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

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

Close-quarter Top 14 season in store

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toulon are going on a fly-half hunt…

They’re going to catch Brett Herron… Possibly.

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

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

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

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

Who’s that coach?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bordeaux get some satisfaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raka’s hat-trick hint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Lyon and Mister Lou

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

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

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

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

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

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

Babillot’s 150th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All matches are being streamed in USA on FloRugby

Saturday, October 1

Ward rounds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stade academy is rumbling into life again.

King Arthur

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

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

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

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

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

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

Survival instincts

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

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

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

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

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

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

So near so far for Kolbe

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ardron return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who’s that fly-half

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 2

Clash of the Meafou-Willemse titans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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