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.