulouse v Lyon, fifth against third, on Sunday. It has all the hallmarks of the game of the weekend, but a resurgent Toulon v Clermont or La Rochelle’s must-win match against Racing 92 might have been decent options, too…

Saturday, March 26

Toulon v Clermont  (kick off 3pm)

Stade Mayol

Suddenly, in last weekend’s rearranged 41-11 win over La Rochelle, Toulon looked a serious Top 14 side. Cheslin Kolbe scored his first and second tries for the club; Louis Carbonel discovered form he had struggled to find previously, kicking 21 points to show the Mayol crowd what they’ll miss when he joins Montpellier; Aymeric Luc – a consistent beacon all season – was his dangerously rapid self. 

That bonus-point win put eight useful points and two places between the three-time European champions and 13th-placed Perpignan. Mathematically, the play-offs are – just – within reach, but even after Clermont, Toulon’s run-in features trips to Lyon, Bordeaux and Racing, and home games against Toulouse and Pau. 

So their domestic ambitions probably rest more on consolidation, while they are likely to push harder into the Challenge Cup – a la Montpellier last season. Three wins from their last six in the Top 14 should be plenty. It seems logical that they’ll seek to reconnect with suffering fans with three strong home performances – along with a strong end-of-season run in Europe. 

Brive v Castres (kick off 5pm)

Stade Amedee-Domenech

After a fortnight with no matches, two rested teams with different goals meet in what could be a crucial match for their fortunes as Brive, 12th in the table, just three points above the relegation play-off spot, entertain fourth-placed Castres and their play-off ambitions. 

It’s been a good week in the backroom for Brive, according to reports, as lineout coach Arnaud Mela and backs coach Jean-Baptiste Péjoine agreed contract extensions to 2024 – but their more immediate concern is Top 14 survival. 

Their trip to Perpignan at the end of April will be vital, as three of their six remaining matches are against sides currently in the play-off places – Castres, Lyon and Toulouse – while they also face trips to Clermont and Stade Francais.

A win, no matter how close, against Castres this weekend will do Brive’s survival hopes no harm whatsoever. A repeat of last season’s late-campaign result at Amedee-Domenech, when the visitors won 33-28, would leave the hosts with a hard mountain to climb in the closing weeks.

Castres coach Pierre-Henry Broncan said recently the club would bring in six players for next season. On Thursday, Castres also revealed the currently suspended gold medal-winning centre Vilimoni Botitu had signed a two-year extension to stay at Pierre Fabre until 2025.

Montpellier v Biarritz (kick off 5pm)

GGL Stadium

Philippe Saint-Andre’s run as Montpellier coach was supposed to start and finish last season. But, after Mohed Altrad was unable to secure Franck Azema’s services, he agreed to extend his stay for one more campaign. This one. 

Now, it appears he’s about to sign on for another two more seasons, leaving his director of rugby office to gather dust. For now. 

There’s no denying his galvanising influence. Under PSA, Montpellier dragged themselves clear of relegation trouble last season and won the Challenge Cup. They are now top of the table and in the last 16 of the Champions Cup.

But they slipped up last week at Toulouse, and were fortunate a fortnight ago in a rainstorm against Toulon. Saint-Andre knows it. His players know it. Reinforced by their returning French internationals, at least, the boss will demand five points and a regalvanising performance against bottom-of-the-table Biarritz. Anything less simply won’t be good enough.

Pau v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Stade du Hameau

Eleventh versus 13th. Two teams separated by seven points and two places. But the expected return of former Leicester player Zack Henry – whether at 10 or 15 – to the hosts ranks could prove decisive. Pau have missed him while he has been out injured.

Pick your rugby cliche – a must-win match, a relegation dogfight, an eight-point game – all are valid. There’s a reason they’re cliches: because they describe the situation so perfectly, so succinctly they keep getting dragged out of the preview drawer.

Pau should have this, in front of their home fans on a warm, dry afternoon in the foothills of the Pyrenees. But, if the visitors can keep it tight, and returning fullback Melvyn Jaminet kicks his points, it could be closer than the home crowd want. 

La Rochelle v Racing 92 (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

La Rochelle head coach Ronan O’Gara admitted his side lacked speed, aggressiveness, and precision in defeat at Toulon last Saturday. “If this is our best representation of things, we are in danger,” he said of the four-tries-to-one loss at Stade Mayol.

Last weekend’s result has left his side – despite having the second-best attack and the fourth-best defence in the Top 14 – seventh in the table with 10 wins in 20 so far. 

O’Gara is expected to select internationals Gregory Alldritt and Uini Atonio, with both set to come off the bench at some point against Racing 92, a side one point, and one place above them in the table. 

Crucially, the visitors hold the last of the play-off spots. What La Rochelle need this weekend is maximum points – they’re joint top on that metric, with 10 bonus points to their name this season – but that’s not necessarily going to be easy against Racing, even with another sell-out crowd cheering them on.

Stade Francais v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

At the end of January, Bordeaux were 10 points clear at the top of the table. Then they went on a five-match losing streak. Now, they’ve been overtaken by Montpellier and seemed, over the Six Nations period, a little out of sorts.

There’s no wonder then that Christophe Urios described this final sprint in two competitions, including three matches in as many weeks against La Rochelle, with their internationals returned – though Matthieu Jalibert and Yoram Moefana are injured – as being akin to ‘a new season’.

Even so, it’s probably not the best time to face a rapidly improving – fresh off a few days at training camp in Saint-Tropez – Stade Francais, a side chasing an longshot at the play-offs on their own high-speed synthetic turf.

Urios recognised as much. “This phase is going to be important. There are nine teams that can qualify. From first to ninth, everyone can make the top six and obviously everyone can drop out. This is the final straight.”

Get it right, and Bordeaux will have a crucial win in the bag. But Urios and Bordeaux haven’t managed that recently.

Sunday, March 27

Toulouse v Lyon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

Romain Ntamack admitted in an interview with L’Equipe this week that France’s Grand Slam winners “would have liked to rest a little,” after a ‘very intense’ tournament.

“But the club needs us,” he added. “It is therefore important to get back into the swing of things as quickly as possible and to work to the Toulouse blueprint.” 

It’s likely all 10 of fifth-placed Toulouse’s returning French internationals will be named in the 23 to face third-placed Lyon, a side a point better off than their hosts.

Ugo Mola’s side took five points off Montpellier last week, and will be looking for another full-house here, against Lyon, to consolidate their play-off place before – perhaps – resting a few players in the final Top 14 outing before the Champions Cup round-of-16 double-header against Ulster in early April.

Then, there’s the small matter of the rest of the dash to the Top 14 play-offs and – perhaps – further matches in the defence of their European title.

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

And, 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: Win or damn near bust for basement duo Perpignan and Biarritz

Image: USAP / Twitter

Officially, this is the 20th round of the Top 14 campaign, after which there’s a break in the campaign until March 26.

But postponements related to Covid 19 mean a number of teams are behind schedule – or, if you prefer, have games in hand. Those matches have been slotted into the two free weekends ahead.

So, in 400m parlance, when the scheduled Top 14 programme resumes later this month, the bend will have unwound, and we’ll have a much clearer picture of how things stand heading into the final six-match straight.

The current table, heading into this weekend, looks like this:

Top 14 watchers in the UK and Ireland will be able to watch Clermont v Lyon on Saturday evening, and Stade Francais v Toulouse in this season’s Classico II on Sunday night.

Saturday, March 5

Castres v Montpellier (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

This is the definition of a something’s got to give match: fifth-placed Castres, unbeaten at home in the Top 14 in 17 matches – a run dating back to December 2020 – face second-placed Montpellier, unbeaten home or away in their last 10.

It’s the third match of a tough run for the hosts – who beat third-placed Lyon at home two weeks ago, then gave up their fourth-place to Racing last week, with a 45-25 loss at Lorenzetti’s Pleasure Dome. 

The three-week break that follows this weekend’s match will be welcomed as the 2018 champions – who beat Montpellier in that final – brace for the final six-match race to the play-offs. It means they can throw if not the entire kitchen sink, then some meaningful utensils at this match.

Montpellier, two matches behind on the schedule because of Covid-19 postponements, don’t have that luxury. They entertain survival-chasing Toulon next week, and then travel to season-saving Toulouse on March 20, a week before the scheduled Top 14 season resumes. 

Coach Philippe Saint-Andre needs to be more careful with his squad, and may choose to rest some key players for later challenges – Montpellier’s regular season ends with a run of Bordeaux-Lyon-Racing-Clermont – at a time of the campaign when defeats are more serious because there’s less time to iron them out.

Biarritz v Toulon (kick off 5pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

Bottom-of-the-table Biarritz still believe – have to believe – they can escape an immediate return to the ProD2, despite losing seven of their last eight matches.

“The players are going to be a little tense about our next meetings,” coach Matthew Clarkin told reporters midweek. “But it’s our job to relieve the pressure … We have to make sure that we master everything we can about our game.”

This match – against 12th-placed Toulon – is as crucial as it gets. “Toulon is a chance to show that we have progressed and that we have grown,” Clarkin added, which may or may not be code for ‘win-or-bust match’.

But that’s pretty much what it is. Lose, and no matter what happens elsewhere, and the relative safety of 12th place will be nine or 10 points away.

The question is: do Toulon, slapdash and uncontrolled in defeat at Brive last weekend, have it in them to all-but end the Basque side’s hopes? Sergio Parisse said this week that he had turned down a Six Nations swansong with Italy to help the club out of ‘a difficult situation’.

There’s still plenty going on behind the scenes at the Var side. The players and the coach have to find a way to put it out of their minds and perform like a team on the pitch.

La Rochelle v Brive (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

In common with a number of teams, La Rochelle are in an odd yet familiar Six Nations position. Some of their players – Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio, Jonathan Danty – are with the France squad and unavailable to Ronan O’Gara. 

Others – Paul Boudehent, Brice Dulin, Jules Favre, Thomas Lavault – are available for selection, but will head to FFR headquarters at Marcoussis after this weekend’s match, having been called up to the squad for next Friday’s Six Nations match against Wales.

That leaves O’Gara – who has a rescheduled trip to Toulon on March 19 to factor into his thinking – with something of a selection headache. Does he give Dillyn Leyds, just returning from an ankle injury, some match time this week, or keep him for Toulon, for example.

Brive have injury worries of their own. After a successful February home run – when they won their two and drew one at Amadee Domenech, including last weekend’s win over Toulon – they head to Marcel Deflandre with a battered and patched-up squad. 

Unlike their hosts, they are on schedule with their matches, so will have three weeks to recover from Saturday’s match before they next take to the pitch – at home to Castres on March 26.

Bordeaux v Pau (kick off 5pm)

Stade Chaban-Delmas

Two weeks ago, after Top 14 leaders Bordeaux had lost their first home game of the season against Racing 92, their second defeat on the bounce manager Christophe Urios told his players: “I love these moments. We’ve got to come up with solutions.”

Last week, after a third consecutive loss, he was rather less well-disposed. “I was disappointed with our rugby, especially in the set piece where we either lost the ball or were penalised. It’s always the same evils: we’re not very efficient, we waste a lot. We need to sort this all out.”

Enter Pau. The only side to lose at home last week – a 22-16 defeat at the hands of La Rochelle. Urios was blunt in his assessment of Saturday’s match. “Today, the urgency and the priority is to beat Pau,” he said at Bordeaux’s midweek media session.

It’s true to say, their comfort zone has vanished over the past three Top 14 weekends. Just one point now separates them from Montpellier, at the head of the chasing pack. 

Matthieu Jalibert – named in France’s extended 42-player squad for the Six Nations match against Wales on March 11 – may get a run-out at Chaban-Delmas this weekend, but Urios admitted his fly-half ‘won’t be 100 percent, necessarily’.

Perpignan v Racing 92 (kick off 5pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Perpignan, promoted as convincing ProD2 champions last season, find themselves in a similar precarious position to fellow promoted side Biarritz. 

Currently 13th in the table, two points behind Toulon heading into the weekend, anything less than a win could see them further adrift from safety, in the relegation play-off spot – which comes with a winner-takes-Top-14-place trip to an ambitious ProD2 side’s packed home ground.

Their problem – visitors Racing 92 are on a six-match hot-streak, have climbed to fourth in the table, and have third place in their sights. From there, second – with its free pass to the Top 14 semi-final come the post-season play-offs – may be just a win away.

Expect them to bring a strong side – though concern over Baptiste Chouzenoux may see them opt to play lock Luke Jones at 7, while the non-selection of Bernard Le Roux by Fabien Galthie may be explained if, as expected, he’s absent from the Racing 23.

Laurent Travers was not expected to decide whether to start with Finn Russell at 10 until Friday morning, after this preview was published.

Clermont v Lyon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Ninth in the Top 14 is not where Jono Gibbes and Clermont expected to be at this stage in the season. But it has been that sort of campaign. 

They’ve had injuries: Fritz Lee, Alexandre Lapandry, Sebastien Bezy, Wesley Fofana, Peceli Yato, Yohan Beheregaray, Samuel Ezeala, Jacobus Van Tonder, Alexandre Fischer, Adrien Pélissie and Bastien Pourailly are all out, while Morgan Parra – who has played at 10 for the past couple of weeks amid a season-long fly-half consistency problem – is a doubt: a decision will be made as late as possible.

The good news, at least, is that Camille Lopez is fit again, which solves half of the halfback problem. The other half really could do with Parra. But Clermont have a Covid catch-up match against Bordeaux next week, so Gibbes has to juggle his options carefully.

Meanwhile, third-placed Lyon’s late-campaign plans have taken a knock with news that Charlie Ngatai – who’s set to sign a contract extension, reports suggest – will be out for a couple of months with a broken tibia.

Despite the absences, both sides still have the resources in hand to field strong sides, on paper. It’s set to be chilly but dry at Clermont on Saturday evening, and with the backs that these two sides can put out, that should equal some thrilling rugby.

Sunday, March 6

Stade Francais v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

The weekend closes with Classico II, just over three weeks after a Covid-delayed all-in Classico I, a match won for Stade Francais after the hooter by a Joris Segond penalty.

At the time of Classico I, Toulouse were four matches into a six-match losing streak that ended with Sunday’s hard-fought 12-11 win over Bordeaux at Ernest Wallon. 

A few hours earlier, Stade Francais had lost 30-3 at Montpellier – a result that head coach Gonzalo Quesada insisted did not reflect the match that preceded it.

That win over Bordeaux will have done wonders for Toulouse’s confidence – but Ugo Mola will still be without eight or nine players who are away on France duty. Add-in injuries, and his options are severely compromised. Victory at Jean Bouin will be based on guts and grit and no small amount of determination.

Stade, meanwhile, have not lost at home since November – but they have not done the double over Toulouse since the 2006/07 season. The Paris side, currently outside the play-off places, went on to win the Brennus at the end of that season. 

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

And, 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 prepped to avoid Biarritz banana skin; Toulon head into Brive den

Image: Lyon OU Rugby / Twitter

What’s officially the 19th weekend of the 26-week Top 14 regular season – but, because of Covid-19, is the 17th for some teams and the 18th for a few more, kicks off this weekend, just after the final whistle of Scotland-France at Murrayfield, and half-an-hour before England-Wales gets under way at Twickenham.

For Top 14 watchers in the UK and Ireland, Premier Sports have picked what – on paper or, as the case may be, online preview – look to be the three biggest matches of the weekend: Brive-Toulon, Montpellier-Stade Francais, and Toulouse-Bordeaux.

Saturday, February 26

Lyon v Biarritz (kick off 5.15pm)

Stadium Gerland

Biarritz head to southeast France hanging precariously over the relegation precipice following a 10-try 65-19 mauling in Paris by Stade Francais. They’re five points adrift of nearest rivals Perpignan at the foot of the table, and eight from safety.

The figures suggest that the visitors are in the closing stretch of a one-season return to the Top 14 – but that’s not what Lyon’s staff will be telling their players; or what Biarritz’s staff will be telling theirs.

There are enough points left in the season – a possible maximum of 40 – for Biarritz to engineer a late escape. But they need to string wins together. The closest they have come to two in a row is two in the first three games of the season, and they have never won away from home. 

And they’ll be out to prove they are better than their last result – that humbling in Paris. Lyon know this. They know that Biarritz will come at them hard as they fight for survival. And Lyon know they will have to be ready. 

Everything points to a win for third-placed Lyon. But they’ve slipped on banana skins like this before.

Pau v La Rochelle (kick off 5.15pm)

Stade du Hameau

Pau head coach Sebastien Piqueronies had no time to savour last week’s win over Toulouse – he had to start working, almost immediately, on how to fill his midfield after both centres Tamua Manu and Jale Vatubua were sent off, leaving 13 on the pitch to withstand the visitors’ fightback for nearly half-an-hour.

The fact is, injuries have left him short of options – with the wise money on Eliott Roudil, and  Aminiasi Tuimaba or Mathias Colombet expected to face midfield might of play-off chasing La Rochelle – one place and four points above Pau in the table, with a game in hand. 

A ray of good news for Pau is that Levani Botia is a doubt after picking up an ankle injury last week – half an hour his return from an earlier knock.

Both these teams like to attack. They like to keep the ball in hand. The weather is set fair in southwest France on Saturday, with sunshine and a light wind forecast. This could be a belter.

Clermont v Perpignan (kick off 5.15pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

There’s plenty going on behind the scenes at Clermont, but there can equally be little argument that better was expected in this first season under Jono Gibbes – currently 10th and too close to those bottom two places for comfort.

There are hints of something to get excited about, however, as Clermont play in front of their home fans for the first time since mid-January. Injuries to senior players have forced Gibbes to blood raw academy talent and they have not let him down. Last week, at La Rochelle, a young pack – coached by Davit Zirakashvili – held their own against the hosts.

But, frankly, there’s no more room for error for Clermont. This is the start of a three-match run at Marcel Michelin after a month-and-a-half away from the comforts of home. Clermont really must win all three.

Anything less and this season will start to look an awful lot like a write off domestically.

Racing 92 v Castres (kick off 5.15pm)

La Defense Arena

A week after fourth-placed Castres beat third-placed Lyon in a hard-nosed streetfight at Stade Pierre Fabre, fifth-placed Racing entertain fourth-placed Castres at La Defense Arena. And the tactics for the hosts are simple. Racing cannot, will not, must-not let this descend into a breakdown scrap.

Trevor Nyakane has beefed up Racing’s front three and Baptiste Pesenti’s return last week after a four-month injury lay-off was welcome, but – despite Anton Bresler adding second row mullet menace since December – the hosts’ pack remains, as it has all season, something of concern. 

But a more open game brings its own problems. A couple of weeks ago, Pau caused Racing more than a few problems with their willingness to run the ball at La Defense Arena, as the hosts tried to make up for some scrum creaking by flinging it around a bit. And Castres, while they’ll take a scrap if it’s on offer, can do that too – as they proved at Clermont early in the Top 14 season, and at Harlequins in the final pool match of the Champions Cup.

Chances are Racing will win this – and, if they get it right, they’ll win reasonably well to overtake the visitors in the table. But Castres, it bears repeating, are better than many like to think and are now willing and able to run it as much as they duke it.

They have an outside shot of winning for the first time at Jacky’s Pleasure Dome. Whether they can take it remains to be seen.

Brive v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stadium de Brive

Brive is probably not a stadium you want to visit if, like Toulon, you lack confidence despite managing back-to-back wins for the first time this season. They may be 11th in the table, but have two wins – including a famous one over Clermont – and a draw from their last five.

But that’s the way the fixture list has fallen for Franck Azema’s 12th-placed side as they look to escape the gravitational pull of the relegation places on the first of three matches on the road.

Wins at home over Bordeaux and Perpignan have eased Toulon’s problems in the past fortnight, but they are far from out of the woods, and to describe their away form as dismal misses the perfect opportunity to say it has been abysmal.

On paper, Toulon will have the much stronger squad. On the pitch, they’ll need to match Brive’s team-spirit. That is difficult enough at the best of times – and these are far from the best of times for the visitors.

Sunday, February 27

Montpellier v Stade Francais (kick off 5.05pm)

GGL Stadium

Welcome to what could easily be the Top 14 match of the weekend. 

Second-placed Montpellier, undefeated in nine, denied what admittedly would have been a scarcely deserved a win at Brive last week by less than the width of an upright, face a resurgent Stade Francais, who have shrugged off a disastrous start to the season and now sit on the brink of a place in the play-off zone.

After a slow start, Stade’s attack has been behind their drive up the table. Only once since the turn of the year have they scored less than 20 points – in a quagmire of a dogfight at a rain-soaked Castres on January 8.

But they come up against the best, arguably the most disciplined, defence in the league at the GGL. Montpellier averaged a card a game by this stage in the season last year. This time around they’ve had only eight, thanks in a big way to the work of former referee-turned-defence-coach Alexandre Ruiz.

Stade – hot off their 65-19 win over Biarritz last week – will have to find a way to pick holes in a solid defence that concedes an average of 18 points a game, while stopping an attack that scores 25 points. Even if they hit their season average of 22 points, it might not be good enough…

Toulouse v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

Bordeaux have not won at Toulouse in more than a decade. That’s a record that could very easily change on Sunday, with their hosts’ reeling after six defeats in a row, and with nine key players on France duty.

It’s fair to say Christophe Urios’s side won’t get a better chance to end a losing run. 

There’s no hiding the fact that there’s a serious crisis of confidence at Toulouse right now. They were on the road to being well-beaten at Pau last weekend – they weren’t even in the game before their hosts were reduced to 13; and were humiliated 36-13 at Perpignan. Only the rescheduled Clasico against Stade Francais was close, needing an after-the-hooter Joris Segonds’ penalty.

And yet… Bordeaux are also significantly ‘reduced’. Cameron Woki and Yoram Moefana are away with France. Federico Mori is with Italy. Matthieu Jalibert, Pablo Uberti and leading try-scorer UJ Seuteni are out injured.

This has the hallmarks of a survival match. Both sides are hurting – Toulouse on their six-match losing streak, Bordeaux have lost back-to-back matches, including their first at home, for the first time this season. 

Both sides are stretched in certain positions – fly-half and midfield is a notable concern for the visitors; Toulouse have leant heavily on their academy since the start of the Six Nations. 

If you were looking for an exhibition of the best of Top 14 rugby, probably don’t look here. But if it’s intense, all-in, desperate action you’re after, that could be another story…

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

And, 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.