That was the French rugby weekend that was: The Top 14 coaches in Galthie’s sights

Laurent Labit and Karim Ghezal send France coach Galthie on a staff hunt, why this Top 14 season already looks harder-to-call than the last one, Toulon’s fly-half market research leads them to southwest France, Raka’s hat-trick hint, and the pros and cons of being Lyon

Close-quarter Top 14 season in store

It’s still early in the Top 14 season, with just five rounds of 26 are completed, but this is already shaping up to be a tight, hard-fought campaign. 

Just four points, a win, separate Toulon, in fifth, and basement side Pau. 

Every team has won at least two matches; A trio of sides have three wins, and the top two two have four. 

At the same stage last season, three clubs still had only one win to their name, including eventual Champions Cup winners and Top 14 play-off challengers La Rochelle, while Toulouse – leaders then and now – were still unbeaten.

Intriguingly, the Top 14 leaders’ only defeat this season was against the side currently propping up the rest of the league.

Although it seems Toulouse are already building a healthy lead, it would be wise to heed the lessons of last season, in which they raced into an early lead. At the end of November 2021, Toulouse were two points clear of Bordeaux, who were eight points ahead of third-placed Montpellier. 

By the end of January, Bordeaux were nine points in front of second-placed Toulouse. With five weeks of the season to play, Montpellier had a five-point cushion on the chasing pack. And it was Castres who finished the regular season at the top of the table.

As if to prove the point about the competitiveness of the competition, five of the seven matches this week were decided by five points or fewer. And only one side, Clermont, managed a try-scoring bonus – which, in the Top 14 and ProD2 are awarded for scoring at least three tries more than the other side.

Toulon are going on a fly-half hunt…

They’re going to catch Brett Herron… Possibly.

It’s easy to believe that most things in Toulon’s rugby garden are rosy – especially after their decisive 34-17 on-the-road win at Pau on Saturday. They’ve won three of five, and sit fifth in the table after five matches. 

But coaching duo Pierre Mignoni and Franck Azema know better than any watcher of the game of their squad’s weakness at 10. Toulon have one specialist fly-half, Ihaia West, on the books – and are currently relying on Mathieu Smaïli, who has played in that position just nine times, as well as scrum-halves Baptiste Serin and Benoit Paillaugue to cover his absences.

Five weeks into the season is exactly the wrong time to look for an extra specialist 10 – but that’s exactly what Mignema are doing. And they have their eyes on the very player they’re looking for – Biarritz’s Brett Herron.

He proved himself to be Top 14 standard last season, and though he’s still under contract at the relegated Basque side – he’s played three times this season – club president Jean-Baptiste Aldige may be willing to let him go, for the right price. He’s already released Lucas Peyresblanques and Mathieu Hirigoyen to Stade Français, Romain Ruffenach to Pau, and Francis Saili to Racing 92.

Who’s that coach?

Speaking of Pierre Mignoni – his name is one of those on the French rugby media’s lips as a possible replacement in the France set-up for the departing Laurent Labit, a matter of months after he returned to his favoured club Toulon as sporting director.

Labit and lineout coach Karim Ghezal have both reportedly decided that they will leave the international coaching set-up at the end of their current contracts, rather than extending their stay at Marcoussis under Fabien Galthie, who has signed a new deal through to the end of the 2027 World Cup. 

Both are said to be in talks with Stade Francais, though Brive – flush with recent investment and plotting a path to a new era of success – are also said to be interested in signing Labit, in particular.

Mignoni and Ugo Mola are reportedly frontrunners to replace Labit, though negotiations will be needed to release either coach from long-term contracts.

Meanwhile, former Toulon and Wales fitness guru Paul Stridgeon is believed to be first in line to replace current S&C head Thibault Giroud, who will join Racing 92 after the World Cup.

There’s possibly bad news for England fans, however. The French rugby media currently seem fairly confident that Shaun Edwards is to sign on for another four years. William Servat and Raphael Ibanez are also expected to sign extended deals.

Bordeaux get some satisfaction

“You have to know how to win matches like that,” Christophe Urios admitted after his Bordeaux side ground out a filthy 15-10 win over Stade Francais at a soaked Stade Chaban Delmas on Saturday afternoon.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun, but we got the win, we are satisfied.”

That quote is almost all you need to know about a match that was broadly forgettable, but – for both teams – mostly ‘satisfactory’. Stade coach Laurent Sempere said he was happy enough to head back to Paris with a losing bonus after two pointless road trips already this season.

This second win for the hosts was far from pretty. It won’t have restored full confidence to the battered bastards of Bordeaux. It was no instant salve health pack in a first-person-shoot-em-up – there are still, clearly, issues to solve. What it did, however, was offer a road map to confidence.

This was, Urios will hope, the point in the movie where the protagonist thinks they’ve hit rock bottom, but sees enough of a glimmer of hope to hang onto in all the bad. Whether this was actual rock bottom for Bordeaux remains to be seen. Some darker storylines have deeper to fall. They may yet turn out to be in one of those.

Because this win came at a price, even before kick-off. Santiago Cordero, Antoine Miquel, and Jean-Baptiste Dubie all withdrew from the squad before the match with injuries, replaced by Federico Mori, Jean-Baptiste Lachaise, and Pablo Uberti respectively … and Lachaise lasted all of four minutes before leaving the field with an injury.

Raka’s hat-trick hint

Clermont winger Alivereti Raka last played for France in the Autumn Nations Cup final in early December 2020. On Saturday, he ran in three tries in 23 minutes, as fourth-placed Clermont fairly blew opponents Lyon away, picking up a try-scoring bonus en route to a 43-20 win in front of their home fans.

The visitors started the day fifth in the table. By the end of it, they were ninth.

Raka now has 52 Top 14 tries in 83 league outings for Clermont, and five in five this season. In total, he has 67 tries in 108 club matches, and three tries in five Tests for France. With Toulon’s Gabin Villiere still on the road to recovery, it’s hard to see how Fabien Galthie can ignore the Clermont player when he unveils his training squad for the matches against Australia, South Africa and Japan later this month.

International team-mate Damian Penaud also got in on the scoring as Clermont ran in six tries to Lyon’s three, to pick up their second win in a row. 

The visitors’ scores ruffled head coach Jono Gibbes’ feathers. “We are in the process of building something solid and above all we have room for improvement because we conceded three tries too easily,” he said afterwards.

But there’s no doubt he’s very much enjoying this season’s new-look Clermont, with their functioning fly-halves, dangerous wingers, and stingy defence – all led by King Arthur Iturria, ruler of the lineouts. 

“We have entered a positive dynamic,” he said, as he praised the fans, who turned out in force again on Saturday. “The public were there, even more than against La Rochelle. It’s changed from last season – but last year we were hard to watch.”

The club’s grand ‘Projet 2025’ looks to have got off to a pretty decent start.

Doctor Lyon and Mister Lou

Lyon have the best attack in the Top 14. And the worst defence. They are the king of offload, with 18.3 passes after contact on average, but it is also one of the worst ranked for indiscipline, conceding an average of 12 penalties per game

Canal pundit Cedric Heymans put it this way: “Lyon attack well, especially on turnover balls – we see the ‘Garba’ touch there, even if it was already the case with Pierre Mignoni. But the problem is to manage to be mentally tough in defence.”

And attack coach Kenny Lynn said of the match: “We did not respect the game or the ball by wanting to score tries in two sequences starting 10 metres from our line. [And] we lacked leadership, lucidity under pressure and intelligence when things were going badly.”

Lyon’s DNA is all-out attack. In that regard, the cavalier Xavier Garbajosa is the perfect replacement for Pierre Mignoni. 

And, make no mistake, there’s nothing wrong with attacking rugby. It sometimes just needs tempering with reality. Against Stade Francais last weekend, they were unplayably good for 20 minutes, then let the visitors back into the game with two penalties and a try, undoing all their good work in the opening spell.

The solution is not for Lyon to play against their nature, to pull back from themselves – rather they need to work on recognising  the right moment to attack, and not to blow themselves up with unnecessary risks.

Babillot’s 150th

Castres’ captain Mathieu Babillot made his 150th senior appearance for the club he has played for since he was knee high to a giraffe. It didn’t go entirely well.

Last season’s finalists failed to score in the first half of their match at Perpignan, and conceded 10 penalties in just 30 minutes. Things improved in the second period, following wholesale tactical changes on 43 minutes, but Castres still lost 14-10, their bomb squad coming close but not quite close enough to pulling off what would have been a remarkable and thoroughly undeserved win.

Weekend Top 14 outing likely for two Bordeaux France stars after Wales training camp withdrawals

France in training for the friendly international against Wales on Saturday, October 24

BORDEAUX duo Matthieu Jalibert and Cameron Woki could line up for Bordeaux in the Top 14 on Sunday despite withdrawing from France coach Fabien Galthie’s squad for the international against Wales, which kicks off 24 hours earlier.

The pair pulled out of Galthie’s 31-player squad for ‘medical reasons’ a few days after it was announced and at the height of a row between the French rugby union and the clubs that went all the way to France’s highest administrative court.

But it now seems they could play at least some part in the match against Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle at Stade Marcel Deflandre on Sunday evening after they returned to training this week.

Shortly before the pair pulled out of the reckoning for Les Bleus’ first international since February, Bordeaux confirmed three cases of coronavirus, prompting the Top 14 match against Clermont to be postponed to an unspecified later date. French rugby media wasted little time speculating that that they had contracted the illness.

Neither club or country have officially said Jalibert and Woki were affected, but coach Christophe Urios told reporters at a press conference this week that the pair had been ‘in quarantine’.

The situation is simple. They were called-up, they were sick, they were placed in quarantine. They resumed [training] a week ago, so they are available for the game.”
– Christophe Urios

According to the Sud Ouest newspaper, the strongman coach contacted Galthie to confirm he could select the players for the weekend’s derby.

I called the France staff to ask if I could [select] them [for the game].
They told me, ‘There is no problem‘.”
– Christophe Urios

It should be no surprise that Galthie gave the green light for Jalibert and Woki to play at La Rochelle this weekend. A hard-fought agreement between France’s rugby union and the Ligue National de Rugby, which operates the professional leagues in France, has limited players to a maximum of three selections during the 2020 end-of-year internationals – which means he faces a few selection headaches in the coming weeks.

The international coach quickly brought in 24-year-old Toulon winger Gabien Villière, and Pau’s backrow-cum-lock Baptiste Pesenti, 23, as replacements, leaving France short of official options at fly-half for Saturday’s friendly against Wales.

It’s almost certain that Romain Ntamack will start at 10. But it is also telling that Toulouse’s Thomas Ramos and Montpellier’s Anthony Bouthier – polyvalent players both – have had recent Top 14 outings in that position.

France backs coach Laurent Labit, for one, reportedly sees Ramos as a 10 in hiding. That – or the future call-up of Toulon’s Louis Carbonel – would allow Ntamack to shift back to the inside centre slot he habitually inhabited before his impressive early fly-half shifts for France.

That, in turn, presents further selection headaches of the kind coaches routinely tell the press they are happy to have…

Meanwhile, the presence of one player at Marcoussis for this week’s training camp prompted a brief flurry of consternation.

Injury-hit loosehead Lucas Pointud has not played for Pau since January, and was still officially listed as ‘on sick leave’ on the Top 14 club’s website when he appeared in an image from France’s training camp at Marcoussis posted on France Rugby’s Instagram feed.

He was also in a photograph on Antoine Dupont’s Twitter feed.

The images prompted a flurry of discussion among French rugby media – until L’Equipe contacted Pau who confirmed the 32-year-old had returned to training in the beginning of October. France coaches had requested his presence at Marcoussis as a ‘training partner’, the club said.

Galthie, limited to 31 official selections this autumn, rather than the 42 he was permitted earlier this year as part of a previous agreement between the FFR and LNR, has raided the France 7s and u20 squads to bulk up his training camps. Pointud’s presence is part of that thinking.