Play-off, survival, or down: Each Top 14 club’s season run-in examined

Two teams are clear of the chasing pack, another eight are chasing four play-off places, while four are fighting for relegation zone escape velocity…

With the Champions and Challenge Cup competitions now down to their final eight teams, focus switches – for two brief weeks – back to domestic rugby, where things are not yet quite so clear.

In France, five rounds of the regular Top 14 season remain. Champions Cup semi-finalists Toulouse and La Rochelle are as close to domestic play-off certainties as maths will allow at this stage. They are both even within touching distance of a bye to the semi-finals in San Sebastian.

Accepting that Toulouse and La Rochelle have their post-season berths sewn-up, it’s probably fair to say that the next eight, from Stade Francais to Clermont, have decreasingly realistic shots at the four remaining open play-off places. 

Brive, meanwhile, have one foot stuck in the ProD2 mud, with Perpignan, Pau and Castres all fighting to avoid the relegation singularity.

Here, in league order after 21 rounds of the competition, a closer look at each team’s run-in as we enter the closing sprint of the Top 14’s regular season.

1 Toulouse – 67 points

Remaining fixtures: Lyon (h), Stade Francais (a), Bordeaux (h), Perpignan (a), Brive (h)

Unlike last season, Toulouse were in a position to rest their returning Six Nations internationals for a week – for the one-off Top 14 derby against Castres – before the return of the Champions Cup. 

With a domestic play-off spot already all-but assured – and a bye to the semi-finals theirs for the taking, even with matches against fourth, fifth and sixth in their immediate future – expect Ugo Mola to give key players some time off in the lead-up to Mission Improbable: Leinster at the Aviva at the end of April.

2 La Rochelle – 61

Remaining fixtures: Bayonne (h), Clermont (h), Toulon (a), Montpellier (a), Stade Francais (h)

A ‘home’ Champions Cup semi-final already assured, Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle are within touching distance of the last four in the Top 14 as well. 

And the ease with which they cast Saracens aside on Sunday, eight days after their hard-fought win over Gloucester in the Champions Cup, doesn’t so much hint as shout that the Rochelais have unfinished trophy business once again this season.

3 Stade Francais – 56

Remaining fixtures: Brive (a), Toulouse (h), Clermont (a), Lyon (h), La Rochelle (a)

Three defeats in their last three outings in all competitions – including two at home – have stalled Stade Francais’ season somewhat. 

Gonzalo Quesada, in his final weeks in charge at Stade Jean Bouin, will hope the week’s hiatus after their Challenge Cup round-of-16 loss against Lyon is the tonic his squad needs for the remaining five matches of the regular season. Brive away kicks it all off – on paper the easiest of Stade’s remaining matches. But it’s a must-win, and it probably won’t be that simple. 

4 Lyon – 55

Remaining fixtures: Toulouse (a), Bordeaux (a), Perpignan (h), Stade Francais (a), Bayonne (h)

At this stage of the season, you really wouldn’t want to be Lyon, who have won just one of their last four – the Challenge Cup round-of-16 game against Stade Francais. 

Between now and the end of the season, all-but one of Lyon’s opponents are in the play-off race, while the odd side out is fighting to avoid relegation. But Xavier Garbjosa’s side have it in them to finish comfortably in the top six, even with three of their five remaining matches on the road. 

5 Bordeaux – 53

Remaining fixtures: Racing 92 (a), Lyon (h), Toulouse (a), Pau (h), Toulon (a)

Like Lyon, Bordeaux – a side in an inter-regnum period as they await Yannick Bru’s arrival in July following the departure earlier in the season of Christophe Urios – face a tough end of season fixture list. 

Also like Lyon, a play-off place in the hand is worth two in the maths – but Laurent Marti’s temporary coaching staff will be looking nervously over their shoulders at how sides below them – perhaps all the way down to Clermont – are going.

6 Toulon – 52

Remaining fixtures: Perpignan (h), Castres (a), La Rochelle (h), Racing 92 (a), Bordeaux (h)

Challenge Cup semi-finalists Toulon have won nine of their last 10, and have a beach-head in the Top 14 play-offs. They’ll be confident about winning their three domestic home matches, no matter the opponents, which may be just about enough to ensure a top six finish. 

They could go a long way towards making sure of the play-offs before they meet Benetton Treviso in the last four of the Challenge Cup, as both their Top 14 matches before the end of the month are against lower-table opposition. Toulon need a trophy after eight empty years, so they’ll push on both fronts.

7 Racing 92 – 51

Remaining fixtures: Bordeaux (h), Perpignan (a), Bayonne (h), Toulon (h), Clermont (a)

Forget that South Africa Challenge Cup trip. That really wasn’t a match, a competition even, that interested Racing. 

That Top 14 derby win at Stade Francais’ Jean-Bouin ground three weeks ago may be the most important of an inconsistent season. It has given them a scarcely deserved shot at the top six and a 13th play-off run in a row. They have five matches to make it work.

8 Bayonne – 50

Remaining fixtures: La Rochelle (a), Montpellier (h), Racing 92 (a), Clermont (h), Lyon (a)

Not since Racing 92’s first season back in the Top 14 in 2008/09 has a newly promoted side made the end-of-season play-offs. 

Bayonne’s first ‘home’ defeat of the season – against Pau in the last round of the Top 14 on March 25, a match relocated to San Sebastian in northern Spain – hurt in more ways than one, not least because it saw them drop out of the top six. It means they have to win three of their last five to have a shot at mirroring Racing’s feat.

9 Montpellier – 48

Remaining fixtures: Castres (h), Bayonne (a), Brive (h), La Rochelle (h), Pau (a)

The defending champions may be ninth in the table after a difficult season with a Brennus-sized target on their backs. But, of the eight sides chasing the four achievable play-off places, they have arguably the most straightforward run-in, for a given Top 14 value of ‘straightforward’. 

Even their match against La Rochelle is the week before the Champions Cup final – which could, if O’Gara’s side are heading to Dublin, work in Montpellier’s favour. Losing hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa to injury at this crucial stage, however, won’t help Montpellier’s cause. 

10 Clermont – 45

Remaining fixtures: Pau (a), La Rochelle (a), Stade Francais (h), Bayonne (a), Racing 92 (h)

Three away matches in the final five, and home matches against play-off chasing Stade Francais and Racing 92 aren’t exactly favourable for a side that can’t buy a point on the road at any price and can’t afford any slip-ups as they chase an unlikely but still-possible play-off place. 

In truth, it’s pretty much win at Pau or bust for Christophe Urios’s side this season, domestically. Do that, and they still have a reason to believe.

11 Castres – 40

Remaining fixtures: Montpellier (a), Toulon (h), Pau (a), Brive (a), Perpignan (h)

A rerun of last season’s final at the home ground of a side still smarting from a Champions Cup slight at Sandy Park kicks off the last phase of Castres’ survival challenge at the end of a season that has similar hallmarks to their dismal 2014/15 campaign. 

That 2014/15 campaign cost then-head coaches David Darricarrere and Serge Milhas their jobs. This one has already lost Pierre-Henry Broncan his. New manager Jeremy Davidson’s only order of business until the end of this campaign is to keep his squad’s heads above relegation water.

12 Pau – 38

Remaining fixtures: Clermont (h), Brive (a), Castres (h), Bordeaux (a), Montpellier (h)

It’s not hard to state how important Pau’s win over Bayonne the other side of the Champions and Challenge Cup window was. Even now, their future could be sorted after Castres, or it could go all the way to the wire. 

Either way, the maths now appears relatively simple. Win three of their last five – the fixture list is in their favour there, with three games at Stade du Hameau – and live to fight another season in the Top 14. A couple of nerve-calming bonus points on top wouldn’t go amiss, either. 

13 Perpignan – 35

Remaining fixtures: Toulon (a), Racing 92 (h), Lyon (a), Toulouse (h), Castres (a)

Perpignan became the first Top 14 side to survive trial by relegation play-off since it was introduced in 2018. 

You can’t necessarily write them off: Perpignan are as ferociously dogged as they always were, especially with something to fight for, and – on their day – they’re capable of some sublime, reputation-shredding rugby. But that run-in, with three of five matches on the road, and four of their remaining Top 14 games against top-seven sides is very much against them. 

14 Brive – 26

Remaining fixtures: Stade Francais (h), Pau (h), Montpellier (a), Castres (h), Toulouse (a)

It’s on the impossible side of hard to see Top 14 survival in Brive’s immediate future, despite Welsh star Ross Moriarty’s late-season arrival. 

They’re nine points adrift of 13th-placed Perpignan, and 13 from escaping the relegation singularity, with matches against two of the top four, both last season’s finalists, and 12th-placed Pau on their programme. It’s not done yet, but – even if they’re not talking about it publicly, the club are planning for a season in the ProD2 and an immediate return to the top flight.

Top 14 side Clermont part ways with coach Jono Gibbes

Defence coach Jared Payne takes charge for next weekend’s final Champions Cup pool phase outing against Stormers

Top 14 side Clermont parted ways with coach Jono Gibbes on ‘blue Monday’ after a defeat too far in the Champions Cup, with defence coach Jared Payne in charge of preparations for Saturday’s final pool phase match against Stormers in Cape Town.

Friday evening’s 44-29 loss to Leicester at Stade Marcel Michelin left the French side teetering on the brink of an early exit from the Champions Cup. 

They are currently eighth in Pool A and must beat Stormers on Saturday to have a hope of sneaking into the round of 16. In short, they are far from where they want or expect to be.

Gibbes leaves after just 19 months in charge at Clermont, having arrived from La Rochelle to replace Franck Azema. They have won just six games in the Top 14 and their opening Champions Cup match – against Stormers in France – so far this season.

They are currently 10th in the French league.

“In view of the recurring difficulties in terms of the game played and the club’s ranking in the Top 14 and Champions Cup, the President of the ASM has decided to put an end to the functions of Jono Gibbes at the head of the team. This decision to make a change is part of a context in which the ambitions still displayed by the club require new directions to be taken,” the club said in a statement.

“This decision is effective immediately, which means that Jono Gibbes will not travel to South Africa for next Saturday’s match against the Stormers.”

There was, notably, no word from Gibbes in the terse, three paragraph media release.

Club president Jean-Michel Guillon told reporters at a scheduled press conference before the Clermont squad flew out to South Africa that sacking Gibbes was, “the most difficult decision I had to make in my professional career”.

Taking responsibility for his decision, he added: “The decision to part ways with Jono was difficult but necessary … I am convinced that it was the right decision, but I am not happy.”

Gibbes’ departure – willing, resigned to his fate or otherwise – leaves a gaping coaching hole at the club. He leaves a fortnight after attack coach Xavier Sadourny packed his bags following a first loss at home to Toulouse in 20 years. 

Sadourny said when he left after more than 10 years as part of the furniture at the club, that he felt, “worn out and that it was more difficult to convey messages to the players”.

He would later tell regional newspaper Le Montagne: “When I thought about it, and this is what I told him [Gibbes], when he came back two years ago, he should have started with his [own] staff. Somehow, I represented the old staff.”

Gibbes temporarily reorganised the coaching staff to fill he Sadourny-shaped hole, with Payne and skills coach Benson Stanley taking on additional responsibilities

Working with Payne in preparation for the Stormers’ match are Stanley, touch coach Julien Ledevedec, scrum coach Davit Zirakashvili, and performance coordinator Johnny Claxton. 

Development director Didier Retiere – the power alongside president Jean-Michel Guillon behind the club’s ambitious ‘Clermont 2025’ project, which targets Top 14 and Champions Cup titles in two years – and team manager Aurelien Rougerie are available to provide direction as required.

Gibbes, then, becomes the third Top 14 coach to leave his post this season, after Jeremy Davidson was relieved of his duties at Brive in mid-October, followed by Christophe Urios’s departure from Bordeaux in November.

Urios, who prior to joining Bordeaux in 2019 guided Oyonnax to promotion and the Top 14 playoffs and won the Brennus with Castres in 2018, is strong favourite to take over the now-vacant hotseat at the Auvergne club – despite Guillon telling journalists that no decision had been taken.

“We want to be able to present the new ASM coach quickly. At the moment, I don’t have one. We are still in discussions. I will not discuss names that are circulating today,” he said.

If Urios is to take over, he may even be confirmed as the new boss as early as this week, with club president Guillon set to stay in France to tie up the deal reports suggest. 

He will first have to firefight with the staff in place until the end of the season, before being able to bring in his own coaching team – which, it’s easy to imagine, could feature long-time collaborator Frederic Charrier, who’s currently holding the fort at Bordeaux until Yannick Bru arrives to take charge at the end of the season.

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

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

Finn Russell to Damian Penaud: The latest Top 14 transfer rumours

The transfer rumour mill never stops in France’s Top 14. Here are the latest whispers on player movement – or otherwise.

Finn Russell

In September, the French rugby media were full of reports linking All Black Beauden Barrett and Bordeaux’s Matthieu Jalibert with impending moves to Racing 92. The corollary to that would be the Scot’s departure. But Russell has insisted rumours of his exit are both premature and exaggerated, telling Midi Olympique that he was loving his life in Paris, and his agents were in town, and he’d be delighted to extend his stay. The latest is that Racing have made Russell an offer. Whether it’s one he can’t refuse remains to be seen – and maybe they’ll have to give him a sneak preview of their 23/24 away kit, first…

Beauden Barrett

That doesn’t mean Racing’s interest in the New Zealand international has waned. Far from it, according to club owner Jacky Lorenzetti, who told RMC Sport recently: “I’m going to tell you a secret. I had dinner with him [Barrett], his wife, Laurent Travers, and my wife four years ago. The discussions are long. (Laughs) As a club president, you can’t help but be interested in Beauden Barrett. We are looking, but we have other possibilities. The file is in full development. We have time, we’re not going to rush.”

Damian Penaud

Arguably the big domestic name on the transfer market in France right now, the winger who scored a sensational match-winning try against Australia in the opening match of France’s three-Test November international programme, has unsurprisingly attracted the interest of a number of big-gun clubs knowing his current contract runs out in June. Several approaches – from Racing 92, La Rochelle, and Bordeaux – have already been rejected, reports say. Toulouse, on the other hand, have caught the winger’s eye. It may mean some juggling on the club’s part, to remain salary cap compliant, but it seems Penaud now has a simple choice – Ernest Wallon, or Marcel Michelin. 

Matthis Lebel

Penaud’s decision may have ramifications for Toulouse’s Lebel. His contract runs to 2024, but could be cut short if Penaud decides to sign. Lyon are said to be watching with interest, while Toulouse may be willing to find a way to keep their four-time international. 

Demba Bamba

He’s currently on the sidelines with injury, but France and Lyon tighthead Bamba isn’t out of the recruitment headlines despite officially being under contract until 2024. Pierre Mignoni, now at Toulon, is reportedly interested in bringing Bamba to Stade Mayol – and he knows better than most the release clause options in the player’s contract.

Nepo Laulala

Toulouse have lined up the Auckland Blues’ prop as a replacement for Charlie Faumina. He’s due to head to the Pink City after the World Cup.

Mathieu Jalibert

Those Jalibert rumours – he was a hot topic last season, too – aren’t entirely extinguished, despite Racing giving up their bid. The other wealthy club within the greater Paris area, Stade Francais, have reportedly set their sights on the international fly-half – and don’t yet seem to be put off by the hard-ball reluctance of Bordeaux owner Laurent Marti to part with his foundation-stone player without a fight. But Stade are hedging their bets…

Arthur Iturria

Clermont captain Iturria has not featured for France since the 2019 World Cup, but – until his red card at Castres – has enjoyed an eye-catching start to the season, the last of his current deal. He’s in talks to extend, but both Bordeaux and Toulon are reportedly interested, and the player himself has made no secret of his desire to return to his native Basque Country before the end of his career. He’s 28 now, so it may be a little early for a glorious Bayonne return, but not completely out of the picture.

Donovan Taofifenua

To the disappointment of several Top 14 clubs, winger Taofifenua seems certain to sign a new deal to remain at Racing 92. Reports say that incoming head coach Stuart Lancaster was keen to keep the former France under-20 international at Plessis-Robinson, despite the richesse of new signings Josua Tuisova, Vinaya Habosi and Wame Naituvi.

Tristan Tedder

After being unable to settle at Toulouse, the JIFF-qualified South African has caught a few eyes during his time at Perpignan. Stade Francais – who will be without Nicolas Sanchez – are reportedly interested, and are said to have already made a sizeable offer, despite the Jalibert rumours. But the scout who brought him to Toulouse as a young man from Sharks in 2016 was current Castres head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan and it’s rumoured that Tedder – who also plays 15 – may be tempted to head there rather than the capital because of family links in the Tarn. None of which changes the fact Perpignan really want to keep him. 

UPDATE 10/11/2022: Rugbyrama now reports Tedder has signed for Racing 92, who had successfully managed to keep their interest in him under the radar.

Jamie George

One from the English media, here. The Rugby Paper has reported that the England and Saracens hooker is a target for Top 14 side Clermont – for whom both Adrien Pelissie and Etienne Fourcade are out of contract at the end of June. Word is the club has put together ‘a substantial offer’.

Loris Zarantonello

Not a name necessarily known to non-ProD2 watchers, but news of the 22-year-old hooker’s switch from Agen to Castres at the end of the season hit the headlines, after Agen coach Bernard Goutta publicly and angrily accused the player, his agent and by extension his future club, of not playing entirely by the unwritten rules of contract negotiations.

Baptiste Couilloud

The Lyon and France scrum-half has, reports say, activated a release clause in his contract and is set to depart a club he has called home since he was five years old at the end of the season. He is a priority target for Stade Francais – a club desperately seeking a settled and consistent squad – and their incoming management dream team of Laurent Labit and Karim Ghezal.

Joe Marchant

There are more than one type of transfer rumour in rugby these days, as in any other game. There’s the first-phase rumour – player x has been linked with a move to club y, for example. And then there’s the red zone rumour. The done deal. Quins’ centre Marchant is in the red zone rumour category. His move to Stade Francais, to reunite with Paul Gustard, eventually under Laurent Labit and Karim Ghezal, is signed, sealed and delivered, according to reports.

Alex Arrate

On the flipside, centre Arrate is a victim of the continuing winds of change blowing through the corridors of Stade Jean Bouin. Castres have, it’s said, moved quickly to grab the centre as a replacement for the retiring Thomas Combezou, after it was confirmed his contract would not be renewed at the end of the season. Offer made and verbally accepted, by all accounts.

Thomas Du Toit

Lyon are said to be very keen on the South African, and have apparently tabled an offer. But the player has yet to decide whether to accept, in part because English Premiership side Bath are also making overtures.

Bernard Le Roux

Currently out for an extended period with a brain injury, the Racing 92 and France lock-cum-backrow is under contract until 2024 – but club president Jacky Lorenzetti recently raised the possibility that Le Roux may retire sooner rather than later. Wenceslas Lauret, too, is rumoured to be considering hanging up his boots.

Theo Idjellidaine 

Watchers of France’s under-20s may recall scrum-half Theo Idjellidaine. The young Toulouse player has been on loan at ProD2 side Agen for a couple of seasons, now, and word is he has now been offered a permanent deal at the club – which, after a torrid couple of campaigns, is pushing for promotion this season

Pierre Popelin

Veteran Argentinian Benjamin Urdapilleta is widely expected to retire at the end of the season, which is why Castres, long light on 10 cover, have been busy trawling the recruitment market for fly-halves. It seems they have one in La Rochelle’s versatile Paul Popelin. The currently injured 27-year-old has scarcely got a look-in at Marcel Deflandre this season, and is heading to Stade Pierre Fabre in search of game time, whether or not the club also does sign Tedder.

Mohamed Haouas

The international prop is under contract at Montpellier until 2024, but reports in France claim the club is willing to let him leave the GGL a season early. Cue pricked ears from at least two clubs keen to sign a tighthead – Clermont, and Stade Francais. But the €500,000-plus release fee may be a stumbling block. Certainly Clermont’s interest will have waned after Christian Ojovan agreed a contract extension.

Ben Volavola

He’s so far seen just 19 minutes action in the Top 14 this season – and now, the Fiji and Racing 92 fly-half is being courted by high-flying ProD2 side Agen, who are seeking to replace Raphael Lagarde and Danre Gerber, who are both leaving the club at the end of the season.

Vincent Rattez

Montpellier want the French international winger to extend his stay at the GGL. Toulon want him to move eastwards along the Mediterranean coast. “I will know more in the coming weeks,” Rattez told Rugbyrama a few weeks ago. “These are difficult decisions to make but whatever happens, my decision will be guided by the sporting project.”

Gabriel Ngandebe

Over on Montpellier’s other wing, however, things seem a little more certain. His contract has a one-year extension option, which could be activated, but it seems more likely the flyer is set to sign a new deal.

Teddy Iribaren

After five seasons at Racing 92, scrum-half Iribaren will swap La Defense Arena for La Rochelle’s Stade Marcel Deflandre at the end of the current campaign. The 32-year-old’s departure was not necessarily a surprise – even after Maxime Machenaud joined Bayonne at the end of last season, he was firmly second choice at Racing behind Nolan Le Garrec. But it does leave Racing with just one senior specialist nine on the books that will need to be filled.

Jules Le Bail

Iribaren’s arrival and Berjon’s extension means there’s no room at Marcel Deflandre for Jules Le Bail, who is being let go at the end of the season. No confirmation on where he may end up – but Bayonne look favourites to land the 30-year-old.

Vinaya Habosi

One of Fiji Drua’s players of the Super Rugby season, Habosi has agreed terms to join Racing 92, despite interest from Bordeaux and La Rochelle.

Ben Tameifuna

Toulon were said to be interested in the Tongan tighthead, who’s out of contract at the end of the Top 14 season – but it looks like he’s most likely to sign a new deal at Bordeaux, the club he joined from Racing 92 in 2020.

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

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

That was the French rugby weekend that was: RWC injury ends Sansus’ career; Galthie’s selection headache; & why Brive removed their head coach

Laure Sansus takes on a temporary new role as Les Bleues’ World Cup cheerleader after a knee injury against England ends her career earlier than France would have hoped; the selection questions Fabien Galthie faces ahead of the Autumn Nations series; what’s happened to Cameron Woki since his Racing switch; Brive’s new ambition left them with no choice but to relieve Jeremy Davidson of his duties; the promise behind Fiji 7s star’s mixed Top 14 opener

Cruel for Sansus

France scrum-half Laure Sansus announced earlier this year that she planned to retire after the World Cup in New Zealand.

The end, it turns out, has come earlier than she or France would have wanted. She was injured early in the 13-7 loss against England on Saturday, and scans confirmed that she has ruptured an ACL, the FFR said on Monday.

Her World Cup, then, is over. As is the playing career of one of France’s brightest rugby lights.

Sansus – voted France’s women’s player of the year recently – said in a statement issued by the FFR: “You never choose your exit and my situation is a perfect example. Of course, I would have preferred to end my career differently. 

“Even if the World Cup ended for me on Saturday, it goes on for the French group. If I can’t fight on the field with my friends, I will show the same determination by cheering for them in the stands. I will be their number one fan! I hope the girls finish the adventure with a smile on the evening of November 12.”

France have called up Blagnac scrum-half Marie Dupouy as cover, but Pauline Bourdon is expected to wear the nine shirt for France in their final pool phase match against Fiji at the weekend.

Galthie’s selection questions

France fullback Melvyn Jaminet was helped off the pitch at Stade Amedee Domenech just 15 minutes into Toulouse’s 45-7 bonus-point, on-the-road win over Brive on Saturday.

An MRI scan on Sunday revealed ligament damage, meaning he will be out for six weeks, missing France’s November internationals.

Galthie was already looking for cover on the wing with Gabin Villiere injured, at loosehead with Cyril Baille out, on the flanks, with Francois Cros unavailable. He needs a centre – Arthur Vincent is unavailable and Virimi Vakatawa retired – and possibly fly-half as Romain Ntamack has yet to return from his ankle injury, though he probably will feature.

He, at least, has plenty of options. Yoan Tanga has impressed in La Rochelle’s backrow; Anthony Jelonch looks in good nick at Toulouse; Arthur Iturria may be in line for a recall after a thoroughly impressive run at Clermont; a revitalised Jordan Joseph may be in line for a call. 

Jonathan Danty, Yoram Moefana and Pierre-Louis Barassi are available to play alongside Gael Fickou in midfield; Alivereti Raka, Remy Baget can cover the wing, assuming Moefana – who played out wide in the Six Nations – isn’t drafted in there; Matthieu Jalibert looks to be returning to something approaching form for Bordeaux, while both Leo Berdeu and Louis Carbonel raised their hands for selection again this weekend; Thomas Ramos would do a job at 10, but could also slot in at 15, as could Romain Buros and Brice Dulin. Let’s not ignore forgotten player Anthony Bouthier, either. 

The Woki Conundrum

Cameron Woki is, undoubtedly, one of the best players that France coach Fabien Galthie has at his disposal. There’s no need to go into his CV for Bordeaux and France – it’s thoroughly impressive. 

But, following his earlier-than-scheduled switch from Bordeaux to Racing 92, something’s not quite right. 

Racing’s stuttering start – they’re 11th in the table, with 13 points from their first seven matches – doesn’t help frame opinion. But Woki looks to be finding it more difficult than perhaps he expected to adapt to the Racing style.

For a player whose entire game rests on his energy, speed and impact, he seems lethargic and limp. His support play is off, his link work between backs and forwards – a Woki cornerstone – is suffering.

There’s little doubt, even with his current dip in form, Woki will be named in Galthie’s first squad for France’s November internationals. Maybe a spell at Marcoussis is what he needs to remind himself just how astonishingly good he can be.

Davidson down

Brive boss Jeremy Davidson was ‘temporarily relieved of his duties’ on Saturday night, hours after watching his side lose 45-7 at home to Toulouse – their fifth defeat in seven matches.

Losing to Toulouse is common in the Top 14. Of the sides to have faced Ugo Mola’s machine this season – Bordeaux, Toulon, Racing 92, Montpellier, Clermont, Brive and Pau – only the last one, ironically 13th in the league, has so far dared to inflict defeat on the rouge-et-noir.

And it’s clear from his post-match comments that Davidson expected to be in charge for next Saturday’s trip to Stade Francais. He even talked about his expectations when the register of injured players on Brive’s books gets shorter.

But then came the three-sentence statement out of Brive, code that – pending French employment law formalities – the former Ireland international was as good as out.

Arnaud Mela will be interim head coach, and will work with  Jean-Baptiste Péjoine, Didier Faugeron, and Goderdzi Shvelidze to – according to a second brief press release issued on Monday – “rapidly improve sporting results. 

“The entire club is determined to meet this challenge.”

Davidson has done a decent job at Brive, since joining as head coach from Bordeaux in 2018. In his first season in charge, he took the 1997 European champions back into the Top 14, and then successfully kept them there, despite one of the lowest overall budgets in the league.

The bare stats of 32 wins, 2 draws and 50 losses doesn’t really do Davidson’s Brive period justice, given the constraints he was working under. And the very time-specific figures quoted in L’Equipe about his final matches, when Brive conceded 99 points and scored zero between the 58th minute of their 25-22 win over Bayonne in week five and the 78th minute of their loss against Toulouse in week seven is a brutal descriptor of Davidson’s end days at Amedee Domenech.

But the club has become a different animal recently. A large financial investment from tech investment fund boss Ian Osborne has Brive dreaming of a future in which Top 14 survival is no longer the name of the game, but challenging for honours again is.

There have, too, been reports of internal divisions, with some players said to be unwilling to sign new deals if Davidson stayed, according to La Montagne – which also said his survival depended on a less negative result against Toulouse.

Club chairman Simon Gillham has repeatedly spoken of his pride that the 148th biggest town in France – population 46,000, give or take, – has one of the 14 best teams. With this new investment, however, the intention is to turn Brive into Castres – a relatively small town with a big team.

Already, Gillham has spoken about the club’s new ability to target a ‘higher level’ of potential recruit. Glasgow and Scotland lock Richie Gray – who would go a long way to solving the French club’s current shortfall in the second row – has already been mentioned in dispatches. 

It’s not impossible to assume further bigger-than-expected players will be linked to the club in the weeks and months to come. But first, Brive need to find Davidson’s successor. Given their rediscovered ambitions, it may be another bigger-than-expected name. 

Future Bayonne star a work in progress

Fiji Sevens World Cup winner Kaminieli Rasaku’s Top 14 debut for Bayonne at Castres’ Stade Pierre Fabre was – it’s safe to say – a mixed affair.

He scored a try for the Basque side late in the first 40 that ensured they went in level at halftime against a side that has not lost a domestic match at home since December 2020.

But he then was yellow carded for a deliberate knock-on early in the second half, with the referee doubly penalising the visitors by awarding a penalty try, as Castres extended their unbeaten run to 25 matches with a 39-22 result.

Head coach Grégory Patat admitted Castres away was a tough baptism for a player he’s certain will become a cult hero at the club. “Kems was in trouble under high balls and there was a misunderstanding on a restart where he was penalised,” he said. “We know where he is…”

And Castres’ David Darricarrere is in no doubt about Rasaku’s qualities. “He’ll learn. It is not easy to attack a match of this level. He is a player who is new to fifteen-a-side rugby, who is starting out in this championship but who has enormous qualities.”

Watch out, Rasaku’s going to be a star.

Top 14 Preview: Stade’s unwanted reputation, Kolbe’s comeback, and Toulouse’s discipline paradox

Why Perpignan have put a big survival target on their Paris trip, Toulon’s long wait to get their Kolbe back is over, Castres aren’t out for revenge against Montpellier (honest), and why La Rochelle should be wary of a tricky Basque challenge

The Rugby World Cup kicks off this weekend in New Zealand, and anyone who follows the game should rugby geek all over that for the next few weeks.

The fact Eden Park is a sell-out for the opening match day on Saturday should tell you everything you need to know. 

Meanwhile, closer to home, the Top 14 season waits for no one – at least until next year, when it will pause after three matches for the 2023 tournament in France, resuming at the end of October.

The Top 14 table heading into the sixth round of 26 before the play-offs.

And here are the top five tries of last week courtesy of the Top 14.

Canal Rugby Club had other ideas and came up with its own top five. The Toulon maul try is a thing of terrible beauty.

For Top 14 fans in UK and Ireland, broadcaster Premier Sports is showing live coverage of Castres v Montpellier, and delayed as-live action from Bayonne v La Rochelle, Toulouse v Clermont and Lyon v Bordeaux.

In the US, all matches are available on the FloSports streaming service.

Saturday, October 8

Revenge is a dish best unserved

Castres v Montpellier (kick off 3pm), Stade Pierre Fabre

A lot of the talk around this match has focused on the idea of ‘revenge’ … with a certain amount of good reason. Montpellier were by far the better side in the Top 14 final back in June – winning the game inside the opening half-hour.

Not that the visitors remember much about that night in Saint-Denis, at all…

There’s little doubt, either, the Castres coaching staff will have used the unwanted memory of that bad night in June, St Crispin’s style, in their prep talks this week, despite comments in the media. As David Darricarrere said: “It’s another season, another group, another chapter. There is no feeling of revenge vis-à-vis Montpellier. In life you have to move forward and to move forward you have to look ahead.”

Head coach Pierre-Henry Broncan would be happier still with a generally improved performance: a reduction in penalties – Castres shipped 10 in 30 minutes at Perpignan last weekend – and much-improved handling and coordination among his side.

It was telling that Castres’ performance improved after Broncan made wholesale personnel changes on 43 minutes last week – bringing on his entire bench at once. It wasn’t quite enough, as Castres fought back from 14-0 to 14-10 and leave Aime-Giral with a scarcely deserved losing bonus. Five metres further forward at the death, they may even have escaped to victory.

This week they should be able to field veteran fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta, following his return from Rugby Championship duties with Argentina and Tyler Ardron is finally expected to return after a slightly premature media recall last week.

For the fans, another shot at the champions will have a near-tangible meaning, however, so Stade Pierre Fabre will be packed on Saturday. The club is using the match for a belated tribute to former scrum-half-turned-defence coach Rory Kockott, so it’ll be a passionate place, too.

It’s the law these days to mention that Castres have not lost at home in the Top 14 since December 2020. They put it on the line again against the defending champions, who sit third in the table and who this week confirmed the arrival of All Black prop Karl Tu’inukuafe. 

More importantly for the visitors, Cobus Reinach is set to start. Louis Foursans should be outside him at 10, as Philip Saint-Andre rests Paulo Garbisi, and eases the burden on Louis Carbonel, who should be on the bench.

Showers are forecast in Castres on Saturday afternoon, so perhaps don’t expect anything too thrilling. 

Stade youth could shake off poor reputation

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

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Stade Francais were among French rugby’s apex predators.

Today? They’re also-rans – as evidenced by their relative satisfaction with a late, late losing bonus at Bordeaux last weekend. And, more importantly, by the fact that Perpignan have targeted this match as one they can win on the road to Top 14 survival.

In fact, it’s a not-at-all-kept secret among French top-flight clubs that Stade are currently considered big-budget also-rans. Things will likely change in the medium-to-long-term, with the academy firing up once more, producing the likes of Veresa Ramototabua and Sergy Abramishvili, Sione Tui, Leo Barre and Arthur Covile – who all played last Saturday.

It’s no wonder, then, that Perpignan, boosted by back-to-back Top 14 wins for the first time since 2009, according to Midol, have points in mind as they head to the fragile Parisians home ground – and do one better than Bayonne, who came pretty close before Stade’s late escape act.

But those academy players… Not to mention Nemo Roelofse, who has finally got to grips with the Top 14, the return of Julien Delbouis, the arrival of Jeremy Ward. Could it finally point to the start of Stade’s return to the upper echelons? 

Right now, it doesn’t necessarily look like it. A couple of seasons, maybe. But Perpignan will have to play out of their skins to take home four points.

Finally, those reports about France coaches Laurent Labit and Karim Ghezal joining Stade in 2024 are “just rumours” the club’s general manager Thomas Lombard has told AFP. So, we wait…

Cheslin’s back

Toulon v Brive (kick off 5pm), Stade Felix Mayol

Toulon fans rejoice! Cheslin Kolbe will make his long-awaited return to Toulon colours having recovered from a broken jaw suffered during Wales’ July tour of South Africa.

The player said a couple of weeks ago that he hoped to play for Toulon ‘within a month’. He trained on Tuesday at an open session with what looks to be the most-likely starting XV for Saturday’s match against Brive – making up a back three alongside Thomas Salles and Gaël Dréan.

Coach Franck Azema had struck a cautiously positive note on Kolbe’s fitness. “He is fine, he is participating in all the sessions,” he said, adding in response to questions about when the winger will return to the 23, “as soon as possible but we will respect the situation by what has been said in terms of contacts.”

News is less good on another international absentee this season. Gabin Villiere has undergone a second operation on his ankle and will be out of action until at least the end of November. 

Brive, meanwhile, have made a splash this week, with reports suggesting Scotland international Richie Gray is a priority target for next season, as they seek to beef up their lock stocks. 

Second rows are thin on the ground at the Correze club right now: Mitch Lees retired last week on medical advice because of a persistent ankle injury; Andres Zafra has missed the entire season so far with back problems; and Tevita Ratuva is out for three months with a broken finger. The club has moved 20-year-old German lock Oskar Rixen from the academy into the senior squad as a medical joker.

Brive were always going to be looking for second rows next season, but the investment of new main shareholder Ian Osborne at the end of August means they can set their sights higher as they plan for a bright new future. The club’s name has been mentioned in connection with reportedly departing France attack coach Laurent Labit – though it’s suggested that Stade Francais have the inside track on the former Racing 92 and Castres coach.

Whether Glasgow will be willing to let their man go is another question.

Fickou returns for Trophée match

Racing 92 v Pau (kick off 5pm), La Defense Arena

The first-ever Trophée François Moncla match kicks off at Racing’s La Defense Arena on Saturday in honour of the flanker who graced both clubs as a player in the 1950s and 60s, before becoming president of the Bearn side in the 1970s. 

Moncla, who died last November aged 89, won the Brennus once with each club, and was part of the France side that won the Five Nations in 1959, 1960 and 1961. He captained Les Bleus on 18 of his 31 international outings.

The annual destination of the new trophy will be decided on the total points scored in the two matches between the teams across the season. 

Racing will welcome international centre Gael Fickou back to the starting line-up for the first time this season – Laurent Travers won’t be the only one wanting him to hit the ground running. Less than a month to the November internationals Fabien Galthie, and especially Shaun Edwards, will want their captain of defence firing on all cylinders. Juan Imhoff, too, is set for a return.

And Regan Grace is on his way from Saint Helens – but won’t be available until the new year because of an achilles injury. 
Meanwhile, the club tweeted a number of images of a certain Christian Wade this week – and, contrary to earlier opinions, he will start on his Top 14 debut.

And, finally, Finn Russell has suggested that reports of his departure from Nanterre at the end of the season may be a little premature. A decision on his future will be made in the coming months, he told Midi Olympique.

Basque challenge

Bayonne v La Rochelle (kick off 5pm), Stade Jean Dauger

La Rochelle face Bayonne at a sold-out Stade Jean Dauger in the full knowledge that the promoted Basque side have beaten Racing 92 and Bordeaux at home – and, for that matter, given Toulon, Stade Francais, and Brive a scare on the road.

They’ll also be well aware that two of their four wins this season have been rather closer than they’d like. They had to come from behind to beat both Montpellier on the opening day and Racing 92 last weekend. 

With Antoine Hastoy still injured, Ronan O’Gara is likely to stick with UJ Seuteni at 10, following his impressive understudy performance against Racing 92 last weekend, with Harry Glynn on the bench. Dillyn Leyds should retain kicking duties after his perfect performance off the tee.

Levani Botia is expected to return to action, while Jonathan Danty and Gregory Alldritt should both be rested. 

Experienced halfbacks Maxime Machenaud and Camille Lopez should start for Bayonne, but a number of players remain unavailable, including Eneriko Buliruarua, Baptiste Heguy, Bastien Pourailly, and Jean Monribot – who won’t be back in action for several months. 

On the positive side, Peyo Muscarditz is on the road to recovery from an ankle injury and should be ready for selection sooner rather than later.

The discipline paradox

Toulouse v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm), Stade Ernest Wallon

Top 14 leaders Toulouse have four wins in five games. They also have all three red cards shown in the Top 14 this season. 

There was Alban Placines in the opening round win at Bordeaux, Richie Arnold in their sole defeat of the season so far at Pau, and Emmanuel Meafou’s 80th-minute card for a dangerous tackle in last Sunday’s victory at Montpellier. 

Arnold was due to appeal against his four-week suspension on Thursday. He has already missed two weekends. Meafou is suspended this week pending an appointment in front of the discipline committee on Wednesday.

Paradoxically, their discipline has been good. Their high red card count – already one more than they got in the whole of last season – can be offset against their low yellow card count. Rynhardt Elstadt – also last week – is the only Toulouse player to be sin-binned this season. No other team has so few. Perpignan, for the record, have received the most yellows, six in five matches. The penalty count against them won’t unduly worry the staff, either.

The rash of reds has left Toulouse acutely light on locks. There’s likely to be some shifting around, especially if Arnold’s appeal fails, as they’re down to the specialist bolts of Josh Brennan and Thibault Flament. Yannick Youyoutte can slip in, if needed, but it may be that Ugo Mola gives under-20 international Clement Verge his first senior start.

Away from discipline matters, the news is mostly good out of the Toulouse camp. Pierre-Louis Barassi has resumed training after missing the last four weeks with injury. He may make the squad this week, which would be useful as Pierre Fouyssac limped off the pitch last week with a knee injury.

Antoine Dupont, Peato Mauvaka and Anthony Jelonch all returned to training after being rested for the trip to Montpellier, so expect a more ‘typical’ Toulouse side.

Injury news is less good for Clermont – despite promising video footage of Peceli Yato training again after a long spell on the sidelines with a knee injury. Judicael Cancoriet will be out for up to four months with a foot injury, the club reported on Thursday.

Even so, Clermont – currently fourth in the table – have a fighter’s shot at a shock win over the current leaders on their own turf. They’re one of a very select list of sides that look as if they could spring such a surprise.

Sunday, October 9

Strategy sobriety

Lyon v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm), Stade Gerland

Bordeaux’s much-needed win over Stade Francais last weekend came with a high injury price tag. Christophe Urios revealed that Antoine Miquel, Clément Maynadier and Jean-Baptiste Lachaise – a late call-up to the starting line-up – will all be out for several weeks. 

Miquel and Maynardier are expected back no earlier than the end of November, while Lachaise, who suffered a hamstring tear, is out for up to three months.

Signing Italian international Renato Giammarioli as a medical joker will, in time, cover the current issues in the pack, but there’s a persistent rumour doing the rounds that centre Remi Lamerat may be drafted into the backrow in the short term. Urios still has options, but if the injury situation gets worse, that could look to be an increasingly tempting option.

On the plus side, Nans Ducuing, Santi Cordero, Zack Holmes, and Madosh Tambwe are all available for selection as Urios’s side look for a win on the road to kickstart their season.

It’s not impossible. Like Bordeaux, Lyon have lost three of their first five matches. And they have no one to blame but themselves – for being tactically naive and unrealistic.

“We lack precision,” flanker Patrick Sobela said recently. “It’s a bit of a recurrent theme since the beginning of the season, and we’re starting to know our faults, like our opponents. We need to get better.”

“We don’t respect the game as a whole,” said coach Kenny Lynn after last week’s calamity at Clermont, a mere week after Xavier Garbajosa’s ice-cold rage about his team’s indiscipline against Stade Français. 

“It’s not a question of character, because the group is hardworking. We lack lucidity under pressure and intelligence when things go wrong, and also we lack communication. We still have a lot of work to do in terms of leadership.” 

Baptiste Couilloud and Leo Berdeu are expected to reunite at halfback for only the second time this season and will have to put the flash away at first in favour of a little strategic sobriety. 

The fans may not like it, but maybe that will help because we all know what’s coming. We all know how Bordeaux will play against a side that’s open to mistakes. They’ll seek to outdiscipline Lyon and counter when those gung-ho errors inevitably happen.

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, click here to contact me

And, please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday, and my first-draft, from-the-hip, quick round-up on the Irish Examiner website late on Saturday. 

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.

Top 14 Review: And then there were none

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

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

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

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

And here are the five best tries from the weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best of Lyon, the worst of Lyon

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

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

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

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

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

Bordeaux in three-four time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Champion weekend for champions

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

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

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

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

Castres win in the rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll have to see how serious he was.

Ange glory shone around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plisson seals Iturria’s deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s finish with the table… 

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 17

Bordeaux v Castres (kick off 3pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brive v Montpellier (kick off 5pm)

Stade Amedee Domenech

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

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

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

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

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

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

Racing 92 v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

La Defense Arena

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

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

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

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

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

La Rochelle v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stade Francais v Bayonne (kick off 5pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

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

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

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

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

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

Pau v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade du Hameau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 18

Toulon v Clermont (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Mayol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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