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 is 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 there just nine times, Baptiste Serin and Benoit Paillaugue to cover his absences between them.

Five weeks into the season is exactly the wrong time to look for an extra specialist 10 for this season – 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.

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.

Top 14 Preview: Meafou calls it Les Bleus, Gelant readies for Racing debut

Every Top 14 team has now lost at least one match as the season heads into its fifth weekend. This is less common than you’d imagine – it had only happened once in the previous seven seasons, and four times since the Top 14 was formed in 2005.

Early signs suggest that we’re in for another tight, hard-fought campaign, with sixth-placed Stade Francais and 11th-placed Pau level on league points, while bottom-placed Perpignan are just a win away from fourth.

Here’s a reminder of that table after four weeks of competition.

After last week’s blank TV card in UK and Ireland, Premier Sports is really spoiling subscribers with coverage of Bordeaux v Paris and La Rochelle v Racing 92 this weekend.

All matches are being streamed in USA on FloRugby

Saturday, October 1

Ward rounds

Bordeaux v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm), Stade Chaban Delmas

“With a little more success against Toulouse, we would be fourth,” Christophe Urios said this week, as his 13th-placed side prepared for the visit of sixth-placed Stade Francais. 

He’s absolutely right – Toulouse staged an impressive comeback to win 26-25 at Chaban Delmas on the opening day of the Top 14. If the result had been different, Bordeaux would be much better placed. 

But it wasn’t. Bordeaux have won just one of their first four matches – which has left the ambitious club, according to Urios, “in an uncomfortable situation … and that creates a little pressure and tension”.

Despite his early season lack-of-confidence, Matthieu Jalibert should start, with cover-player Zack Holmes injured.

He’ll want his players to ease that pressure and tension with a win over Gonzalo Quesada’s visitors, who have enjoyed success at home, but not so far on the road.

The Paris side welcomed Nicolas Sanchez, freshly returned from the Rugby Championship, back to the squad – which will be a relief, with Joris Segonds out for the next month to six weeks with an injury picked up in training. He’s unlikely to feature this weekend, with Leo Barre set to start at 10.

South African centre Jeremy Ward might also feature. Watch out, too, for 22-year-old Fijian backrow Veresa Romototabua, who’s set to make his first Top 14 start, and teenage prop Sergo Abramishvili, who’s likely to be named on the bench days after signing his first contract.

The Georgian genuinely impressed the coaches scrumming opposite Uini Atonio in a pre-season friendly.

The Stade academy is rumbling into life again.

King Arthur

Clermont v Lyon (kick off 5pm), Stade Marcel Michelin

It’s second versus first when Montpellier host Toulouse on Sunday evening – but arguably the match of the day on Saturday is this one, as fourth entertains fifth. 

Fans got their Clermont back last weekend, as a defensive tactical masterclass ended La Rochelle’s winning start to the season – courtesy, in huge part, to a captain’s performance from Arthur Iturria, and told-you-so points-kicking from ex-Rochelais Jules Plisson.

But the win came at a heavy price. Georgian tighthead Davit Kubriashvili – a medical joker – is out for several weeks with a knee sprain, and centre Julien Heriteau has also been sidelined with a hamstring injury. 

Lyon, too, have their own major injury concerns – have had since the start of the season, and lost six more to injury in the week leading to the 33-27 win over Stade Francais last Saturday. Despite the full infirmary – and the only good news for Xavier Garbajosa this week is the return of fly-half Leo Berdeu, as he deals with injury shortages in the pack – Lyon have won on the road and at home this season.

But they’ll have to dig very deep for a second win away – at a ground where they haven’t tasted success since 2011.

Survival instincts

Brive v Bayonne (kick off 5pm), Stade Amedee Domenech

Even after guiding Bayonne to victory over Bordeaux last week, the promoted side’s second big scalp of the season at Jean Dauger, Camille Lopez refused to hide from reality.

“Brive are playing for survival like us,” he told reporters, even as he basked in the glory of Saturday’s win. “This game is important. It would be an opportunity to pay off the regrets of Stade Francais – we’re going to do something. But [we need to] be careful because Brive are used to fighting to stay up.”

Brive have only won once this season – at Perpignan – but have two losing and one try-scoring bonus to their name, more than any other side in the Top 14. Until the match against Castres, they were averaging over 20 points per game – even now, that figure is a little under 20.

They’ve lost to Lyon, Montpellier and Castres this season. They’re still looking for their first win at home. This could be the match they’re waiting for. Certainly, they’re going all-out for a full house…

With a major investment injection coming through, Brive will want to hold on this season. That will involve winning matches like this one. Lopez’s assessment is not wrong.

So near so far for Kolbe

Pau v Toulon (kick off 5pm), Stade du Hameau

Pau confirmed this week that Jack Maddocks, two-try hero in the win over Toulouse a couple of weeks ago, will be absent for three weeks with a thigh injury.

But there’s more optimism over Jordan Joseph, who limped off late in last weeks loss at Montpellier. His injury may not be serious and he could be named on the bench for this week’s match against Toulon.

Another plus – Tumua Manu may be able to make his return after picking up an injury in the opening day win over Perpignan in early September.

Last week’s loss at Perpignan left its mark on the Toulon squad, meanwhile. Baptiste Serin and Sitaleki Timani are likely absentees for the trip to Pau, as are Jiuta Wainiqolo and Mathieu Bastareaud. Gabin Villière is still recovering from injury.

Sergio Parisse and Facundo Isa were on the sidelines of early training. Cheslin Kolbe did take part, but is not yet quite ready to return to the pitch after suffering a broken jaw in July.

Ardron return

Perpignan v Castres (kick off 5pm), Stade Aime Giral

Perpignan beat Toulon in a downpour last Saturday afternoon to record their first win of the season. Two hours later Castres beat Brive in a downpour to record their second win of the season. 

Both were close-run matches – Perpignan won 19-13, Castres 12-6.

One more win equals, at this early stage of the season, six league places as bottom of the table entertains eighth. And, also, impressions. 

For Perpignan, a side many expect to be in the lower reaches of the table at the end of the season, last week’s win – their seventh in the whole 2022 – was a cause of celebration. 

For a side with higher ambitions like Castres, at the end of a match they generally controlled and really should have won by a larger margin, it was a case of forget the performance, take the points.

Pierre-Henry Broncan’s side also lost scrum-half Jeremy Fernandez to a knee ligament injury that will keep him sidelined for several months. Castres have signed former Brive, Pau and Toulon nine Julien Blanc, having decided that they couldn’t afford to second new defence coach Rory Kockott back to the playing side for this length of time.

Tyler Ardron may make his long-awaited return in what looks like it could be a rotated pack. Broncan, especially, will be happy to see the Canadian back in action.

The visitors will seek to do what Toulon couldn’t last week, and what Brive did earlier in September, and take home four points from Aime Giral. The difference: they’ll have to play much better than last weekend against a side feeling good about themselves right now.

Who’s that fly-half

La Rochelle v Racing 92 (kick off 9.05pm), Stade Marcel Deflandre

When Antoine Hastoy limped off with an ankle injury in last week’s loss at Clermont, the first defeat of the season for La Rochelle, it left Ronan O’Gara – already on a touchline ban – with a positional problem, for all Dillyn Leyds’ magnificent stand-in efforts in a losing cause at Marcel Michelin.

Pierre Popelin, a fly-half with more experience at fullback, is out with a groin injury – which leaves 21-year-old academy player Harry Glynn as the sole fit specialist 10 for this week’s match – the 70th in a row in front of a full house.

Glynn impressed in his first-ever Top 14 start – and just his second senior outing – against Perpignan a couple of weeks ago, scoring two tries. But Racing, with their star-studded squad, are a step-up from streetfighting Perpignan.

With Brice Dulin injured, it looks like Dillyn Leyds’ wise old head is needed at 15, and summer signing UJ Seuteni could get the nod at 10 after playing twice at outside centre, with Glynn possibly on the bench.

The big news out of Racing this week was, unsurprisingly, the open-secret arrival of Stuart Lancaster as director of rugby from Leinster on a four-year deal and Laurent Travers’ long-expected move upstairs.

But, on the training pitch, the main talking points would have been how easily they were beaten by Toulouse at Ernest Wallon last week. 

Travers will expect a much better performance here. He may call on Springbok Warrick Gelant for the first time this season – the big question seems to be whether he’ll start or come off the bench for his first match in Racing colours.

Camille Chat, Bernard Le Roux, Ali Oz and Asaeli Tuivuaka are all injured, while Gael Fickou is expected to return for next week’s match against Pau.

Sunday, October 2

Clash of the Meafou-Willemse titans

Montpellier v Toulouse (Kick off 9.05pm), GGL Stadium

Game of the weekend, undoubtedly, between second and first in the Top 14, sides separated in the table by a single match point.

In the breathless build-up, excitement mounted at the prospect of Leo Coly versus Antoine Dupont – student against master, if you will – and Emmanuel Meafou versus Paul Willemse.

It seems we’ll only get one of them. Word from the Toulouse camp is that Dupont, Anthony Jelonch and Peato Mauvaka will be rested this week, as Ugo Mola makes good on his promise to rotate his squad and keep his France internationals fresh. This could give multi-positional Arthur Retiere a chance to show off his skills at nine..

Toulouse will also be without Richie Arnold, who has been suspended following his red card against Pau – while Cyril Baille, Francois Cros, Alban Placines, Paul Graou, Romain Ntamack, Pita Ahki, Santiago Chocobares, Pierre-Louis Barassi are injured and Juan Cruz Mallia is unavailable.

Meafou-Willemse could yet happen, however. In an interview with Rugbyrama this week, Toulouse’s Australian-born lock spoke about his changed status in the squad following the departure of Joe Tekori and Rory Arnold, his efforts to lose a few more pounds to hit his ideal playing weight – and his ambition to play international rugby for France.

Meafou has applied for French nationality, and is waiting on the documentation to come through. “I’ve had this idea in the back of my mind since I arrived here in 2018,” he said.

Montpellier, meanwhile, will be without Arthur Vincent for several months, after limping off the pitch in the Top 14 champions’ win at Brive on September 17. Tests revealed a partial tear of the ACL in his left knee – the same one that forced him to miss a large part of last season.

And they have off-pitch concerns, too, after three players were questioned by police in connection with a violent incident at a nightclub this summer.

So, game of the weekend. But, perhaps, dimmed star power.

Top 14 Review: And then there were none

Four rounds into the 2022/23 Top 14 season and every team has lost at least once.

La Rochelle were the last to fall, defeated by a masterclass in tactical defence at Clermont on Sunday night.

This is quite unusual. Only once in the past seven seasons – and only four times since the creation of the Top 14 in 2005 – have all clubs been beaten in the opening four matches of the campaign. 

Here, then, are the results from the fourth weekend of matches in France’s Top 14.

And here are the five best tries from the weekend.

In-demand Tedder kicks Perpignan to a season’s first

There should have been a rainbow over Stade Aime Giral at the end of Perpignan’s 19-13 win over Toulon. Not just because it was their first win of the season. Not just because the win came on the day of the Catalan club’s 120th anniversary, and not just because the match started in torrential rain.

A rainbow may have hinted at other good news. Perpignan have won just seven games to date in 2022 – and every single one of those wins has come with a starting halfback partnership of Tom Ecochard and Tristan Tedder.

Tedder kicked 14 of Perpignan’s 19 points on Saturday afternoon, which will have had interested clubs sitting up and taking notice. More importantly, for a player better known for his attacking flair, he managed a game in difficult conditions with tremendous skill. 

The South African’s current deal ends in July and word is Tedder – who has market-enhancing JIFF status – is being courted by a number of clubs. Perpignan are, unsurprisingly, as keen to keep their man and started talks about a new deal recently.

Next up for Tedder and Perpignan – another must-win match against Castres.

The best of Lyon, the worst of Lyon

“When I saw the quality of our first 20 minutes, I said to myself, “Wow, here we go, maybe this is the right day!” Xavier Garbajosa said after watching his side beat Stade Francais 33-27 at Stade Gerland.

“Except a game doesn’t last 20 minutes, but four times as long…” 

This was very much Dr Lyon and Mr Lou. When they were good, as they were in the opening 20 minutes, Lyon were very, very good. That was when they scored two converted tries and two penalties to Stade’s solitary three-pointer.

When they were bad, they conceded penalties. Twenty in total. And that didn’t impress the boss: “we went from 10 penalties to 20, that’s how good a job we did this week … Either we are an average club and we can be happy with the victory, or we are ambitious and we can’t be satisfied with that. Our indiscipline is a work in progress and we need to become more aware of it because it’s serious.”

And that’s the paradox at the heart of Lyon. They can be brilliant in one moment, then let their opposition back in the next by failing to even do the basics. As Garbajosa said, it’s a work in progress. For the staff as well as the players.

Bordeaux in three-four time

It’s still too early to cry crisis, even if Bordeaux have slipped to a third loss in four matches this season and sit second from bottom.

But their latest defeat – a 20-15 reverse at a Camille Lopez-inspired, pack-driven Bayonne in front of a sold-out and partying Stade Jean Dauger – may be the moment to start whispering it quietly, as long as no one’s listening.

Christophe Urios’s side are at home to Stade Francais next weekend – then face Lyon, Racing, Clermont, Toulon and Pau before the international break. It’s not impossible they could have just two or three wins to their name by the last Saturday of November.

Post-match comments don’t exactly inspire confidence. “We can only blame ourselves, we failed completely,” Matthieu Jalibert told Canal Plus straight after the match. 

“If we had wanted to lose the match, we could not have done better,” boss Urios added.

Bayonne have now beaten Racing and Bordeaux – but are at Brive next weekend, for a match that could have a huge bearing on the end-of-season table. 

Lopez, for one, expects a tough battle. “Brive are playing for survival like us. This game is important. It would be an opportunity to pay off the regrets of Stade Français – we’re going to do something. But be careful because Brive is used to fighting to stay up.”

Champion weekend for champions

A bonus-point 43-17 win over Pau, including some players making their first appearances of the season. Second in the table with three wins in four, the club featuring French rugby’s player of the year Zach Mercer, revelation of the year Leo Coly, and coaching set-up of the year – it’s all looking pretty rosy for Montpellier ahead of next Sunday’s match against top-of-the-table Toulouse. 

Certainly, Philippe Saint-Andre was more than happy with the six-try performance of his squad, which featured nine changes from the previous weekend’s win at Brive, and included players making their first Top 14 appearances of the season, such as try-scorer Masivesi Dakuwaqa and Marco Tauleigne.

But, he insisted there was room for further improvement. “I was a little upset at half-time,” he admitted, “because we led 17-3 … but then  we fell-off in intensity, we made mistakes, we missed tackles and they scored a try. 

“I told the players to maintain intensity in the second half and they did it with a high quality 40 minutes. We had a great match in the end. It was a tricky meeting on paper but it allowed us to validate this good start to the season.”

Castres win in the rain

Castres extended their unbeaten Top 14 run at home to 23 matches with a12-6 over Brive, the last side to beat them on their own turf in the French league back in December 2020. 

That stat might linger in the memory. The match won’t – nor should it – but neither side were helped by a second-half played out in diluvian conditions as an autumn storm dropped an awful lot of water on the town.

Castres were expecting difficult conditions. “In truth, we thought it was going to rain from the start of the match,” backrow Baptiste Delaporte said afterwards. “In the rain, the plan was clear: we had to keep them under pressure by putting kicks over their heads and tightening the game around the number nine.

The hosts did have – and wasted – at least two try-scoring chances with sloppy handling against a Brive side that offered rather more in defence than attack – something of a reversal compared to the rest of their season so far. 

They also cut their penalty count, conceding just eight penalties all match, compared to 12 in 40 minutes last weekend. Which pleased head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan, as did the points. 

Losing scrum-half Jeremy Fernandez for several months to knee ligament damage won’t impress him quite so much. He did suggest last season – only half-jokingly – that, if necessary, Rory Kockott might be persuaded to come out of retirement to save the club having to search for a medical joker.

We’ll have to see how serious he was.

Ange glory shone around

Ange Capuozzo has settled in so quickly and so well at Toulouse that it’s easy to forget he only moved from ProD2 side Grenoble in the summer, and had never played a Top 14 match until two weeks ago.

On his first start at Ernest Wallon on Saturday evening, the stats say, he made 151 metres with ball in hand, beat seven defenders and scored a try as Toulouse made light work of seeing off a much-changed Racing 92 37-10. The stats don’t say he had a smile on his face so wide the top of his head fell off. 

“I recognise myself in the intentions of the game advocated here,” Capuozzo recently told L’Equipe. “I’m not talking about madness, because it’s not about doing just anything, but about the little freedoms given to us at certain moments that brings so much pleasure.

“This is the kind of rugby that I enjoy.”

Capuozzo, at his spiritual home, enjoyed a night to remember in a match in which Toulouse laid down a gauntlet. Racing – who were much better than their last away match at Bayonne – didn’t pick it up on the pitch, but Laurent Travers did – a couple of days before a long-expected announcement confirming his impending move upstairs at the club and the arrival of Stuart Lancaster from Leinster.

“[This loss] shows us what separates us from Toulouse. They had strong periods and they scored, and we had strong periods and we didn’t. That’s it,” he said.

“Pragmatism, realism and success. I hope some of our young players will use this game for the future. Toulouse were more efficient and better than us.”

Plisson seals Iturria’s deal

The immediate post-match headlines after Clermont beat La Rochelle 22-13 were all about ex-La Rochelle player Jules Plisson and his game-deciding trio of nerveless penalty kicks in the closing eight minutes to win the last match of the weekend and ensure the visitors.

With good reason. It’s an instant tale of struggle and redemption that writes like butter. And Plisson’s post-match comments fanned the flames of the tale. “I think the people of La Rochelle understand what I went through last year,” he told Canal Rugby Club in the moments after the match, his first start of the season, ended. 

Then, in the post-match press conference, he fired another broadside. “When you have a guy waiting for you to miss and who destroys you all day long, you are inevitably less confident. But when you have a guy who is behind you, who pushes you to perform and give your best, it’s easier. I think that’s what I managed to find at Clermont.”

Plisson’s nine points in eight minutes, as La Rochelle, who have never won in 21 attempts at Stade Marcel Michelin – lost discipline trying to win a game they had fought their way back into, were decisive, his accuracy unwavering, despite the pressure. But he will be among those to admit this was Arthur Iturria’s match, as Clermont feasted on crumbs, leading 13-3 at one point, before Yoann Tanga’s 60th-minute try dragged the visitors back into the game.

The captain led from the front from first minute to last in a fussily refereed stop-start match that took five minutes shy of two hours to complete. He scored the opening try, stole lineouts, tackled anything in black-and-yellow that moved, and was the link between forwards and backs all night. There have been few more complete backrow performances even on a night of near-perfect gameplan execution.

No wonder coach Jono Gibbes was pleased: “It’s a performance with 100% commitment, heart, solidarity and spirit,” he said. “That’s our rugby, at Clermont: heart on the field, the public in the stands, and together we were able to beat the European champions.”

Let’s finish with the table… 

Top 14 Preview: Basta set for Toulon comeback after long injury lay-off

Week three of the 2022/23 Top 14 season kicks off with Bordeaux in bother, Brive breathing relatively comfortably for now, and top side Toulouse’s looking just a little stretched in the pack.

Here, in case you’ve forgotten, is the current table

And here, for the record, are the best tries of last weekend.

Unfortunately for Top 14 fans in the UK and Ireland, the return of the URC means that only Toulon-Clermont, on Sunday, is available to view on Premier Sports 1. In the US, FloSports streaming service has coverage of all seven matches.

Saturday, September 17

Bordeaux v Castres (kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

Two matches into a new season is not the time to cry crisis and let slip the dogs of panic – La Rochelle had only one win from their first five games last season, and ROG’s side ended up doing pretty well. 

Two losses from two is far from the end of the world for Bordeaux with 24 weeks of the season to go. But it’s hard to suggest that there’s nothing rotten in the state of Delmas. 

The poor early form of fly-half Matthieu Jalibert, hooker Clement Maynardier’s frustrated “you should like us more” outburst at assembled media this week, and Christophe Urios’s almost unheard of no-show at the post-match press conference after Sunday’s loss at Montpellier, all hint that the good-ship UBB is not a happy one.

Another change this week. Urios normally maintains a strict media silence in the lead-up to a match against his former club Castres. This week, he’s been noticeably present. “You don’t build on defeat,” he told a somewhat surprised pack of journalists on Tuesday. “To move on, we have to win. Castres will be a test of character.”

Bordeaux are the only Top 14 side that Castres have, so far, failed to beat under Pierre-Henry Broncan. That record could fall this week, if Bordeaux play with the indiscipline and lack of confidence they have shown so far. 

The visitors know what to expect. Hooker Gaetan Barlot said: “ Bordeaux lack confidence – and there is no secret to regaining that confidence, it’s through fighting. We know what to expect. They will want to find their competitive edge, on aggressiveness. We’ll have to respond in those areas, because if we’re not there, it could get very difficult very quickly. It’s going to hit hard.”

Ben Urdapilleta is away with Argentina and Ben Botica is nursing an injury, so the prodigiously talented Louis Le Brun is set for this third start at 10 for Castres. Fullback Julien Dumora could be rested this week, so the training wheels are off for Le Brun.

Brive v Montpellier (kick off 5pm)

Stade Amedee Domenech

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Brive’s bonus-point win at Perpignan last weekend – both in matters of cold, hard league points and in slightly fuzzier confidence terms – as third entertains fourth in the early-season table.

That win at Aime-Giral almost-but-not-quite wrote off the home defeat to Lyon on the opening weekend – manager Jeremy Davidson would probably quietly admit that Brive were lucky to escape with a losing bonus point via an after-the-hooter penalty try.

Now, the challenge for a side coping with a number of long-term absentees is to consolidate those five points with a rehabilitating home win over the defending champions, a side feeling good about their rugby after a convincing 29-19 win over Bordeaux last Saturday.

Their fitness situation wasn’t helped last week, with Lucas Paulos (concussion), Luka Japaridze (knee) and Tevita Ratuva (finger), all set to miss this week’s match.

Montpellier welcomed Paul Willemse back to the game fold last week – and not a moment too soon. 

The France international was called into action just five minutes in, after Bastien Chalureau suffered a shoulder injury that will keep him out for about five weeks. But, reports suggest he may be a doubt for this weekend. If he is fit, he’ll likely be named captain. If not, that job will go to Florian Verhaeghe.

Racing 92 v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

La Defense Arena

This week’s announcement that winger Christian Wade had joined Racing 92 until the end of the season – after guesting for the club in the summer’s SuperSevens tournament – has to be tempered slightly by the fact he is carrying a calf injury.

It was always hugely unlikely that he’d make this match, anyway, but it’s a given now that the closest he’ll get to the fast-paced surface at La Defense Arena is pitchside.

Racing remain far from full strength. Warrick Gelant, Juan Imhoff and Trevor Nyakane are on Rugby Championship duty, while Tongan second row Veikoso Poloniati is not due to arrive until November.

There’s some good injury news for Lyon – and they need it, amid speculation of something of a player exodus at the end of the season. Number 8 Jordan Taufua and lock Kilian Geraci are available for selection and could start.

However, Toby Arnold has suffered ruptured ankle ligaments in last weekend’s loss at home to La Rochelle, and will be out until the end of the year.

La Rochelle v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

There was something strange about La Rochelle’s squad for last Saturday’s trip to Lyon. The entire 23 was exactly the same as it had been the previous week for the opener against Montpellier – that hasn’t happened, according to Midi Olympique, since 1991.

So, of course, there are going to be changes this weekend. Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Antoine Hastoy are both likely to be rested. Pierre Popelin is likely to start at 10, with Ronan O’Gara set to choose between the back-from-injury Jules Le Bail or Thomas Berjon inside him.

Will Skelton, too, is set to start his season having served his suspension, while UJ Seuteni could feature having recovered from injury. Teddy Thomas is training again, but probably won’t make the 23 this week.

This is not the venue Perpignan, after two losses in their opening matches, would want to visit for their third game of the season – but they have been boosted by the return to training of hooker Lucas Velarte and loosehead Giorgi Tetrashvili, who could both start at Marcel Deflandre. 

Matthieu Ugena, Joaquin Oviedo, and Jeronimo De La Fuente are also closing in on a return to action, though probably not quite this week.

Watch out, too, for a recognisable name looming in the Perpignan squad as a Tuilagi returns to Catalan colours. Posolo, son of Henry, could be named on the bench for Saturday’s match. The explosive, near-150kg, 18-year-old backrow has, according to coach Perry Freshwater, “the same running syle [as his father] with his head tilting a little backwards.”

A future star is, perhaps, in the making. Freshwater, for one, reckons it will be hard for Perpignan to keep hold of Tuilagi junior for long.

Stade Francais v Bayonne (kick off 5pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

Kaminieli Rasaku finally arrived in Bayonne on Tuesday, two days after being named player of the Rugby World Cup Sevens as Fiji romped to the title in Cape Town. 

It’s far too early to see the winger on the pitch alongside Sireli Maqala – who, but for visa issues, would have been a sevens world champion too, and the injured Eneriko Buliruarua – so we’ll just have to imagine the havoc that trio will cause when they get together. 

And we’ll also have to probably wait at least one more week before experienced rookie Maxime Machenaud makes his debut.

As for Stade, their injury list grew by one more in defeat at Castres last weekend. Nadir Megdoud will sit this one out, while the club is still waiting for the paperwork to come through for Jeremy Ward to get the go-ahead to play. 

But the key decision looks like whether to start with Joris Segonds or Leo Barre at 10 in partnership with Arthur Coville.

Pau v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade du Hameau

Much was made in preseason of the summer’s high-class backs recruitment at Toulouse. Rightly so. Even without Romain Ntamack, out for about a month with a knee injury, they have talent to spare across the park. Expect Thomas Ramos to move from 15 to 10, this week.

Less was made about the forwards – with only Alexandre Roumat joining the rouge-et-noir, while Paulo Tafili, Joe Tekori, Rory Arnold and Antoine Miquel all left the playing ranks. Young academy players – notably Josh Brennan, Theo Ntamack, and Maxime Duprat – it was decided, could take up the slack.

This theory is being tested to destruction after just two weeks. Francois Cros, three minutes into his return from injury, was readmitted to the infirmary last weekend. He will miss the November internationals with a recurrence of the knee ligament damage that forced him to miss the end of last season. Loosehead Duprat, too, is a doubt after picking up a knock at home to Toulon.

France internationals Cyril Baille and Thibaud Flament are injured, David Ainu’u and Yannick Youyoutte are not quite ready to return to full training, and Julien Marchand has been rested early on. 

All the above could make this weekend’s trip along the A64 to Pau more difficult than probably it needs to be.

In good news for Ugo Mola, Alban Placines is available following his red card in Toulouse’s opening day win at Bordeaux after the disciplinary commission decided a one-week suspension was sufficient, while Rynhardt Elstadt – who has been on Rugby Championship duty – trained with the club this week.

Pau, meanwhile, announced the arrival of Yvan Reilhac this week on loan from Montpellier until the end of the season. He’s carrying a minor preseason knock, but should be available for selection in the coming weeks. Sebastien Piqueronies’ main decision this week is: Zack Henry or Thibault Debaes at 10.

Sunday, September 18

Toulon v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Mayol

In November, former France international Mathieu Bastareaud ruptured ligaments in both knees while playing for Lyon. 

On Sunday, the day after he celebrates his 34th birthday, Bastareaud could be on the bench for Toulon, having this week signed a contract with his former club until the end of the season.

He has been training at Toulon’s shiny new campus at Berg all summer and a decision on whether he is in the 23 this weekend will be made after the Captain’s Run. Jeremy Sinzelle and Jiuta Wainiqolo are also set to play, despite picking up knocks last week in the defeat at Toulouse.

After his one-man try in last week’s 33-24 win over Pau, Damian Penaud is set to miss this match with a shoulder injury. The pack has taken size hit, too, with locks Sebastien Vahaamahina and Miles Amatosero, and hooker Etienne Fourcade all out of action.

Meanwhile Jono Gibbes is reportedly deciding on whether to give France under-20s scrum-half Baptiste Jeaneau his first Top 14 start, or stick with Sebastien Bezy for a third match in a row, while Jules Plisson is set to get the nod at 10, with Anthony Belleau on the bench.

Giorgi Dzmanashvili, the 20-year-old Georgian prop on Clermont’s academy books, could also get his first pro outing in France.

In more good news for Toulon, Cheslin Kolbe and Facundo Isa returned to the Var this week. Kolbe has been out since July with a broken jaw, while Isa was not selected for the final phase of Argentina’s Rugby Championship campaign. It probably won’t be long before either are back on the Felix Mayol pitch.

Top 14 Week Two Review: Lyon’s lost hour, 22-and-on for Castres, Clermont wing it

Crucial scores in the dying minutes decided three matches on the opening weekend of the Top 14 season – in this second weekend, three matches were decided before halftime.

Two sides didn’t even have to score a point in the second half to win their matches.

Here are the results of the second weekend’s matches.

This is the table after two rounds, with Toulouse top, Brive hitting third, and Bordeaux, of all sides, languishing in 13th – one of two sides yet to record a win this season.

And, here are the five best tries from the French top-flight.

Lyon’s costly lost hour

It took Lyon 57 minutes to register their first points, a converted try for Davit Niniashvili, in front of their fans in their first home match of the season. 

Visitors La Rochelle responded with seven points of their own inside five minutes. The score was 20-7. Eight minutes from the end, Antoine Hastoy kicked a penalty to make it 23-7. And that should have been it. The Champions Cup holders had the day over their Challenge Cup-winning rivals.

Then Josiah Maraku happened. The centre joined Lyon from Narbonne in the summer amid little fanfare – but his made one, scored one in the last five minutes of a messy match pulled the final score to 21-23, and rescued a scarcely deserved bonus point.

“We were out of the game for 70 minutes,” Lyon head coach Xavier Garbajosa admitted. “The bonus point is the most we could have hoped for.”

Opposite number Ronan O’Gara, meanwhile, had a veiled warning for future rivals: “We didn’t always make the right choices in attack or the score would have been heavier,” he said.

And La Rochelle fullback Brice Dulin said the last few minutes were unnecessarily nervy: “We have to be able to kill the matches and not let the opponents come back. Those last 10 minutes left us with a bitter taste.”

22 and counting

They were 30-10 ahead at halftime, courtesy of tries from Geoffrey Palis, Adrea Cocagi and Vilimoni Botitu. Though they lost the second half 10-0, the result was never even close to being in doubt. 

Castres’ unbeaten Top 14 run at home, dating back to December 2020 now extends to 22 matches. It’s still a long way off Clermont’s 77 games in all competitions – but it’s still pretty impressive.

Rarely has a relatively lacklustre second half appeared more calm. As the hosts’ backs coach David Darricarrere said: “Stade Français would not have stolen the defensive bonus.”

The result left Stade scratching for positives. Romain Briatte’s post-match comment  “We could have shipped 50 … but in the end we were not far from taking a point”, was the best straw they had. 

But head coach Gonzalo Quesada found something – a ‘learning’ perhaps: “When Castres made mistakes, they showed that they are a mature team that accepts weak times. That’s all we have left to do.”

Life after Vakatawa

Racing 92 kicked off their post-Virimi Vakatawa era with a 31-25 loss at promoted Bayonne – but revealed a new star in the process before they got round to unveiling Christian Wade has joined the club until the end of the season.

Their new hero is 18-year-old Enzo Benmegal, who – a week after creating two tries in the win over Castres, prompting high praise from veteran club captain Henry Chavancy – ran in the first of what look set to be many scores of his own.

But, at the other end of the playing age-range, 32-year-old Gaetan Germain was the point of difference between the two sides, converting two of three Bayonne tries and adding four penalties, as the home fans celebrated the return of top-flight rugby to Jean Dauger.

“We knew that this first match was very important to give a positive image and show that it will not be so easy to come to Bayonne,” hooker Facundo Bosch said. 

Bayonne have successfully done that. No team will underestimate them at home, now – especially with Fiji Sevens World Cup-winner Kaminieli Rasaku arriving soon to team up with the remarkable Sireli Maqala – who was player of the match on Saturday.

Papali’i breaks Perpignan

Brive ended a 51-year bust with a 17-6 win at Perpignan – their first success at Aime-Giral since 1971.

That may be a fact that excites only deep-stat rugby historians, while the rest of us raise a vaguely impressed eyebrow, then promptly forget it.

But, it’s probably the biggest win of the weekend – one that has the potential to reverberate through to the far end of the season, Led from the back of the pack by former Connacht player, Abraham Papali’i – who beat five defenders, flattened 14 more and carried 15 times on a busy and effective day at the office.

Ignore Brive’s current early season-inflated position in the league. Both sides are favourites to be involved in the relegation dogfight 20 rounds from now. This result could be the difference between survival and the drop.

“I hope it clicks,” Brive head coach Jeremy Davidson said. “We were all very disappointed to have lost at home to begin with. Now, we have six points. It removes a little bitterness from the defeat against Lyon. The guys provided the response they needed by being disciplined and aggressive in defence.”

Clermont wing it

Two tries from Alivereti Raka and one from Damian Penaud – and another from backrow Arthur Iturria – set Clermont on the road to a bonus-point win over Pau in their first outing of the season, the day the fans bade an emotional farewell to Wesley Fofana.

But a penalty try after the hooter denied them a try-scoring bonus, with the scores finishing 33-24, and the try-count four-two.

It was, then, an ultimately frustrating afternoon at Marcel Michelin: “The big regret is obviously this fifth point that we have in our hands a few seconds from the final whistle, and that we are unable to keep,” scrum-half Sebastien Bezy said.

But there were also improvements to recognise. Clermont were better at the breakdown, and in transition. After Stade Francais and Pau, their next fortnight features matches against Toulon and La Rochelle. That upward trajectory in key areas could prove important.

Carbonel-Garbisi should scare you

Italian fly-half Paolo Garbisi has started this season playing at inside centre, on the shoulder of Louis Carbonel. The thinking is clear. Two playmakers, one right-footed, one left-footed, equals multiple attack options and confusion for the defence.

Two games in, it’s working pretty well. Montpellier ran La Rochelle all the way at Marcel Deflandre in week one, then closing out their first home match of the season 29-19 to consign Bordeaux to their second defeat in a row.

“We both feel very good,” Carbonel told reporters after a match that had started with a first-half rout. “We alternate a lot because we communicate well. We said to ourselves that the first in position called the play. It is harder to read for the cover of the opposing field.”

Opposite number and rival for the understudy role to Romain Ntamack, Mathieu Jalibert had another difficult night, in which Bordeaux were, in the words of manager Christophe Urios, “ beaten on speed, movement, commitment, aggressiveness – we were always late, we couldn’t hold the ball”.

But he insisted the player just needed to find his rhythm, like the rest of the squad. “Matthieu is like the team, he needs to regain his confidence, he’s one of the important players in our team, don’t try to talk bullshit about him, it’s useless.”

Nine minutes of Dupont

Richie McCaw, in an interview published in Monday’s Midi Olympique, revealed an unsurprising opinion – he would “love to see Antoine Dupont play for Crusaders”. Let’s be honest, who wouldn’t like to see Dupont play for [insert your team of choice here].

“He is one of those players who can decide and dictate a game on their own,” he added, unecessarily. 

Actions speak louder than words. It took Dupont from the 18th minute to the 27th to put Sunday’s game at home to Toulon beyond doubt – making decisive contributions to the tries of Matthis Lebel, Dmitri Delibes and Emmanuel Meafou, as the score raced from 3-3 to 20-3.

A try apiece in the second half took the final score to 28-8 – a bonus-point win at Ernest Wallon for the hosts, and a reality check for the visitors.

“We let Toulouse live their rugby, we fed them with our mistakes,” Toulon’s Franck Azema admitted, with Gallic poeticism, afterwards. “We had to hold the ball and we were not in place enough to do so.”

Perfectionist that he is, Dupont won’t be happy with every facet of his performance, despite ensuring Toulouse maintained their perfect first-Top-14-home-match-of- the-season winning record.

With Jalibert struggling again, France coach Fabien Galthie will have watched nervously as Romain Ntamack left the field with an injury less than half-and-hour in. But the early news is reassuring – a minor sprain means he will be absent for about a month and should be available for France’s November internationals against Australia, South Africa and Japan.

The news is less good about another French international, Francois Cros, who suffered ‘a recurrence’ of knee ligament damage three minutes after coming on to the pitch for the first time since picking up the injury at the end of last season.

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

Top 14 Preview: Pressure mounts after monster opening weekend

Week two of the Top 14 has a lot to live up to after an opening weekend of close matches and late come-from-behind results.

If you missed last Saturday and Sunday’s action, here’s my round-up of Top 14 games from last week.

And, for what it’s worth, here’s a reminder of the Top 14 table heading into the second weekend of the season…

Viewers in UK and Ireland will be able to see Lyon v La Rochelle, Bayonne v Racing 92, Montpellier v Bordeaux, and Toulouse v Toulon. Saturday’s matches are all on Premier Sports 2, while the Sunday night game is on Freesports.

Hopefully, for fans of French rugby in America, streaming service FloSports has been able to sort its first day streaming issues in time for the Top 14’s big second weekend.

Saturday, September 10

Lyon v La Rochelle (kick off 3pm)

Stade Gerland

Still missing Demba Bamba, Francisco Gomez Kodela, Lima Sopoaga, Josua Tuisova, Killian Geraci, and Jordan Taufua, Challenge Cup holders Lyon should this week welcome fit-again experienced winger Noa Nakaitaci to their line-up for the challenge of European champions La Rochelle.

The club had a visitor this week – the pack trained for a while under the watchful eye of France forwards coach William Servat.

The visitors, meanwhile, came through their hard-fought win over Montpellier last week relatively unscathed and will be able to rely on the same group of players for their trip east. Which is good news, as their pre-season injury list is also pretty long.

Levani Botia – who trained with the group for the first time this week – has an outside shot of joining the 23, but it’s arguably still too soon for him to play anything more than a minor bit part, so Ronan O’Gara is much more likely to stick with the tried and successful for this intriguing weekend opener that promises plenty of free-flowing action on the artificial surface at Gerland.

Castres v Stade Francais (kick off 5pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

The hosts have not lost at home since December 2020, winning 12 and drawing once last season at Pierre Fabre. 

That’s not a record they’ll want to lose in front of their first home crowd of the new campaign, on their new hybrid pitch, which was only completed this week after three months’ work over the summer. 

On Tuesday, when the club held a meet-the-players event for season ticket holders, the posts were notably absent from images posted to the official website.

They’ll certainly want to improve on their game-closing plans, after giving up a lead late on at Racing last week, and then missing out on a chance to win the game. Word is that they could name surprise summer signing Leone Nakarawa in their squad for the first time, as head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan continues his successful rotation policy.

Morgan Parra is a notable absentee for the visitors, after suffering knee ligament damage in their win over former club Clermont last week that will keep him out for about a month.

He was hurt in a 51st-minute collision with team-mate Harry Glover but was not replaced – by young gun Arthur Coville – until the 68th. No matter how you cut it, 17 minutes is an awfully long ‘run-it-off’ period.

Bayonne v Racing 92 (kick off 5pm)

Stade Jean Dauger

For more than 40 minutes, Bayonne – a side tipped for heavy involvement in the relegation dogfight at the far end of the season – gave Toulon – a side expected to do rather well this year – something of a rugby lesson last week. 

And then, at 25-14 down, Toulon’s season started. The ended up winning 40-25.

It was a similar but decidedly different story for Racing. For nearly 80 minutes, they struggled to break free of Castres, despite winning the try count three-one. Their final – and game-deciding – try in a 25-19 win came just three minutes from time.

Three days later, the club confirmed that Virimi Vakatawa’s rugby career in France was over because of a “cardiological condition”

Reports – assisted greatly by a Tweet from Biarritz’s president – suggest the club has already found a replacement for Vakatawa in the Basque club’s wantaway midfield player Francis Saili.

Clermont v Pau (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Clermont are considering medical joker cover for injured tighthead Rabah Slimani, who ruptured a bicep tendon late in last weekend’s 24-18 loss at Stade Francais, and will be absent until early 2023.

It’s a mixed bag of news out of Clermont this week, who announced they had activated one-year extensions for both Slimani and scrum-half Sebastien Bezy.

Pau’s lack of finishing power was evident last week as they struggled to overtake Perpignan at Stade du Hameau. 

Their problems haven’t been eased by news that wingers Aminiasi Tuimaba and Vincent Pinto, who were injured in the France’s pre-season SuperSevens tournament, will both be out for several weeks.

Perpignan v Brive (kick off 5pm)

Stade Aime Giral

Perpignan picked up a bonus point on the road at Pau last weekend. But they would have been grossly disappointed at giving up a six-point lead in the closing minutes of a scrappy, disjointed match that they could easily – perhaps even should – have won.

Injury-ravaged Brive, too, picked up a losing bonus after finishing on the wrong end of a 31-27 scoreline at home against Lyon. This match, then, between two of the pre-season favourites for relegation, takes on additional early meaning. 

Both sides need a win to kick start their campaigns after opening day defeats – but the hosts are much better placed to claim four points in front of their raucous home support.

Montpellier v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

GGL Stadium

Madosh Tambwe – following his electric two-try performance on debut against Toulouse last week and news that he paid a sizeable portion of his release fee from Bulls to move to Bordeaux – dominated headlines from the club this week. 

And the good news kept on coming, with news that French international Yoram Moefana had signed a new deal to stay at the club until 2025.

The main question for Bordeaux boss Christophe Urios is whether to start Mathieu Jalibert this week.

The fly-half missed two crucial kicks at goal against Toulouse last weekend. Tani Vili, however, is set for his first start since moving from Clermont in the off-season, after Remi Lamerat picked up a chest injury at Chaban-Delmas.

Sunday, September 11

Toulouse v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

It’s a bit of a sideshow, but matches involving Toulouse have been scheduled for Sunday nights on three of the opening five weekends, with their other two matches in the TV schedule-friendly format booked in for primetime Saturday.

That won’t do anything for French broadcaster Canal Plus’s perceived Toulouse bias.

That aside – and, in Canal’s defence, Toulouse’s first five weeks include the opener against Bordeaux, this match against Toulon, and games against Racing 92 and Montpellier – the hosts will look to consolidate their dramatic 26-25 win at Bordeaux last week with a second win here.

Toulon, meanwhile, came from 25-14 down after 44 minutes to beat Bayonne 40-25 at home last week. The 2021 double winners 31-21 pre-season win at Felix Mayol on August 25 will be fresh in the memory of both sides. 

Matthieu Bastareaud, who suffered freak double-knee injuries while playing for Lyon in December, has been training with his former club all summer. Word is that he completed his first full week of group training this week – raising hopes that he will sign a deal with Toulon in the coming days.

For now, however, coaching dream ticket Pierre Mignoni and Franck Azema have more pressing concerns: Toulouse on their own turf.

Top 14 Week One Review: Promises, promises

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

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

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

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

There were some pretty decent tries, too…

Young Benmegal gives Racing a late, late getout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s not wrong.

Stade rookie Parra wins … and loses

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

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

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

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

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

Bayonne shock Toulon into action

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

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

Bet he did.

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

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

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

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

Joseph saves Pau

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

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

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

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

Four points, though. He’ll take that.

Lyon kick of Garba era with win on road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advantage European champions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toulouse rain on Tambwe parade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 14 Preview: New US audience for French rugby as campaign kicks off

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 3

Racing 92 v Castres Olympique (kick off 3pm)

La Defense Arena

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

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

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

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

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

Stade Francais v Clermont (kick off 5pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

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

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

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

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

Toulon v Bayonne (kick off 5pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

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

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

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

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

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

Pau v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Stade du Hameau

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brive v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Amedee Domenech

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

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

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

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

La Rochelle v Montpellier (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 4

Bordeaux v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 17

Castres v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Allianz Riviera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It involves pizza.

Saturday, June 18

Montpellier v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

Allianz Riviera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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