Top 14 Preview: Christmas Clasico the highlight of a Covid-hit fixture list

Three scheduled Top 14 matches have been postponed because of Covid on what should be one of the most lucrative rounds of the season for clubs.

Brive-Clermont was the last to be ruled out, news coming on Christmas Day that a number of positive tests were found in testing among the Clermont group. Racing 92-Pau and Toulon-Bordeaux had been called off to a later date late on Friday.

The match at Mayol had been in doubt for some time – the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, which operates the top two professional men’s leagues in France had, in conjunction with French pay-TV broadcaster Canal+, already decided to move La Rochelle-Lyon to the same time to ensure primetime live sports on Monday, December 27th.

The decision to postpone Brive-Clermont was quickly followed by news that the kick-off of Perpignan-Castres would be delayed two hours to fill the now-vacant 6pm slot.

That probably won’t have impressed Castres coach Pierre-Henry Broncan, who had already complained about training and travelling on Christmas Day, which is usually considered sacrosanct in France.

Broncan told Midi Olympique this week: “It bothers me to force my guys to train and travel on the 25th to prepare for our match against Perpignan. You can always argue that we need the TV money, but I regret that no one has stepped up to defend the sacred side of December 25th.”

In the UK and Ireland, Premier Sports expected to show the Brive-Clermont derby, and Toulouse v Stade Francais (unsurprisingly) on Sunday, as well as Toulon-Bordeaux on Monday. I’ve had no news, so far, on whether they’ll switch those two postponed games to Perpignan-Castres and La Rochelle-Lyon. But they might…

In case you’ve forgotten in all the European, Christmas, Covid excitement, here is the table heading into the 13th round of the season – halfway point…

And this week, there’s a mascots’ match to raise funds for Restos du Coeur…

Here’s a preview of the truncated Christmas programme, apart from the mascots’ game. All kick-off times are Paris time – and subject to late changes because of the spread of Covid-19. 

Sunday, December 26

Perpignan v Castres (kick off 6pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Castres’ coach Broncan may not be impressed with the Top 14 fixture list this week – but he and his staff will have long-targeted this trip as a potential win on the road, which is why the players will train and travel on Christmas Day to give the club the best chance of a second away win of the season.

But the Catalans have dealt with visitors’ overweaning ambitions before – they have already beaten Clermont, La Rochelle, Toulon and Biarritz on home soil, and aren’t about to go quietly into the night on Sunday. Far from it. In front of a packed Aime Giral, the ambition is not to avoid defeat, and not just to win, but to win well.

Toulouse v Stade Francais (kick off 9.05pm)

Stadium de Toulouse

The last match of an exceptional 2021 for Toulouse is, historically, one of its biggest – which is why the game will be played in front of a 30,000-plus crowd at Stadium de Toulouse, rather than Ernest Wallon.

But much will depend on their inconsistent opponents, 10th-placed Stade Francais, in the first half of a crucial Christmas programme, which concludes next weekend with the visit to Paris of Perpignan.

Stade can refer back to recent history, when they came back from 20-6 down against La Rochelle to win 25-20 at Stade Jean Bouin, but “We have to learn to be smarter, stronger, especially during weak periods,” Stade’s Alex Arrate admitted this week. “We cannot be consistent for 80 minutes, even though we work on it every week.”

Perhaps the best they can hope for is a strong performance in defeat this weekend to set them in good stead for next week and an assault on the second half of the league.

Monday, December 27

Biarritz v Montpellier (kick off 7pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

Fourteenth against third. It should be an easy call. But Biarritz’s four wins this season have come against Bordeaux, Racing 92, Brive and Stade Francais – sides that have underestimated their hosts.

Philippe Saint-Andre will be keen for his players not to fall victim to complacency and become another notable Biarritz scalp as they look to close the gap on the two sides ahead of them, Toulouse and Bordeaux. 

La Rochelle v Lyon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

A late schedule change because of the need for Covid-19 testing ahead of the Toulon-Bordeaux match means this match now kicks off at 9.05pm rather than the earlier announced 7pm. And a match that will be preceded by a bittersweet moment as Kevin Gourdon, forced to retire for health reasons, bids a fond and emotional farewell to the fans.

But the extra couple of hours won’t help the visitors solve their halfback issue. Baptiste Couilloud, Lima Sopoaga and Jean-Marc Doussain are all nursing injuries that have left the visitors looking very light at both nine and 10 – head coach Pierre Mignoni has even done a stint at his old position during training sessions in the week. But it should be Jonathan Pelissie and Leo Berdeu to start at Deflandre on Monday. The issue is if either of them get injured.

Despite climbing to fifth in the table, La Rochelle are a side in flux. Ronan O’Gara has been noticeably busy in the transfer market already – and has made a number of eye-catching player grabs for next season.

It won’t be properly ‘his’ side until next season. Until then, we’ll just have to put up with the side he helped build and helped guide to the finals of both the Top 14 and Champions Cup. Which isn’t at all a bad one, by any stretch of the imagination.

Top 14 Preview: French top-flight rugby back with a bang after international break

Image: ASM Clermont Auvergne / Twitter

After three weeks’ absence during the Autumn International window, the French Top 14 returns this weekend.

Live matches aired in the UK and Ireland on Premier Sports this week are Toulouse-Brive and Racing 92-Bordeaux, while Japan’s Ahasi TV kicks off its Top 14 coverage through to the end of the season with – unsurprisingly, given who’s playing – Perpignan v Clermont.

Remember, as always, kick off times listed here are Paris time. You’ll have to do the maths yourself to work out the time wherever you are…

Saturday, November 27

Perpignan v Clermont (kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Expect a relatively young Clermont to take to the pitch at Stade Aime Giral in the first part of their two-week run of matches against Top 14 promotees – the first match to be screened in Japan as part of a new TV agreement between a Japanese broadcaster and the French Ligue National de Rugby.

Peni Ravai, Damian Penaud and Thomas Lavanini are on holiday – the latter is also awaiting sanction for his red card in the autumn internationals; Marvin O’Connor is away on 7s duty; while Camille Lopez, Sebastien Bezy, Apisai Naqalevu, Alivereti Raka, Peceli Yato and Alexandre  Fischer are filling up the infirmary … leaving plenty of space for ambitious young players to impress Jono Gibbes.

Such is the balancing act the coaches face that Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima, amid whispers that his contract will not be extended, has delayed his holiday and is expected to start at 15.

Bringing academy players through to the senior squad is a key part of Gibbes’ brief – as it is in all clubs these days, as they seek to cut salary costs to keep pace with the ever decreasing cap.

Don’t be surprised, then, to see the prodigiously talented Cheikh Tiberghien – who already has 20 senior appearances to his name – start as Clermont test their strength in depth.

Perpignan, who announced that winger Alivereti Duguivalu has extended his stay at the club despite interest from elsewhere, won’t be pushovers at home for a less experienced Clermont. 

The Catalans know the score, they’ve always known they’re in a first-season-back dogfight for Top 14 survival. They’re already doing better than their last foray into the Top 14, with three wins from 10 compared to two from 26 last time. 

Four from 11 is distinctly possible. Especially with Melvyn Jaminet back from France duty and likely to start at fullback.

La Rochelle v Pau (kick off 3pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

After a slow start, the Top 14 campaign for Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle got better in the run-up to the international break. 

Five wins, five losses, sixth in the table – slightly better than halfway. But, after that early wobble, if you’d asked O’Gara if he’d have taken sixth by this stage in the competition he’d … well, he’d probably demand something better, to be honest … but he’d eventually take it, on the understanding that improvements were needed.

He’s able to pick a pretty strong matchday 23 for the visit of ninth-placed Pau – a side that have been much better at home than away, with only one win on the road, at Perpignan, to their name so far.

That record is unlikely to improve at Marcel Deflandre, a ground where only Toulouse have won in recent campaigns. And the Rochelais’ record is strong against Sebastien Piqueronies’ visitors. They’ve won the last five meetings between the two sides, a winning run dating back to March 2018.

It’s hard to see the visitors breaking that streak this weekend. The two sides met here in May, at the end of last season, with the hosts winning 51-27 in an 11-try scorefest. Don’t expect another high-try encounter. The weather at La Rochelle – as it is across most of France this weekend – isn’t favourable to running, high-scoring rugby.

Montpellier v Castres (kick off 3pm)

GGL Stadium

In the week Mohed Altrad revealed Handre Pollard’s future lies away from Montpellier, a record is set to break at the GGL on Saturday.

As third-place Montpellier face seventh-placed Castres, Fulgence Ouedraogo’s 332nd outing – on top of his 39 full international and 18 France 7 caps – overtakes the previous club best set by Didier Bès.

And, in more good news for the club, it appears both centre Arthur Vincent – currently out with an ACL injury – and tighthead Mohamed Haouas are both set to sign contract extensions, while Australian Brandon Paenga-Amosa arrived on Monday, on a three-year-plus-one deal to strengthen hooker stocks, with the retiring Guilhem Guirado nursing a biceps injury.

Haouas and the returning Paul Willemse, along with France Autumn International outcasts Anthony Bouthier and Vincent Rattez, are set to start for the hosts, who are set to kick off with a halfback pairing of Cobus Reinach and Paolo Garbisi, with Pollard set to come off the bench. 

Meanwhile another international returnee, Gaetan Barlot – who came off the bench in the win over New Zealand last weekend is likely to captain the visitors, who should also include Fiji’s Vilimani Botitu in their starting line-up as they look to spring a shock and overtake their hosts in the standings.

Biarritz v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

It had all seemed so promising. Biarritz, the club, and Biarritz, the town, had – apparently – kissed and made up. The disputed redevelopment of Parc des Sports d’Aguilera was to be redrawn and would go ahead after all. 

Top-flight professional rugby would stay in the most southwest of France’s rugby towns, rather than up sticks and head to Lille. Or San Sebastien. Or somewhere else.

But the November 15 deadline for submitting planning documents passed with no papers filed – and everything’s up in the air all over again. The project seems to have stalled, and Biarritz have nowhere to go… 

With all that going on behind the scenes, bottom-of-the-table Biarritz have been preparing for the visit of Stade Francais – a side that should be further up the table than four points, or one win, and three places ahead of their hosts.

Stade will have targeted this match at the beginning of the season as one to win. Given their poor start, a win on the road would be even more useful. But, with Ngani Laumape beginning to find his feet in the Top 14, Lester Etien fit again after a long absence with an achilles injury, and Arthur Coville and Joris Segonds just starting to fire, they will be confident the second block of games will be more lucrative than the first.

Despite their league position, Biarritz – expected to include former Munster prop James Cronin in the starting line-up after injury – are happy enough with their opening block of games. Perhaps one more win would have been a better reward for their efforts. 

But the coaches will hope a short rest and then some work on a few early season issues – notably their discipline – will have given one of the smaller squads in the Top 14, and one that has struggled with injuries, something to work with as the first-season-back survival fight kicks back into gear.

The objective, according to coach Matthew Clarkin: to “have at least one team behind us in the standings”.

Toulon v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Mayol

The Franck Azema era at 12th-placed Toulon officially started in the week leading up to the 10th and final match of the Top 14’s opening block of games at his former club Clermont on November 7. It was a match Toulon lost.

It is, however, much more fair and reasonable to consider his tenure from now. By the time Saturday’s match against Lyon kicks off, he’ll have had 20 days between matches to deal, or at least start to deal, with numerous issues at the club.

And Azema, whose role extends far beyond first-team affairs, has been busy, developing relations with the players and staff that he has inherited, meeting supporters’ groups and getting behind the club’s new ‘charter of values’. It may seem from the outside to be tinkering at the edges when he has an underachieving squad in something approaching crisis, but these are important matters – and the timing, coinciding with the international window, couldn’t have been better.

The messaging out of the club is that we should expect a period of relative calm after a stormy few months; that the injury list is decreasing – Baptiste Serin and Sergio Parisse are back in training and could well make the 23; that team spirit is flying, and that new mega-signing Cheslin Kolbe is just weeks away from a return to the pitch. Azema has said that Kolbe could be fit to play in a fortnight or so, when the European competitions add a little extra spice to the season.

For now, Azema’s immediate first team-related focus, is – unsurprisingly – on fourth-placed Lyon. He’s looking for cohesion. We’ll see how close he has got to achieving that by the final whistle.

Toulouse v Brive (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

Toulouse proved, in the last Top 14 round before the international break, that they had the resources to cope with the absence of a sizeable chunk of their squad – though they would have been grateful that they were at home to lowly Perpignan.

No doubt they’ll continue to be grateful as they welcome Brive to Stade Ernest Wallon. The visitors can be difficult to play, especially on home turf, but Ugo Mola should have the playing riches at his disposal to handle the challenge – even if, as expected, he resists temptation to play most of his returning internationals. 

Thomas Ramos, ignored by Fabien Galthie this autumn, could be set for a rare outing at 10, where he could form the experienced part of a halfback unit completed by Baptiste Germain, while Thibault Flament, only used once by France, is expected to be named in the second row.

Antoine Miquel, rumoured to be considering a move to Lyon at the end of the season if head coach Pierre Mignoni confirms his future is at Stade Gerland, could start at 8.

The visitors head coach, Jeremy Davidson, is likely to have made it as difficult as possible, with Jurand, Bituniyata, Galala, Muller and Herve all expected to start – as is a certain Toulouse academy graduate, Daniel Brennan. Intriguingly, brother Josh could be on the bench for the hosts…

Despite Brive’s best selection efforts, however, the expectation has to be that first will beat 10th – possibly even with a try-scoring bonus point.

Sunday, November 28

Racing 92 v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

La Defense Arena

Former Biarritz, Grenoble, Racing and Munster scrum-half James Hart moved up the Atlantic coast this week to join Bordeaux on a short-term medical joker contract as cover for the unfortunate Jules Gimbert, who is out for some time with a cruciate ligament injury.

Hart is unlikely to be called into immediate action, with Yann Lesgourges expected to start at nine and returning France international Maxime Lucu set to come on off the bench for what is undeniably the big match of the weekend between second and fifth.

Another player recently returned from France colours, Cameron Woki looks likely to start back in his more recognisable backrow position – but Matthieu Jalibert appears certain to be handed a rest after a busy role for Sunday’s visitors in the opening block of matches.

The hosts, meanwhile, could welcome Virimi Vakatawa back to the matchday 23 after he missed the autumn internationals with an injury that permitted the grand Jalibert-Ntamack experiment for the first two matches.

Camille Chat – another who has lost ground in the international order because of fitness concerns – will, meanwhile, want to show what France have been missing … though he’ll have his work cut out following the rise of Castres’ Barlot and Toulouse’s Peato Mauvaka.

Top 14 Preview: Hallowe’en weekend opener for Toulon’s new boss Azema

Photo: RC Toulon / Twitter

Two stories have gripped French rugby this week: the possibility of a Jalibert-Ntamack 10-12 partnership for France against Argentina in just over a week, and – a late-runner on the rails – Toulon sacking Patrice Collazo and then, on Thursday, hiring Franck Azema … which didn’t go down too well with his former bosses at Clermont.

In among it all, not-quite silenced by the shrieks of excitement at the Jalimack prospect, groans of relief from the Toulon region over Collazo, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth about Azema from Clermont, there’s the small matter of the ninth round of the 2021/22 Top 14 season, the penultimate one before those players not involved in the November internationals get a deserved break after an opening block of 10 games in as many weeks.

UK and Ireland fans have four matches to enjoy this weekend. On Saturday, Premier Sports 2 is showing Castres v Brive, followed by Montpellier v Lyon. Then there’s the Bordeaux v Clermont evening game, also on Premier Sports 2.

On Sunday, Premier Sports 1 has Racing 92 v Toulouse – even shorn of its big stars, this one could be spectacular.

Here’s a preview of sorts of each game. Remember kick off times listed here are Paris time – also remember the clocks go back this weekend. 

Saturday, October 30

Toulon v Biarritz (kick off 3pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

Never let it be said that the rugby gods don’t have a sense of humour.

The last match of the Patrice Collazo era at Toulon, the 39-6 loss that broke Bernard Lemaitre’s patience, was at his former club, La Rochelle – Marcel Deflandre is a ground where, Toulouse excepted, visiting teams traditionally go to die.

As expected, Clermont’s former head coach Franck Azema was officially confirmed as Toulon’s new general manager on Thursday – too late to take charge of the side for this weekend’s match, at home to Biarritz, but in time for next weekend’s trip to … Clermont’s Stade Marcel Michelin.

Next week’s match could be awkward – Clermont have made it perfectly clear they’re not entirely impressed with Toulon signing a coach they consider still, officially, under contract with them. It’ll all end in compensation…

But first to this week – and a game the hosts would have targeted as a five-pointer in pre-season. Now, things aren’t quite so certain as, after eight evening slots to please the TV paymasters, Toulon play their first non-primetime match of the new campaign.

Former Munster backrow James Coughlan, who joined Toulon as defence coach from Brive in the summer, is in charge of preparing the squad for the visit of Biarritz, though Azema has been spotted at training. 

The visitors, meanwhile, hot off the back of a bonus-point 37-9 win at home to Brive last weekend, may suddenly have a shock win on the road in mind. It would be their first of the season away from the home comforts of Parc des Sports Aguilera. It would also, on paper, be hugely unlikely. 

But the coach with the hardest job this week has been Coughlan – though he’s not expected to change the selection too much, given his choices are limited with the club’s long injury list. But he could win a more-than handy four points for Toulon. 

Castres v Brive (kick off 3pm) – PREMIER SPORTS 2

Stade Pierre Fabre

Two sides, separated by just three league points and as many league places, who lost big last week meet at Stade Pierre Fabre for what is, traditionally, a hard-fought game between two of the Top 14’s least fashionable sides.

Castres were handed a midweek player boost, with France squad call-ups Wilfrid Hounkpatin and Florent Vanverberghe among 14 players released back to their clubs by the national set-up. 

Both are likely to step straight back into the starting line-up, the latter likely to line-up in the second row with the unrelentingly excellent Tom Staniforth, a little-known diamond-in-the-rough find from head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan, a coach whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the game and the players is close to unrivalled.

Fabien Galthie has kept hold of hooker Gaetan Barlot, however, meaning the starting hooker role is likely to fall to the experienced Paula Ngauamo, with youthful talent Brendan LeBrun on the bench.

Brive, meanwhile, will have worked hard on their discipline this week. They conceded 19 points in 10 minutes while captain Said Hireche was sin-binned late in the game at Biarritz last week – but his temporary sidelining was just the catalyst for their problems in southwest France.

Truth is, they had started shipping penalties and losing ground long before Hireche was binned.

Castres start as favourites. They are unbeaten at home under Broncan, and there’s no reason to believe that record won’t continue, but whether they will pick up four or five points at the end of a blood-and-thunder encounter remains to be seen. 

There’s no denying the hosts have developed another dimension to their play since Broncan took over last December, but – like Brive – their go-forward is sometimes halted by indisciplined errors.

Pau v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Stade du Hameau

Pau’s head coach Sebastien Piqueronies will have been quietly pleased that his one-more-season-only star player, Antoine Hastoy, was released from the France squad for this weekend’s must-win match against Stade Francais – despite the impressive early season form of former Leicester player Zack Henry, who was in fine fettle in this Rugbyrama Q&A.

Henry may well get the starting nod – he’s done almost everything right since joining Pau this season – but Hastoy’s at least likely to be on the bench.

He will also hope that new loan-arrival Jordan Joseph is ready to make an impact, probably off the bench again, after he struggled to break into the matchday squad at Racing 92.

Piqueronies, a former national under-20s coach, has a reputation as something of a young player whisperer – helping rediscover his barnstorming mojo is a major part of the reason why Joseph has been sent to southwest France. 

And it’s also why another former France under-20 star, Sacha Zegueur, will join from Oyonnax at the end of the season, as Piqueronies builds a young squad in his image – in a similar manner to Ugo Mola at Toulouse.

Right now, however, the concern is staying out of trouble. After their 42-20 loss at Clermont last week, Pau are 11th in the table, one place lower than their guests on Saturday – a side looking for their fourth win in a row, and their fifth in six, after a painful start to the season.

Stade will welcome back prop Paul Alo-Emile from suspension, while Lester Etien is available for selection after several months on the sidelines. Etien’s CV has, reportedly, been doing the rounds of Top 14 recruiters’ desks, but it seems likely he will agree a two-year deal to stay at Jean Bouin.

This isn’t one of Premier Sports games of the weekend for Top 14 fans in the UK and Ireland – which is a shame. It has all the hallmarks of a humdinger.

Perpignan v La Rochelle (kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Like Stade Francais, La Rochelle are looking for a fourth win in a row. Like Pau, Perpignan are looking to bounce back from a big defeat on the road. Any similarities to the match at Stade du Hameau – beyond the kick-off time – then end. 

Ronan O’Gara’s side looked like they’d finally started to gel in their Collazo-collapsing win over Toulon last Sunday. 

They weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, certainly not in comparison to Top 14 barometer side Toulouse against Castres the night before, but they did everything well enough to indicate that things are beginning to stick, that muscle memory is – finally kicking in. 

There wasn’t that microsecond’s pause in which the brain sent its instructions to the limbs; the limbs were doing it almost independently of the brain.

Perpignan, meanwhile, similar to Toulon, look like a side in need of a win without a plan to get what they need. 

After a decent start when they won their first two at home, this is starting to look like another long, difficult season for the Catalans – with relegation a strong possibility at the end of it. Unless they can rediscover how to win at Aime Giral, something they haven’t managed since September 25th.

Montpellier v Lyon (kick off 5pm) – PREMIER SPORTS 2

GGL Stadium

Montpellier’s scrum-half stocks have improved, with 23-year-old Georgian Gela Aprasidze fit and available after four weeks out with injury. He’ll likely be on the bench as Cobus Reinach’s deputy for this weekend’s visit of Lyon in a match refereed by Romain Poite (that only deserves a mention because of this magnificent image…).

Handre Pollard is expected to continue as a second playmaker at 12, outside Paolo Garbisi, who was at an Italian training camp earlier in the week, but returned to France for the weekend’s match.

In further good news for injury-hit Montpellier, Masivesi Dakuwaqa, Fulgence Ouedraogo and Marco Tauleigne are also available for selection – expect to see at least two of them at some point, probably off the bench. And the waiting period for a number of other players is now down to weeks rather than months.

Montpellier have done well enough despite a long absentee list, and will look to head towards the international break without losing any more players.

Lyon, meanwhile, have injury and selection issues of their own. Kilian Geraci was released from the France squad – which gave them a little breathing space – but lock is a current serious weakspot for Pierre Mignoni’s side – and one opponents will, no doubt, target. 

“In recruiting, we made up for international absences,” a philosophical Mignoni said, “but we could not foresee all the injuries. We will cope with it. We are going to prepare for the next two weeks with our available squad – we have goals for the next two games – and I don’t want any excuses.”

The visitors had also hoped that Pierre-Louis Barassi may be close to a return, but it appears his ankle injury has not quite recovered enough for him to be considered for selection. Mathieu Bastareaud, while nearing a return, is not quite ready yet.

Bordeaux v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm) – PREMIER SPORTS 2

Stade Chaban Delmas

No sooner had news broken on Thursday that Matthieu Jalibert had agreed a, no-doubt lucrative, contract extension through to 2025 at Bordeaux – ending in an instant speculation that he might leave for pastures plastic at Racing 92 – than Clermont revealed Sebastien Vahaamahina had signed a new deal to stay at the club.

Two very different players – obviously, Vahaamahina has 23cms and 40kg on Jalibert for a start – but both are very important to their clubs. In fact, Bordeaux president Laurent Marti has made no secret of his desire to build a title-challenging squad around his fly-half.

While the Clermont lock is set to start at Chaban Delmas, Bordeaux will be without their prodigiously talented fly-half, who’s away on France duty. Urios has a choice to make, Francois Trinh-Duc or UJ Seuteni, to cover the 10 gap outside Yann ‘two-tries’ Lesgourges. 

Thierry Paiva and Romain Buros were released by the France squad earlier this week. Word is they will get no closer to the starting line-up than the bench, as Urios puts his faith in the ‘smart’ squad that has had a full week to prepare for Clermont’s visit.

Jono Gibbes’ side are without hooker Adrien Pelissie, who ruptured ligaments in his knee last weekend and will be out for at least six months. They have recalled 19-year-old Benjamin Boudou from loan at ProD2 side Aurillac as cover, though Etienne Fourcade should start on Saturday. 

If he makes it into the Clermont squad at all, France squad releasee Tani Vili will most likely be on the bench, while JJ Hanrahan is set to start at 10 for the injured Camille Lopez. Interestingly, it’s rumoured Kotaro Matsushima may start at 14, with Jean-Pascale Barraque at fullback.

Most importantly for the visitors, Vahaamahina and new arrival Tomas Lavanini – recovered from the facial fracture he suffered on debut at Stade Francais – are set to start in a second row so ferocious it will probably get a yellow card just for walking out on the pitch. 

Bordeaux were probably expecting a brutal, full-frontal attack, anyway. That locking partnership – with, in all probability, Fritz Lee, Peceli Yato and Arthur Iturria backing them up – merely proves they would have been right.

Sunday, October 31

Racing 92 v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm) – PREMIER SPORTS 1

La Defense Arena

Give French broadcaster Canal Plus their due – they’re not even trying to sell the big game of the Top 14 weekend on the two clubs’ French internationals … who are mostly with the national set-up preparing for next weekend’s November internationals.

It’s unsurprising, really. Both sides have been ripped open by international call-ups. And Racing, in particular, have an sizeable injury list – so they were happy enough to see Bernard Le Roux, who’s struggling with injury, Donovan Taofifenua and Ibrahim Diallo released from Marcoussis for this match – the latter two, at least, will feature and may even start. 

They will be happier still to see Camille Chat and Teddy Thomas back from injury – their timing couldn’t have been much better after last week’s shock loss at home to Montpellier.

The big decision for the hosts is whether to start with an underperforming Finn Russell or an overperforming but youthful Antoine Gibert at fly-half outside Nolan Le Garrec, a player apparently destined for great scrum-half things, and likely to get the nod ahead of Maxime Machenaud.

Toulouse, too, are shorn of several leaders – not least Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos, Matthis Lebel and Julien Marchand. But they, too, are likely to welcome at least one player from injury – with Sofiane Guitoune set to return to the midfield alongside Pita Ahki, if he’s not on the bench.

Otherwise, Toulouse – as they have done for a few years – will rely on their young guns to provide cover while their established stars are on international duty. They’re very good at that, Toulouse – and you’ll probably barely notice a difference.

Joe Tekori, meanwhile, his four-week ban cut by a week because he applied to attend a tackling training course, may see some game time.

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

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

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

Image: ASM Rugby / Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 2

Brive v Stade Francais (Kick off 3pm)

Stadium de Brive

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

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

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

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

Montpellier v La Rochelle (Kick off 3pm)

GGL Stadium

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

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

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

Perpignan v Pau (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime-Giral

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lyon v Bordeaux (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Gerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biarritz v Toulouse (Kick off 5pm)

Parc des Sports Aguilera

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

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

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

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

Castres v Toulon (Kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 3

Clermont v Racing 92 (Kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Stade Francais / Twitter

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

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

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

Stade Francais v Castres (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pau v Montpellier (Kick off 3pm)

Stade du Hameau

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bordeaux v Brive (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban-Delmas

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

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

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

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

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

La Rochelle v Biarritz (Kick off 3pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

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

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

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

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

Racing 92 v Lyon (Kick off 5pm)

La Defense Arena

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perpignan v Toulon (Kick off 9pm)

Stade Aime Giral

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toulouse v Clermont (Kick off 9pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: ASM Rugby / Twitter

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

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

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

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

Brive v Pau

(Kick off 3pm) Stade Amedee-Domenech

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

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

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

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

Biarritz v Racing 92

(Kick off 3pm) Parc des Sports Aguilera

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

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

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

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

Castres v Bordeaux

(Kick off 3pm) Stade Pierre Fabre

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

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

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

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

Lyon v Perpignan

(Kick off 3pm) Stade Gerland

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

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

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

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

Montpellier v Toulouse

(Kick off 5pm) GGL Stadium

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

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

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

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

Clermont v La Rochelle

(Kick off 9.05pm) Stade Marcel Michelin

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

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

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

Toulon v Stade Francais

(Kick off 9.05pm) Stade Felix Mayol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Stade Francais / Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12

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

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

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

The exhilating – frustrating – mediocre – brilliant first weekend of France’s Top 14

The Top 14 table after the opening round of matches. Image: LNR

Four home wins, two away victories and a draw, five yellow cards, one red, 22 tries – and two horses. The opening weekend of the 2021/22 Top 14 season in numbers fails to describe seven games that were, by turns, exhilarating, frustrating, mediocre, brilliant, fascinating, and enthralling.

Bordeaux boss Christophe Urios was, unsurprisingly, unimpressed with his side’s performance in defeat at newly promoted Biarritz – for whom ex-Quin Brett Herron contributed 17 points on his competitive debut.

The visitors looked a preseason outing shy of campaign-ready as they lost 27-15 at Parc des Sports Aguilera.

The result meant the Monday debrief at Bordeaux was always going to be a fly-on-the-waller – but it would have been much worse, had his players not found some late pride … or, possibly, terror … and scored two late tries.

The Basque side’s notice of intent was clear – and the 12 other Top 14 sides will have taken note – but head coach Matthew Clarkin will want his side to maintain concentration for the full 80. They won’t always be far enough ahead to ship 12 points in the closing minutes.

Perpignan, promoted as ProD2 champions at a canter, discovered life was a little more difficult back in the Top 14, losing 36-15 at Brive.

The hosts’ Enzo Herve scored 26 points – including the try, conversion, penalty, drop full-house – as the hosts finished the opening day at the head of the Top 14, having picked up the only try-scoring bonus of the round.

Be interesting to see if Perpignan will do better against Biarritz next weekend.

‘A hard-fought arm wrestle’ would be the polite way to describe Castres-Pau, which finished 16-12 in favour of the hosts. 

Missable would be more accurate. This was far from a thrilling affair and one more suited to a miserable January evening than a sun-soaked August afternoon, though both sides would take positives from it – not least fly-half Zack Henry, who scored all of Pau’s points on his competitive debut.

The losing bonus for Sebastien Piqueronies’ side was deserved – while opposite number Pierre-Henry Broncan will be pleased enough that Castres only conceded 10 penalties in the whole game. 

And there’s always the first Rory Kockott moment of the season to savour.

You’ll miss him when he retires at the end of the season.

There have been more bizarre pre-match events at Stade Francais than a bloke bringing in the match ball while standing on two horses – but you can find those yourself.

Fortunately, the game lived up to the equine hype. It was a breathless, error-strewn affair – finishing 21-36 to the visitors. 

Let’s be honest, backs with the talent of the ones wearing Racing’s shirts don’t need many second chances to make the most of their opponents’ mistakes. Watch out for Donovan Taofifenua’s try and Olivier Klemenczak’s touchdown in particular. They’re breathtaking.

Saturday opened with an Atlantic coast rivalry and ended with a Med one, as Toulon – missing no fewer than 20 senior players – entertained Montpellier at Stade Mayol in the fifth of seven matches at the weekend.

Anthony Belleau, on his return to competitive rugby after a knee injury kept him out for the bulk of last season, scored all 24 of Toulon’s points, as the hosts looked set to claim an opening-day victory. It would have been an important one, too, for a side that finished eighth last season and is hoping some big new recruits will bring the good times back to the Var.

But Toulon counted without former Bath backrow Zach Mercer. He’d been Mercer-standard decent throughout – but paid back at least some of his salary with a short-range after-the-hooter touchdown under the posts that gave young fly-half Louis Foursans the simplest of chances to level the scores with the last kick of the game. 

But there’s bad news for former France captain Guilhem Guirado – another to announce that this will be his last season as a player. He has suffered a shoulder injury that is expected to keep him out of action for four months. The final, Montpellier-phase of his career, which started with an serious injury in his opening game in 2019, is his most frustrating … and he was captain of France.

Former Munster out-half JJ Hanrahan’s competitive career at Clermont got off to a mixed start.

He needed treatment after being winded challenging for a high ball a matter of a few seconds after the match kicked off. Then he scored a try in the eighth minute of the game – but that was about as good as it got, as Lyon ran in three scores in reply to win 28-19, including this one

And this one

Then again, Clermont’s Morgan Parra, landed a 42nd consecutive kick at goal, taking him past former team-mate Brock James’ long-standing record

The opening weekend ended with a repeat of last season’s Top 14 and Champions Cup finals, as La Rochelle entertained Toulouse at a full and fervent Stade Marcel Deflandre.

It started at warp factor 10. It didn’t really let up from there – and turned, as the Champions Cup final did back in May, on a red card, this time for Will Skelton.

La Rochelle’s new head coach Ronan O’Gara was unimpressed with that decision from referee Jonathan Dufort – and, it would appear, a few others. He told reporters after the match that “the game was too big for the referee” and questioned why an internationally experienced ref wasn’t appointed for such a big game.

Even so, it took a spellbinding score from Romain Ntamack, nine minutes or so after Skelton’s departure, to finally swing the scoreboard in Toulouse’s favour.

What makes it even better – and what this clip doesn’t show – is Ntamack and centre Lucas Tauzin plotting away as the scrum that started it all was being set up. Either that, or they were deciding on where to stop for late-night scran on the way home…

The visitors ended up winning 16-20 – their 10th victory in 11 meetings over La Rochelle.

So that’s it. The first round of the 2021/22 Top 14 done and dusted. Here again, for what it’s worth, is the first league table of the new season. 

No wonder Brive president Simon Gillham has called for the title race to be halted…

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