Top 14 Preview: League’s Covid-19 fixture list tinkering may be in vain

Image: LOU Rugby / Twitter

Earlier this week, the LNR and French pay-TV broadcaster Canal+ tweaked the schedules of the Top 14 and the ProD2 for the next couple of rounds in a bid to guarantee TV coverage in primetime slots.

This was to be the first outing for a revamped weekly schedule – with several matches set for 5pm on a Saturday as opposed to 3pm as was the case before Christmas. But the LNR and the broadcaster moved things around again in the short-term as TV coverage insurance.

You can argue that Canal has too much power over French domestic rugby, after three of last week’s Top 14 matches were shifted back two hours to ensure a continuous 11 hours of rugby last Sunday. 

The league and the broadcaster will insist they have a strong – even a special – relationship lasting more than 25 years. They could point out, for example, that Canal maintained its payments to the LNR in the Covid-curtailed 2019/20 season, despite the absence of any matches and even as it held back money for Ligue 1 football, and then upped its bid from €97m to €113.6m a season to retain TV rights until 2027. 

This is not the place for that debate. Their fixture-tinkering efforts may be in vain, after all. Montpellier, Toulon and La Rochelle have all reported numerous cases in their ranks, which puts both matches scheduled for Sunday in doubt. Further tests on Friday will determine whether the matches can go ahead.

How the LNR and Canal when the results of those tests are known will reveal a lot. A couple of hours is one thing; a day at this late stage in the week is something else, especially in the final domestic weekend before the third and fourth rounds of European competitions.

Castres-Stade Francais, Brive-Bordeaux, and Toulouse-Montpellier – if it goes ahead – are scheduled by Premier Sports for viewers in the UK and Ireland this weekend.

And remember, listed kick-off times here are Paris time.

Saturday, January 8

Castres v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

Castres’ usually only quietly flappable head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan has been summoned to a disciplinary hearing after being reported for his touchline behaviour during last weekend’s all-in comeback 31-30 win over La Rochelle.

The hearing is set for Wednesday, so he will probably be on the sidelines this weekend as his unfashionable side, fourth in the league heading into the weekend, just three points behind Montpellier – who currently have a game in hand, and who may have two after this round of matches.

After the European break – with matches against Munster at home and Harlequins away – Castres have two difficult Top 14 awaydays in Bordeaux and Toulon. Broncan will demand a big performance on Saturday in front of a 5,000-limited crowd. 

A win is the minimum requirement – with a bonus point the preferred target, as Castres look to extend the unbeaten run at home in the Top 14 to 16 matches. 

Despite their early season woes, Stade will not be pushover opponents. Their 27-17 win over strugglers Perpignan at Jean Bouin last weekend moved them to ninth in the table, closer to the play-offs than the relegation zone.

Stade are something of a bogey side for Castres right now. They won at Pierre Fabre last season, and beat them with 14 players earlier this season in Paris. Broncan will want to set the record straight – but it won’t be easy.

Biarritz v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

Yes, Racing-Clermont, Toulon-La Rochelle, or Toulouse-Montpellier may be the more attractive TV fixtures – but, this match is where it’s at. Fourteenth versus 13th. Level on points in the automatic relegation and relegation play-off places, with Perpignan ahead courtesy of their win over Biarritz earlier in the season.

Despite being at the bottom of the table, Biarritz will be more confident of picking up a fifth win of the season. They roared back from 25-6 down with 70 minutes on the clock to claim a point at Bordeaux last week.

Meanwhile, Perpignan, deprived of seven players for last Saturday’s defeat at Stade Francais, when they also lost Shahn Eru to injury, they had to cancel Monday’s training because of new Covid-19 cases in their ranks. On the flipside, they should be able to welcome back Jeronimo De La Fuente, Melvyn Jaminet, Bautista Delguy, Tom Ecochard, Xavier Chiocci, Piula Faasalele, and Siua Halanukonuka.

This one may be bottom-of-the-table fare, but it could turn into something a bit special.

Brive v Bordeaux (kick off 5pm)

Stade Amedee-Domenech

Despite missing training on Wednesday because of a thigh injury that has not completely healed, Matthieu Jalibert is expected to start as Bordeaux look to condemn Brive – who played for the first time in a month last Saturday and haven’t won since November 6th – to a defeat that would see them drop into the relegation zone. 

Rémi Lamerat and Guido Petti should also make the always tricky trip to the Correze after missing midweek training, but Bordeaux are likely to be without Romain Buros, Louis Picamoles, Mahamadou Diaby, Jefferson Poirot, Cyril Cazaux and Ben Lam.

Head coach Christophe Urios, who recently signed a two-year contract extension, will be looking for a reaction from the league leaders after they stopped playing in the 70th minute of their match against Biarritz last week, giving up a try-scoring bonus and allowing the Basque side to claim a losing bonus of their own.

The big challenge for Brive in their quest to revive their season is their discipline. They’re copping an average of 14 penalties per game, and have picked up a card in every match since mid-September.

These are not the sort of figures that win matches – especially against the league leaders who have won 10 and drawn one of their 13 games so far.

Lyon v Pau (kick off 5pm)

Stadium Gerland

Lyon got back to winning ways last week with a pulsating 37-35 win over Racing 92 at Stadium Gerland. They’re back on home synthetic tuft this again for the visit of Pau – who were impressive in patches against Brive.

Pau this week announced they had tied experienced duo Luke Whitelock and Jale Vatubua to new two-year deals, and are reported to be keeping on-loan Jordan Joseph for one more season after he moved south from Racing 92.

But the player of the moment is Leo Berdeu. One of 10 players to be recently namechecked as a possible Six Nations’ selection bolter by Fabien Galthie, the 23-year-old is having a rare old season. He heads the Top 14 points list, scored 27 last week against Racing and has given head coach Pierre Mignoni more than enough breathing space to allow summer signing Lima Sopoaga to settle in at his own pace.

It’s not impossible to assume he’s overtaken the All Black, who has been injured, in the short term at least. Mignoni may be tempted to give Sopoaga a run at the weekend as Lyon look to double down on last week’s crucial win.

Racing 92 v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm)

La Defense Arena

Tenth in the Top 14 … a four-match losing streak… these are not phrases you’d expect to be included in sentences involving star-studded Racing 92, but here we are. 

The good news out of Plessis-Robinson is that the latest round of Covid-19 tests on Thursday ahead of the match against Clermont revealed no new cases, while a number of players who missed last week’s trip to Lyon have been cleared to play having recovered from the virus. 

Over the past two weeks, about 20 players and staff have had to isolate following positive tests, leaving Laurent Travers and his staff no option but to seek cover from academy ranks.

There may be a lesson from history – the last time Racing lost so many in a row was in the autumn of 2012, when they were beaten five times on the bounce. 

Back then, Jacky Lorenzetti had a three-hour clear-the-air meeting with players. The result? Nine wins and a run to the play-offs… Then again, maybe not. The Top 14 in 2021/22 is a very different beast from the 2012/2013 one. 

Perhaps, then, it’s the uncertainty at the club, with so many players at the end of their contracts. The club has confirmed 10 contract extensions, but Georges-Henri Colombe, Teddy Baubigny, Yoan Tanga-Mangene, Maxime Machenaud and Teddy Thomas are among those leaving, while another 24 – including 16 academy players – are at the end of their contracts.

Whatever the reason, Racing need a win. But Clermont, who won 16-13 at home against Toulouse last week will be difficult opposition – even though they don’t enjoy playing at La Defense Arena.

Sunday, January 9

Toulon v La Rochelle (kick off 6pm)

Stade Mayol

We’re not quite at the points in the bag being better than points in potentia stage of the season, but Franck Azema – in charge for two months and just four matches – could find himself having to manage a Toulon squad needing to play three important catch-up matches in an already packed second half of the season, possibly with international absentees. 

Covid has hit both clubs.

Toulon have missed their last two games because of the virus, and look increasingly certain to miss a third in a row. LNR Covid rules state that a team must field 23 players including six front rowers and 15 senior professionals, with the remaining slots filled by academy players. If they cannot, the match will be postponed.

On Tuesday, club president Bernard Lemaitre told L’Equipe that 26 players were unable to play, and that he believed this match should be postponed because the club only has four fit senior front row players – “I’m not going to have juniors play on the front row against internationals from La Rochelle,” he said, dismissing any discussion of a possible forfeit if the league instructs them to play. 

A final decision has yet to be made. It looks increasingly likely that the match will be called off. La Rochelle reported ‘a dozen’ cases on Thursday but, unlike Toulon, said in a statement that it was “doing everything in its power to help ensure the continuity of the Championship, pending the League’s sovereign decision on the holding of the match”.

That decision is due on Friday. 

Toulouse v Montpellier (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

This week, head coach Ugo Mola added his name to the rapidly lengthening list of Toulousains signing lengthy contract extensions with the club. 

Mola followed Antoine Dupont, Cyrille Baille and Francois Cros in signing on to remain at Ernest Wallon until 2027, while the ink is drying on a contract through to 2028 for club captain Julien Marchand. Australian Richie Arnold has also agreed a new deal to 2025.

But the match has been thrown into doubt by positive Covid cases at Montpellier. 

“We took all possible measures but things are blazing everywhere,” coach Philippe Saint-Andre said at a press conference. “We had a few cases last week, a few cases at the start of the week and this (Thursday) morning we have positive and symptomatic.

“We’re doing everything to play in Toulouse. We do not want to … play matches every four or five days for several weeks. We want to play but it will depend on the number of cases.”

As with Toulon-La Rochelle, a decision is due on Friday.

Top 14 Preview: Strict Covid-19 measures give unvaxxed players an ultimatum

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

The Ligue Nationale de Rugby on Wednesday retightened Covid-19 protocols after its lucrative annual ‘Boxing Days’-marketed weekend was battered by postponements.

Since the beginning of the season, unvaccinated players – the league has said that 98 percent of players and staff in the Top 14 have had at least two doses of vaccine – have faced daily PCR testing, while those who have been inoculated are only tested if they are contact cases.

The new rules, which kicked in on Thursday, December 30, state that vaccinated players must undergo PCR tests twice a week. Tests must be carried out on the first day of training after a match, and 48 hours before the next match. 

Unvaccinated players and staff continue to be tested every 24 hours. Any player who returns a positive test goes into immediate isolation, while the rest of the vaccinated group trains as normal. Squad members who have not been vaccinated are treated as contact cases and isolate pending further tests.

Matches will go ahead as long as both sides can field a full 23-player squad, including six front rows and a minimum 15 senior professional squad members. No more than eight players on academy contracts can make up a matchday squad.

From Monday, after this current round of games, the French government has ordered that crowd sizes are limited to 5,000 outside and 2,000 inside for the next three weekends at least – which takes in the scheduled third and fourth round of European fixtures. 

And impending changes to health pass rules in France mean that anyone who wants to play or watch rugby must carry a new ‘vaccine pass’, from January 15th – a change that heaps pressure on as-yet unvaccinated pro players, and their clubs.

With all that in mind, and there had been question marks over a couple of games until the Friday test results were confirmed, here’s a look ahead to the first seven matches of the 2022 part of the 2021/22 season.

Meanwhile, a reminder. The table, with six teams having played 13 matches, and eight having played 12 following last week’s postponements, looks like this:

For the record, Top 14 fans in the UK and Ireland, broadcaster Premier Sports has chosen three games this week – Clermont v Toulouse, Lyon v Racing 92, and Montpellier v Toulon.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Stade Francais v Perpignan (kick off 7pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

From two sides coming off wins, to two sides desperately in need of one. Gonzalo Quesada’s Stade were one of the Top 14 clubs to suffer a Covid outbreak in the run-up Christmas, which meant their December 26th trip to Toulouse was called off hours before kick-off. That may have been a blessing in disguise, given the side the hosts were ready to put out in front of more than 30,000 fans at Stadium Toulouse.

Patrick Arlettaz’s Perpignan, however, slipped up at home to Castres, losing a truly, madly French game 20-19. For all his post-match bluster about the refereeing of Romain Poite, Arlettaz will have to secretly admit – quietly, in the dark, when he thinks no one’s listening – his side could also have lost by more than a single point. 

This is a lower-reaches-of-the-table tussle. Which means it could go one of several ways. Perpignan will want to keep it close and tight and niggly. 

Stade will want to – somehow – get the ball to their strike runners in areas where they can do damage, which, for fans, also involves some hope of them actually doing that damage. But they have to do this with just a couple of post-Covid training sessions under their belts.

Whichever side wins the gamestyle challenge will go a long way to winning the game. The odds have to be with the hosts – and don’t be too surprised if this one ends up as a reasonably high-scoring affair.

Clermont v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Despite not actually getting any gametime since their Champions Cup win in Cardiff, Toulouse have been busy. Club president Didier Lacroix has tied Antoine Dupont, Julien Marchand, Francois Cros and Cyrille Baille to new long-term contracts, while agreeing long-expected deals to bring French internationals Melvyn Jaminet and Arthur Retiere to Stade Ernest Wallon at the end of the season.

Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos and Peato Mauvaka are all expected to sign contract extensions sooner rather than later – but Rory Arnold is rumoured to favour a move back to Australia in a bid to revive his international career.

Clermont, too, have had a longer-than-expected rest over the Christmas period because of Covid – and have benefited from an emptying of their infirmary, with Damian Penaud, Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra and Etienne Fourcade now primed and ready to go. 

It’s reported, however, that the extension of vaccine rules could hit Clermont particularly hard, with at least two pivotal players said to be unwilling to be vaccinated despite the planned changes.

This is always an important match. For Clermont and Jono Gibbes, this time, it’s a balance sheet moment. Twelve matches into the Top 14 campaign, they have six wins and six losses. Now they have to prove that they have ironed out the inaccuracies and loss of control that has plagued the opening half of the season. Against Toulouse.

Sunday, January 2

Pau v Brive (kick off 2pm)

Stade du Hameau

Brive have not won a match in nearly two months, losing six of their last seven Top 14 matches. They have only played twice since November 6th, and not at all in the past 29 days. And now, the Top 14’s 12th-placed side opens an important period in their battle for survival with a trip to ninth-placed Pau.

After such a long break, a fifth win of the season would be a serious fillip for the visitors heading into the new year. 

Pau, meanwhile, haven’t played since the loss against London Irish on December 11, with their last match at Racing called off after Covid cases in both camps. Although players were ‘all asymptomatic’ according to head coach Sebastien Piqueronies, collective training was suspended and numerous players were isolated.

Testing earlier this week allowed players to return to group training, prior to which the club had effectively been closed since December 23rd. Hardly ideal preparation for a big match, and it’s probably fair to expect more than a little ring rust.

Bordeaux v Biarritz (kick off 2pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

A crucial month for Top 14 basement side Biarritz could hardly begin with a tougher assignment than a trip to leaders Bordeaux – a place where not many visiting sides leave with anything other than bruises. 

Points are, however, exactly what Biarritz need, however, as hooker Francois Da Ros said this week: “We’ll have to go get something away from home. The group remains positive – we have to keep hold of that to get points. We have to stop making excuses and get back to work, that’s how we’ll get there.”

It wasn’t excuses that lost them last week’s match against Montpellier so much as realism. They were just 13-12 behind and just starting to really push the visitors after a penalty-strewn first period when Bastien Chalureau was sent off with 20 minutes left. It was the start of a period that demanded clear heads and simple, effective rugby, efficiently executed.

Instead, Biarritz – who announced a few contract extensions this week – pushed too hard, lost control and conceded two late tries that sent Montpellier back home with a bonus point win on the road.

It’s probably safe to describe this week’s outing against a side 24 points ahead of them in the league as a write-off for Matthew Clarkin’s Basque side. Their Challenge Cup match at Aguilera against Newcastle may well be one to ignore, too.

But next week’s match at home to Perpignan and the month’s-end trip to Brive are both eight-pointers, even with months yet to play. Those are the games that Clarkin and his brains-trust will be focusing most closely on this month. This one? A point would probably feel like a win.

Castres v La Rochelle (kick off 4pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

Two of last weekend’s three winning sides meet at what’s sure to be a raucous Stade Pierre Fabre before the new crowd limit rules kick in. 

La Rochelle boss Ronan O’Gara knows the challenge that Castres will set – he wrote about them in grudgingly respectful terms in his must-read Irish Examiner column last week. Castres may even consider his words ‘glowing’ as it’s them to a T.

Then, after his own side’s dismantling of Lyon in the rain last week, O’Gara issued something of a rallying cry: he wants that level of performance on the road. He’s got two chances in the next two rounds to pull that off, with trips to Castres and Toulon on the ticket.

But O’Gara knows, better than most, that winning at Castres won’t be easy – only Harlequins managed it, against what’s best described as a mix-and-match Top 14 side, in the whole of 2021. And, after that defeat, the hosts will want to set the record straight in front of their own fans. 

Some late news from La Rochelle, too. On Friday, the club announced the arrival of Kavekini Tabu on a short-term ‘medical joker’ contract as injury cover for Levani Botia.

Lyon v Racing 92 (kick off 6pm)

Stadium Gerland

Move along – there was nothing to see, there. That’s pretty been much the message out of Lyon this week after their defeat in the rain and wind at La Rochelle last Monday. 

Head coach Pierre Mignoni admitted he had ‘no excuses to make’ after the 25-3 loss at Marcel Deflandre. 

“What interests me is that our players are keen not to come across as idiots for the second game in a row,” he said. “A poor performance can happen, no problem. But I hope it pricked the pride of the boys not to make the same mistakes twice.”

Faint praise among the damnation, then, from a coach who may be relying a little too heavily on individual pride from his players right now – but who should be able to welcome back Josua Tuisova, after the player completed a World Rugby training programme following a ban for dangerous play.

It is, however, possibly a good time to play Racing, who head to Stadium Gerland short on match time – their last scheduled outing against Pau was postponed because of Covid-19 – and on the back of a three-match losing run in the Top 14. 

Montpellier v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)

GGL Stadium

Franck Azema has been at Toulon for about two months. He may have thought he knew what he was getting himself into when he signed his contract, up to and including the severity of former club Clermont’s reaction. 

But, in that time, his side has played just four games, one of which was a handy Challenge Cup run-out against Zebre. But, overall, it’s hard, just looking at performances on the pitch, to see his impact at Berg.

Now he’s got to prepare his players for a trip to Montpellier to face a side that has won its last six in the Top 14, playing highly efficient, effective rugby, and is third in the table, level on points with Toulouse.

It’s easy to imagine who’s the happier of the two coaches right now. But the fixture list is not created to please coaches, with or without Covid.

This is here and this is now for Azema. He’s getting players back from injury, and he’s putting his stamp on the club, while – and this is important – understanding its history, style and philosophy. 

Could this – finally – be the start of a new and exciting era at Toulon? Montpellier are on a streak that looks hard to stop.

But, Toulon have lost just once in Azema’s brief reign. If the visitors can even get close this weekend, he may well be on to something, even before he seriously starts to shape this team.

Enjoy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 26

Perpignan v Castres (kick off 6pm)

Stade Aime Giral

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

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

Toulouse v Stade Francais (kick off 9.05pm)

Stadium de Toulouse

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 27

Biarritz v Montpellier (kick off 7pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

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

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

La Rochelle v Lyon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

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

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

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

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

Top 14 Preview: Bordeaux, Toulouse and the Bleus-heavy battle for France’s Christmas number one

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

It’s routinely tough in the upper echelons of the Top 14, but right now – heading into a weekend in which second entertains first and in which the Christmas leader will be decided – it’s even tougher further down the ladder. 

While 10 points separate leaders Toulouse from third-placed Montpellier, only one more point separates fourth-placed La Rochelle – currently in a post-season home play-off slot – and bottom-of-the-table Biarritz.

There’s just four points between 14th and ninth, and five between the relegation zone and the play-off places. It was about as close at the unwanted-business end of the table after 11 rounds of the ferociously tight 2014-15 Top 14 season, when – in the end – a usually plentiful 52 league points was not enough to save Bayonne from the drop.

There are still 15 rounds of the current campaign to go – and plenty can happen between the here and now and the there and then of the first weekend in June 2022 when the regular season ends – but this campaign is just starting to threaten to be a nail-biting classic of the genre when survival and play-off places were up for grabs all the way to the end.

For Top 14 fans in the UK and Ireland, Premier Sports has unsurprisingly picked the two evening games. Bordeaux-Toulouse on the final Saturday before European rugby kicks off should be a belter, and there’ll be plenty of action when Stade Francais entertain La Rochelle on Sunday night. But URC and Premiership club analysts may be missing the usual four matches a weekend as the leagues career towards a two-week European meeting of styles

Usual caveat: The kick-off times listed here are Paris time.

Saturday, December 4

Lyon v Brive (kick off 3pm)

Stadium Gerland

Lyon, having just got Mathieu Bastareaud back, have to get used to life without him again, after just 84 minutes of gametime following a 10-month injury lay-off.

Four minutes into his second match, against former club Toulon at Stade Mayol last Saturday, Bastareaud slipped, and was taken off the pitch several minutes later on a stretcher. The club’s worst fears were confirmed on Monday – surgery on ruptured tendons in his left knee failed and he’d also ruptured the tendons in his right knee for good measure.

The 33-year-old took to social media to explain his health situation, and – with his contract up at the end of the season – to say that he would take time to reflect on his future following surgery on both knees on Thursday.

In Bastareaud’s absence, captain Jordan Taufua is likely to return to the middle of the backrow for a must-win match against 10th-placed Brive, flanked by Beka Saginadze and Dylan Cretin, but Lima Sopoaga has not made the wider group after picking up a knee injury that kept him out of last week’s match at Stade Mayol.

Brive, meanwhile, welcomed Dylan Lamb – Pat’s nephew and Ben’s cousin – to the Stadium de Brive this week on a short-term medical joker contract. He’ll probably be watching his new team-mates from the stands…

Castres v Racing 92 (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

“Monday’s video review session must have been spicy,” Castres’ lineout coach Yannick Caballero said of the fallout from Racing’s 37-14 loss at home to Bordeaux last Sunday.

Caballero knows Racing manager Laurent Travers well, having played under him at both Montauban and Castres – and knows how much that the scale and the substance of that defeat will have hurt.

But his focus is on Castres rather than Racing, who have been building on the solid foundations of a ‘good defeat’. 

Castres are, unsurprisingly, expecting a backlash from the Franciliens, who are expected to make a number of changes.

Teddy Thomas may be dropped following his ‘come and get me’ gesture to hat-trick hero Santiago Cordero last weekend, while Gael Fickou, Finn Russell, Kurtley Beale, Camille Chat, Hassane Kollingar and Georges-Henri Colombe – who all played last weekend are all expected to be rested for European challenges to come.

The hosts have good reason to be concerned. Racing won’t want to forget that defeat. They’ll want to use it to perform better.

Club president Jacky Lorenzetti did not mince his words after last week’s loss. In an interview with L’Equipe, he said: “When I left the Arena on Sunday, I was thinking more about not going down than about qualifying.

“The  second half [against Bordeaux] was not worthy of a team that has the ambition to win something, or even to qualify … Today, the priority is to find our rugby, our marrow. We are far from it.”

Weather conditions suggest this won’t be an all-out running rugby fest. There’s a reason Racing were training with a wet ball this week.

Clermont v Biarritz (kick off 3pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

While a number of clubs have started announcing early signings, most of the recent news out of Clermont has been outgoing. Camille Lopez wants out from the final year of his contract – even if his final destination may now be under question after a reported deal with Biarritz remains resolutely unsigned, to the very public ire of the Basque side’s president. 

Toulon – now under Franck Azema – is said to be his new preferred choice, although ambitious ProD2 high-fliers Bayonne may have made a late bid for his services, which would fit in with Lopez’s publicly declared wish to return to the southwest.

And now, scrum-half Morgan Parra has revealed that his future is somewhere other than Stade Marcel Michelin, a venue he has called home since joining from Bourgoin in 2009. He had been offered a two-year playing contract then a year on staff, but decided that he wanted a new adventure. Reports in France say he’ll join Stade Francais.

Jono Gibbes’ brief is to inject new, youthful, blood into the Clermont set-up – via, as much as possible, the academy. Inward signings are currently non-existent, while about 16 senior and 19 academy contracts are up for renewal – including that of winger Cheikh Tiberghien, who scored twice in last week’s defeat at Perpignan.

Gibbes will be doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work to mould his new squad in his image – and it’s a safe bet he’ll be determined to keep Tiberghien, but losing the experience of Lopez and Parra at the same time has to be tough.

His first task is to get his squad to bounce back from the heartache of last week’s defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory loss at Perpignan. A return to home soil will be a relief – and a convincing win over Biarritz will be just what the fans ordered ahead of next weekend’s ‘derby’ trip to Brive.

The bad news is that Wesley Fofana’s long-expected return this weekend after three months out looks like it has been delayed. He is now not expected to feature against the league’s basement side.

Gibbes will also be without lock and walking sanction Tomas Lavanini, banned for five weeks following his red card against Ireland in the November internationals and will miss Clermont’s first two Champions Cup games. 

Meanwhile, conditions could be interesting in volcano country…

Montpellier v Perpignan (kick off 3pm)

GGL Stadium

News that the currently injured centre Arthur Vincent had signed a two-year contract extension despite strong interest from Toulouse will have pleased Montpellier fans this week, after their awkward win over Castres left them with mixed emotions.

Vincent is due to begin rehabilitation work next week, starting with his upper body, after suffering a cruciate ligament rupture in October. He’s still a long way from a return to even serious training, but it’s a first step that will also please the fans, as they look to build on last week’s four-pointer against Occitanie coast derby rivals Perpignan.

The visitors, meanwhile, keep proving they are not the walkovers of their last Top 14 stint, and are determined to prove that they are not just here to make up numbers.

But, it would be a surprise if Philippe Saint-Andre’s side don’t win. He’s took a squad and built a team in a matter of months. And now, he’s taken a team and built a serious contender for the play-offs, one that now knows how to play a mediocre match and still win.

He’s supposed to return to the director of rugby’s office at some point – but he’s making it increasingly difficult for Mohed Altrad to boot him back upstairs.

Pau v Toulon (kick off 5pm)

Stade du Hameau

News came this week that Cheslin Kolbe had finally started taking part in group training at new club Toulon after recovering from a knee injury that had ruled him out of South Africa’s November northern hemisphere tour, while France captain Charles Ollivon has also resumed individual training as he recovers from an ACL injury.

Neither, obviously, will be involved in the trip to Pau – but the hope is that Kolbe will be ready to run out in Toulon colours for the first time in the Challenge Cup match against Zebre at Stade Mayol on December 17 – an early Christmas present for fans who are daring to dream again Toulon’s improved team performance in last weekend’s win over Lyon.

The players, too, have noticed a difference since Franck Azema took over from Patrice Collazo just before the international break. “I don’t know if we can talk about a psychological shift, but I believe the group needed to move forward, to start again on a new road,” centre Julien Hériteau said after the Lyon game.

“In the game we didn’t change everything, we kept the overall framework but Franck brought in small details. And it worked.”

Toulon, then, head to Pau, with a new positive attitude, and players on the road back from injury. It’s a heady mix that could cause the hosts a few problems. The win over Lyon was not a benchmark – but it was, perhaps, a seasonal turning point.

A victory on the road this week – ahead of a bye week in the Challenge Cup and almost unthinkable earlier in the season – would prove that theory.

Bordeaux v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

The undisputed big match of the weekend sees second host first, with the Top 14 Christmas lead at stake, as the European break puts the French domestic top flight on hold until December 26-27.

Having rested almost all his French internationals for last weekend’s hard-fought and atypical win over Brive, in which Toulouse were kept tryless for the first time this season, Ugo Mola is expected to bring them the rest back on Saturday night. So expect to see Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Matthis Lebel, Anthony Jelonch, Francois Cros, Peato Mauvaka and – perhaps – Cyrille Baille in the starting line-up.

It all raises the glorious prospect of a fly-half battle for the ages, as Christophe Urios fights outrageous talent with outrageous talent by bringing back Matthieu Jalibert after a week off. He will have a point to prove after Ntamack regained the French 10 jersey for the win over the All Blacks, after switching out to inside centre for the earlier games against Argentina and Georgia.

Ntamack, meanwhile, who prefers wearing 10 to 12 these days, will want to prove again that he’s Dupont’s halfback partner for the long-term at club and country level. 

Should be tasty at Stade Chaban Delmas, a ground that now seems certain to be Bordeaux’s for the foreseeable, after club president Laurent Marti firmly and publicly rejected overtures from the managers of the debt-ridden Matmut Atlantique to relocate there.

Sunday, December 5

Stade Francais v La Rochelle (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

A struggling Stade Francais against a momentum-building La Rochelle. It should be easy to call – the two sides are separated by 10 points and eight places…

Stade can pull it out of the hat on occasion. They did it with 14 players against Castres early in the season. They showed glimpses last week in defeat at Biarritz. But too few. Far too few.

This season has been mostly a raging disappointment for the big-money Parisians. Club owner Hans-Peter Wild and his rugby director Thomas Lombard are repeatedly keen to point out the positives, but there’s no denying league position. Stade are 12th. One place – and one point – out of the relegation zone. 

Even the long-term commitment of Sekou Macalou, who signed a deal to stay at Stade until June 2027 this week, can’t hide that inconvenient truth.

Much depends on the result of this match. A win, and there will be a glimmer of a reason for optimism heading into the Champions Cup fortnight and matches against Connacht and Bristol Bears. Lose, and Stade will be perilously close to pushing the survival mode button.

This is definitely not a time to be playing a La Rochelle side that is starting to find its feet.

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

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

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

Image: ASM Clermont Auvergne / Twitter

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

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

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

Saturday, November 27

Perpignan v Clermont (kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime Giral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Rochelle v Pau (kick off 3pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

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

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

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

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

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

Montpellier v Castres (kick off 3pm)

GGL Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

Biarritz v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toulon v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Mayol

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

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

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

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

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

Toulouse v Brive (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 28

Racing 92 v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

La Defense Arena

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

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

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

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

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

Top 14 Preview: Basta’s back for the last weekend of the opening block, and first of the season’s Test ‘doubles’

Image: Lyon Rugby / Twitter

Ten uncompromising, unbroken weekends after the Top 14 season kicked off, we have reached the final weekend of a punishing opening block of games. 

Those not involved in the November internationals get some well-deserved time off – just as their kids go back to school after the Toussaint half-term holidays in France – before the league returns on November 27.

Fixtures have been shifted about – there’s an unusual Friday-night match this week – avoid a fixture clash with the men’s international between France and Argentina. No such joy for France women, whose match against South Africa in Vannes kicks off at 3pm.

Here, then, a look ahead to the weekend’s seven matches – which starts this evening with seventh versus first, and finishes with Sunday’s big match between the sides in eighth and 11th place. Fourth versus sixth, meanwhile, is in the Saturday afternoon multiplex…

Four of the weekend’s matches are broadcast in the UK and Ireland on Premier Sports. Live matches are La Rochelle-Bordeaux (Premier Sports 2); Toulouse-Perpignan (Premier Sports 2); Brive v Racing 92 (Premier Sports 2); and Clermont-Toulon (Premier Sports 1). Remember, all kick-off times listed here are Paris time.

Friday, November 5

La Rochelle v Bordeaux (kick off 9pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

La Rochelle’s match last weekend at Perpignan – a match they pretty much dominated from first whistle to last, and lost – pretty much summed up their season so far. They were good everywhere, at everything, except where it mattered.

They’ve been here before. They should have beaten Toulouse at home in the season opener. They could have won at Clermont. And although they won a stinker at Brive, then beat Toulon to end old boss Patrice Collazo’s time in charge, they then threw it away at Aime Giral – a defeat described as a ‘non-match’ this week by captain Romain Sazy.

Head coach Ronan O’Gara is suspended for this match and the next one, and has been fined €1,000, following an altercation with a match official in the win over Toulon. 

But that will not alter the fact that the hosts will be out to set the record straight immediately after Perpignan with a win – in front of the 60th full house in a row at Marcel Deflandre – to end the block on a high-note.

Just one problem: their opponents are on a run of six straight wins, overtook Toulouse at the top of the table last week, and haven’t lost a match since the opening round of the season. 

Christophe Urios has this week claimed that top slot in the Top 14 means little – but he’ll not be willing to give it, or this game, up without a fight. Expect fireworks at Marcel Deflandre on a cool, dry, relatively clear night…

Squads for this match have already been released.

Interestingly, Levani Botia, who pulled out of the Fiji squad with a knee injury is fit enough to start. Uini Atonio, too…

Saturday, November 6

Lyon v Castres (kick off 2.45pm)

Stade Gerland

It’s pretty much guaranteed that Lyon’s staff will have put their players through a week of hard graft following their uncharacteristically indisciplined performance in defeat in the rain at Montpellier last Saturday, as they look to end the opening block by consolidating their place in the top six.

It was such a poor performance that captain Patrick Sobela was first to use the ‘non-match’ phrase, days before La Rochelle’s Romain Sazy. There were, in fact, no punches pulled by anyone on the Lyon staff. Head coach Pierre Mignoni said the performance was the worst he’d seen from his side ‘in a long time’.

“We will have things to say to each other,” Mignoni said in the hot-take period immediately after last week’s match. “We have to learn from this kind of match, both the players and the staff.”

Lyon are able to select Pierre-Louis Barassi and Mathieu Bastareaud. Barassi could start, having recovered from an ankle injury, while Bastareaud is more likely to be on the bench – but the big question is at 10, where Leo Berdeu could ahead of Lima Sopoaga, who reportedly picked up a minor knock at Montpellier last week. He may feature off the bench.

Lyon’s task, then, like La Rochelle on Friday, is to bounce back immediately with a win. Like La Rochelle, they have an issue – in the form of their opponents, fourth-placed Castres Olympique. 

They don’t have the cachet of the current Bordeaux side, but they will have this match reasonably high up their target list – having won the two sides’ last six meetings. They won at Gerland back in January, despite playing almost all the match with 14 players after Filipo Nakosi was sent off for a dangerous tackle – and Lyon are missing a number of key players.

There’s, potentially, an additional problem for Lyon: whisper it quietly, but last week Castres – a side not recognised for their vaulting ambition – were repeatedly undone by their own desire to fizz the ball wide, to play with pace and width and … even daring? 

We’re not talking Toulouse, or even Toulouse-lite here, but is this a new Castres, not quite like the old Castres? Not quite – though they are trying new things. They still do old Castres, too. It’s just there’s something approaching multidimensional about the 2018 champions this season. They’ll still try to mug you in a streetfight, but they polish their shoes a bit first these days.

New arrival Jack Whetton – carrying on the family legacy by playing for Castres – is in the extended group for this weekend’s trip to Lyon. Whether he’ll feature is another question

Pau v Biarritz (kick off 2.45pm)

Stade du Hameau

Last week, Pau won a rain-sodden shocker at home to Stade Francais, Biarritz lost one against Toulon in even worse conditions.

Even Toulon’s defence coach and acting coaching lead James Coughlan this week admitted on the well-worth catching French Rugby Podcast that the match at an underwater Mayol against the Basque Country side should perhaps have been called off.

Conditions in southwest France are set to be better on Saturday afternoon for this match between two sides separated by 90 minutes of A64.

The visitors need to ramp up the discipline. They knew it before they played Toulon last week – and still coughed up 17 penalties, 13 of them in the opening period, admittedly in atrocious conditions.

The club have been in discussion with national director of refereeing Franck Maciello to identify areas where they need to tighten up their game – and how to best manage the referee. The talks were about ‘clarification’, according to coach Matthew Clarkin.

Meanwhile, Pau’s Argentinian loosehead prop Ignacio Calles could make a long-awaited first start of the season after recovering from a nasty double fracture of a forearm suffered in a Top 14 match against Stade Francais in April. 

Stade Francais v Montpellier (kick off 2.45pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

Let’s start with a few numbers, courtesy of L’Equipe – 12th-placed Stade Francais have played 146 minutes of their nine matches to date in the Top 14 with a numeric inferiority on the pitch. 

That’s an average of 16 minutes per game. In that time, they have conceded 50 match points, and – potentially – three league points. 

They have received seven yellow cards – including three for hooker Talu Latu, while Paul Alo-Emile’s early red in the win over Castres meant they played 76 minutes of that game with 14 players.

Such levels of discipline are unsustainable. If L’Equipe have noticed them, Montpellier boss Philippe Saint-Andre – who has fifth-placed Montpellier managing expectations pretty well this season – is all over them, too.

This is not to suggest Montpellier will try to get Stade players in trouble with the referee, but they can play a direct in-your-face game with the best of them. 

This might just be the occasion – with Paolo Garbisi, Handre Pollard, Paul Willemse, Mohamed Hoauas and Cobus Reinach among those away on international duty – to dust off the old no-nonsense Montpellier approach.

If Stade manage to keep the jets cool, they should have the wherewithal to win and put last week’s abject defeat at Pau behind them – when the hosts scored nine unanswered and decisive points while Latu was serving the latest of his 10-minute spells in the bin.

Toulouse v Perpignan (kick off 2.45pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

After running away with the early part of the season, Toulouse enter the first of two difficult international windows on the back of a second loss of the season at Racing 92 last week. 

They’re without 11 players retained by Fabien Galthie. They’re without Richie Arnold, out for a two months with a fractured arm, brother Rory is with Australia, and perhaps without scrum-half Alexi Bales. In total, they’re missing in the region of 20 players – even a club with the playing riches of Toulouse can’t easily handle that level of absence.

They’ve been preparing for this period – and their early season charge was part of the plan. “We had to take as many points as possible before the autumn internationals,” forwards coach Jean Bouilhou said recently. “We tried to take on as many matches as possible before the group lost several players.”

Their two Autumn international period matches are this one, at a full Ernest Wallon against 13th-placed Perpignan, conquerors of La Rochelle in extremis last weekend, and Brive – again at home, on November 27. At the beginning of the season they probably would have taken those matches, at Ernest Wallon, if offered them in this period.

The visitors, for all that they’re playing a side shorn of numerous big-game players, know the scale of the challenge awaiting them. Even without Dupont, Ntamack, Ramos, Jelonch Marchand, Flament, Cros, Lebel, et al, Toulouse were the better side at La Defense Arena for 40 minutes last weekend.

Losing at home will not be in the plan for the season. And Toulouse have the young players, and the set-up to make sure it doesn’t happen.

Brive v Racing 92 (kick off 5pm)

Stadium de Brive

After last week’s ‘good defeat’ on the road at Castres, Jeremy Davidson’s Brive will – no doubt – be happy enough to head into the November international break with a ‘bad win’ against a Racing side that beat Toulouse last weekend.

Brive gave their opponents last Saturday – once coached by Davidson – a tougher time than they would have expected. The expectation, now, will be for more of the same. With added home fan power.

There is a problem. And it’s a big one. Brive and Biarritz were the only teams in the Top 14 not to have a player selected for the France squad – but the hosts are without nine players to international call-ups, while another 10 are filling up the infirmary. 

Third-place Racing have a few absences of their own, but will likely count on the services of recent France camp returnees Ibrahim Diallo, Bernard Le Roux and Donovan Taofifenua. 

Nolan Le Garrec, unsurprisingly namechecked this week by France attack coach Laurent Labit as a near-future call-up, and Juan Imhoff have been injury concerns this week, while Kurtley Beale is with Australia, Finn Russell with Scotland. Manager Laurent Travers may call on youngsters Anthime Hemery and Maxime Baudonne to complete his 23 for the match.

Sunday, November 7

Clermont v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

The big match of the Top 14 weekend – between 8th and 11th. Most previews will focus on Toulon’s new manager, who’s Clermont’s ex-coach, and who’s at the eye of a trouble-storm between the two clubs. 

In brief, Clermont this week demanded the LNR to rule on a compensation package for Azema, despite earlier being told that he was free to sign any new contract he wanted. The LNR’s commission juridique said it was not competent to do that, so the whole thing’s heading to a tribunal. Which will be nice.

On the pitch, two inconsistent teams meet for a first block-defining match. Both have new coaches – one started in July, the other this week. There’s a lot going on for both sides to deal with – not least injuries and, as is common at this time of year, international absences.

That said, there’s possible good news on the horizon for Toulon. It may not be this weekend, but scrum-half Baptiste Serin in group training again after a shoulder injury.

The first rule of Sunday night rugby club for both sides. Play a more consistent game, for longer. Put together two decent halves of rugby in one match. The side that does that better – no matter the number of absences – wins the game. And, suddenly, that first block doesn’t look quite so … indifferent.

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

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

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

Photo: RC Toulon / Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 30

Toulon v Biarritz (kick off 3pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stade Pierre Fabre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pau v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Stade du Hameau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perpignan v La Rochelle (kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime Giral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GGL Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stade Chaban Delmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 31

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

La Defense Arena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Top 14 Rugby / Twitter

The eighth weekend of the Top 14 season – and the last one before clubs’ France internationals head off to FFR headquarters at Marcatraz for the pre-November Tests training camp – which may or may not involve a few days with the Foreign Legion…

Toulouse are set to lose 10 players to Fabien Galthie, and another four to other national squads next month; while Lyon will to manage with at least 10 absentees, Racing will have nine international holes in their squad, and Bordeaux six, while Clermont and Castres will be without four each.

But that’s for coaches to worry about over the next couple of weeks. This is what they’re concerned about in the next day or so…

In the UK and Ireland, the Top 14 matches on Freesport this weekend are Stade Francais-Lyon, Racing 92-Montpellier, Toulouse-Castres, and La Rochelle-Toulon. Remember, too, all kick-off times here are Paris time. Adjust to your timezone accordingly.

Saturday, October 23

Bordeaux v Perpignan (kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

Christophe Urios, head coach of second-placed Bordeaux, warned against underestimating 13th-placed Perpignan, who head to Stade Chaban Delmas this week.

“You have to be wary of everyone [in the Top 14],” he said. “Perpignan is a promoted side in name only because it is a club that has been working well for a long time, it is a team composed of very good players. We have to be careful.”

Urios has reason to be wary, despite the fact Bordeaux have won five and drawn one of their seven games this season. Their one defeat was against the other promoted club, Biarritz, on the opening weekend of the season, when Bordeaux looked underprepared. 

But that, at least, was away from home. To lose against a promoted side on the road is forgivable, to lose against both – and once at home – would be problematic, even for Urios. And, eight weekends in, there’s no preparation excuse this time around.

Three times in the past five weeks, and twice in the past two, his side threatened to lose games they were winning easily. 

They gave up a 10-point lead to draw at Castres; allowed Montpellier to comeback from 27-6 down at Chaban Delmas to steal a defensive bonus and deny them a try-scoring bonus; and, thanks to 25 points from France-bound Matthieu Jalibert, escaped Pau’s Stade du Hameau with a 37-33 win after being ahead 27-9 at halftime last week.

One day, though probably not this Saturday, they’ll lose one of those closer-than-they-should-be games. 

Stade Francais v Lyon (kick off 3pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

Lyon, hot off last week’s toppling of Toulouse, head to a rising Stade Francais, fresh off their own potentially crucial win at Perpignan – their first on the road, second in a row and third of the season.

It’s understandable that the visitors, third in the table heading into the weekend, will be brimming with confidence after their hard-fought dismantling of the champions last weekend – but they will not underestimate their opponents, who have reasons of their own to start believing their own hype once again after a difficult start to the season.

In the week that the hosts renamed their training ground after club legend Christophe Dominici, they have enjoyed the comfort of stepping away from the bottom of the table. Another win here could see them shoot up the ladder – but Pierre Mignoni’s visitors will have other ideas, and the visitors look like they could welcome back recent France call-up Kilian Geraci for a pre-France camp run-out after an injury break, along with Patrick Sobela.

Biarritz v Brive (kick off 3pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

Bad news dropped from Brive on Thursday, as it was revealed backrow Kitione Kamikamica’s season is pretty much done just seven weeks into the season, after he suffered a cruciate ligament injury in the narrow home defeat against La Rochelle last weekend. 

He’s the latest to join Brive’s injury list, with fellow eightman So’otala Fa’aso’o out for 10 weeks following an operation on his hand; winger Wesley Douglas is out for at least a month with an ankle knock; and loosehead Hayden Thompson-Stringer has a shoulder injury that will keep him on the sidelines for three months. Prop Cody Thomas, too, is out for four months with a bicep injury, forcing the club into the market for a medical joker. Word is they’re close to signing Malino Vanai from ProD2 strugglers Agen.

Injury concerns apart, the visitors need to be aware of the kicking threat posed by the hosts’ outhalf Brett Herron. He’s scored 66 points this season – 61 of them with the boot. Even in the midst of last weekend’s six-try hiding by Castres, he caused problems for the hosts.

This will be an 80-minute duel. Biarritz were well beaten at Castres last weekend, while La Rochelle breached Brive’s fortress in a close encounter of the ugly kind. Both sides need a win – and the visitors will have targeted this roadtrip for points, given the hosts lack of strength in depth. But their own injury woes may mean their first-block plans have to be tempered.

Finally, a hat-tip to the Basque club’s marketing department, which has tapped a rich season-long vein to promote its home matches – reminding fans how long it has been since it played Top 14 opponents at home. 

Clermont v Pau (kick off 3pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Clermont’s long-term scrum-half general returned from injury early in the second-half of last week’s win at Montpellier. But his welcome reappearance in the yellow of Clermont was tainted by the manner of it – he came on possibly earlier than anticipated following an injury to Sebastien Bezy that will keep him on the sidelines for eight weeks.

Bezy had been in livewire form for Jono Gibbes’ side in recent weeks. The new head coach will hope his injury-enforced absence will not derail a return to something approaching form for the 2017 Top 14 champions.

Pau, meanwhile, have struggled to start matches this season – conceding seven tries in the opening 20 minutes, including two at home against Bordeaux last week, of their matches and regularly go in at halftime behind on the scoreboard – and they have only won once in their last 10 visits to Marcel Michelin. 

But they are routinely dangerous off first-phase ball, something the hosts will have to watch out for, and will be keen to end their Michelin hoodoo after their so-near, so-far loss at home to Bordeaux last weekend.

It’s probably a week too early to see Jordan Joseph in Pau colours following his loan move from Racing – but it will happen soon enough. Head coach Sebastien Piqueronies knows how to get the best out of his charges.

Racing 92 v Montpellier (kick off 5pm)

La Defense Arena

Racing winger Teddy Thomas returned to training this week, a post on the player’s Instagram revealed, ahead of the visit of Montpellier on Saturday.

After such a long absence, he probably won’t be fit to play this weekend against Montpellier – but his return is nothing but good news for Racing, who are about to lose several players to November international commitments.

With Jordan Joseph on loan to Pau, and 13 players currently on the injury list, it’s possible rising academy star Anthime Hemery – with five minutes Top 14 time to his name – could get his first start in Racing’s backrow, and don’t be too surprised to see 19-year-old Maxime Baudonne on the bench. There’s some debate, too, over whether to start with Antoine Gibert or Finn Russell at 10. We’ll find out what the decision is when the teamsheet is published.

Montpellier, who lost at home to Clermont last week – they ‘did not deserve to win’, according to head coach Philippe Saint-Andre – seem certain to reunite Cobus Reinach and Paolo Garbisi at nine and 10, while Vincent Rattez, called up to the France squad after Toulon’s Gabin Villiere withdrew, should start at 11. They, too, have a busy infirmary, with nine on the injury list.

This has all the hallmarks of a hard day at the office for the visitors, who start the weekend in ninth, but could find themselves slipping down towards the foot of the table.

Toulouse v Castres (kick off 9pm)

Stade Ernest Wallon

The table tells you this is first against fifth – but Castres’ backs coach David Darricarrere was absolutely sure of the scale of the challenge awaiting his side in the Top 14 champions’ sold-out backyard on Saturday night. “We are going to play the best team in France, in Europe, and perhaps in the world,” he told journalists at a press conference earlier this week.

Until such time as the proposed Club World Championship kicks off, there may be issues with that statement – Crusaders and Leinster are just two sides that could raise an objection – but there’s no arguing with the sentiment, or the scale of the task facing Castres at a hurting Toulouse.

This will be the visitors fourth awayday of the season. So far they have won one – their first at Clermont – and lost two – at Stade Francais and La Rochelle. The reasons for those defeats were very different, according to Darricarrere, who argued commitment cost them a shot at victory in the former, and strategy the latter.

“We are working hard on it and we know that on Saturday, the slightest mistake will be fatal to us. Teams like Toulouse will not forgive our errors,” he said.

He’s not wrong. Saturday night. A derby. At the champions’ home ground – a side pain after their first loss of the season at Lyon. In front of a baying, full-throated full-house. And, with their France internationals not due to leave for Marcatraz for the November Internationals training camp until Sunday, as close to full-bore as Ugo Mola can get away with.

But Lyon last week showed the way to beat Toulouse. It’s an all-in, non-stop, savagely brutal gameplan, but it worked. If Castres – likely with their trio of French internationals in action – can emulate that, they may give the hosts a tougher time than they expected.

Sunday, October 24

La Rochelle v Toulon (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Toulon are in a spot bother. Last week’s defeat against Racing, their fourth of the season and first at home – in front of new mega-signing Cheslin Kolbe – could not have come at a worse time. 

No wonder they were quick to confirm the long-expected arrival of former hero Freddie Michalak to the coaching set-up in December. He will work on individual skills with the players on a consultancy basis.

Meanwhile, Facundo Isa’s surprising start last week, after he had been named on the injury list on Wednesday, was explained by reports that he had ignored medical advice and declared himself fit to play. Such is head coach Patrice Collazo’s desperate need for leadership on the pitch that he selected the Argentinian despite medical concerns.

Isa seems set to start this week, while Jiuta Wainiqolo has returned to training following a finger injury and may be fit to start on the wing.

La Rochelle’s 8-6 win at Brive on Saturday afternoon was far from pretty. But it was welcome for coach Ronan O’Gara. It moved the Rochelais up to the heady heights of seventh in the table, just outside the irrelevant-for-now-but-nice-to-be-in play-off places.

Another win – their third in a row – could see them climb into the top six for the first time this season. That would be something for the sell-out 16,000 crowd – the 59th in a row at Marcel Deflandre – to cheer about.

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

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

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

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 16

Perpignan v Stade Francais (kick off 3pm)

Stade Aime Giral

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pau v Bordeaux (kick off 3pm)

Stade du Hameau

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

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

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

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

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

Castres v Biarritz (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brive v La Rochelle (kick off 3pm)

Stadium de Brive

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

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

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

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

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

And the coach wants to see something special…

Montpellier v Clermont (kick off 5pm)

GGL Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toulon v Racing 92 (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 17

Lyon v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade de Gerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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