Top 14 review: No panic but concern for Stade Francais and Clermont after second Top 14 loss in a row

Two weeks and as many matches into a 10-month, 26-to-29-game, Top 14 campaign is way too early to even be thinking of hitting the ‘operation maintien’ panic button. But at least two top-six hopefuls who are currently in the table’s lower reachers have urgent issues to address quickly if they’re to avoid a problem season.

A total 35 tries were scored in this weekend’s seven games – Toulouse led the way, with six – while there was one red and 12 yellow cards. And a number of clubs welcomed back returning France internationals, with varying degrees of success.

Stade Francais have now shipped 73 points in just two games and lagged a long way behind a Mathieu Jalibert-inspired Bordeaux at Stade Chaban-Delmas on Saturday evening. 

The final 37-10, four-tries-to-one, scoreline could have been much worse for the visitors if Bordeaux had entered try-scoring mode in the opening half rather than waiting until the 53rd minute to cross the whitewash. 

Jalibert’s ever-threatening gamebreaking skill was a timely reminder to Fabien Galthie and anyone else watching that, not-so very long ago, he was heir apparent to the French 10 shirt ahead of Romain Ntamack. 

As well as the brilliance, he did the basics, too, notching 14 points with the boot – and was, unsurprisingly, heralded as Midi Olympique’s Top 14 player of the week.

As for Stade, the optimism prompted by last season’s late surge to the play-off has evaporated in the harsh light of a new campaign. Backs coach Julien Arias admitted: “We will go back to Paris with a big dose of humility. 

“Our work in attack was very poor: we lost the ball after two or three phases and against a good team like that, we paid in cash. We (the staff) are very worried, the players too.”

Meanwhile, Clermont’s own defensive woes are mounting. They have conceded 62 points in their opening two outings, and lost 30-34 at home to Castres on Saturday afternoon.

The hosts’ problems weren’t evident when Tani Vili came into the starting XV as a late replacement for Wesley Fofana. And they definitely weren’t evident when he scored the game’s opening try after eight minutes.

After that early success, however, Clermont found it increasingly difficult to match their opponents’ physicality at the breakdown. They should have gone in 20-11 ahead at the breakdown, after JJ Hanrahan scored his second try in as many games for the club – but conceded an avoidable penalty that the visitors took seven-point advantage of.

It was the first of two occasions that Castres’ players successfully ignored pitchside instruction. Pierre-Henry Broncan had called for a three-pointer that would have taken them to within six points rather than two.

They did it again, much later, opting for a tap penalty rather than David Darricarreres’ preferred scrum option. It worked, too, with Kevin Kornath bursting over for what would turn out to be the decisive score.

Afterwards, Clermont coach Jono Gibbes said his side had ‘no excuses’ after a second defeat, and first at home, under his stewardship. “After these 80 minutes, one team was able to manage the key moments and the other is asking questions,” he said. “Against La Rochelle, next week, it will be a challenge. But it’s the perfect challenge for this group – there is no more choice.”

Who could have predicted that Gibbes’ early-season reunion with his old club, La Rochelle, next Saturday evening would be a 12th v 13th battle at Marcel Michelin? But that’s how it has worked out, after Ronan O’Gara’s side lost 23-10 at Racing 92. 

Like Clermont and Stade Francais, La Rochelle have zero wins from two games – but they have hard the more difficult opening matches – at home to Toulouse and then at O’Gara’s old club Racing. 

Not that it will be any consolation to O’Gara, who has now lost three times at La Defense Arena since joining La Rochelle. What would be more galling to him is that the KBA merchants once again failed to break down a determined and organised defence. 

It’s almost as if Racing saw how Toulouse did it in the Top 14 final and copied the idea to let La Rochelle exhaust themselves pounding into a wall that failed to breach. It didn’t help that they were easily controlled in the lineout, confused in the scrum, slowed down in the rucks and clumsy when running the ball. 

Nor were out-half Ihaia West’s two missed penalties welcome. No wonder La Rochelle are reportedly in the market for a fly-half with proven goalkicking credentials.

On the few occasions Racing bothered to get hold of the ball, they were dangerous. They took an early lead through Virimi Vakatawa’s 11th-minute try.

They later took it beyond the visitors’ reach courtesy of a penalty try after a moment of wonder from Vakatawa’s midfield partner Gael Fickou. Frankly, it was all too easy. 

La Rochelle’s Michelin mission against former colleague Gibbes should make for interesting viewing.

After a promising, threatening start, Toulon, the fourth Top 14 side to have played two games without winning one of them, were scarcely in the hunt at Toulouse.

Gifting the defending champions two intercept tries is nearly guaranteed to end in defeat, and so it proved as the reigning champions ripped the heart out of their opponents’ young matchday squad to win 41-10.

It was a final score that, frankly, flattered Toulon who could have scored the game’s opening try in the first few minutes, but who finally made it into their hosts in-goal area after the final hooter.

It could have been even worse – but it seems someone was able to sneakily replace the Toulouse squad’s resin with Fry Light spray. That, or the use of a washing-liquid soaked matchball, is the only thing that could explain some of the spills made by the hosts’ otherwise rampant side.

Afterwards, Sergio Parisse – who retires at the end of the season – pointed out the youthfulness of Toulon’s squad. “I’m not going to tell you that when we have a full squad we will be stronger. I don’t like to say that. But it’s a fact: we played with young people. In some positions … we were perhaps not at the same level, it must be said,” he admitted. “But we should have done better. This match will be very useful for young players.”

Next week Toulon meet another winless side, Stade Francais, in a second unexpected battle of the bottom places.

Pau were not the only side to welcome a France international back into the fold – but while the likes of Castres’ Gaetan Barlot and Wilfrid Hounkpatin made an impact, and Anthony Jelonch a positive impression on his debut for Toulouse – none of them made the matchwinning mark of Pau’s Antoine Hastoy.

He scored all of his side’s points in a 21-17 win over Lyon at Stade du Hameau and was a bustling, busy danger throughout. There’s a reason so many Top 14 rivals are watching Hastoy with great interest.

It’s a defeat the visitors will rue, even if it’s one that, ultimately, they may not live to regret. Pau were a player down for nearly an hour after Lekima Tagitagivalu was sent off for a dangerous tackle – but a profligate Lyon were unable to make their numerical advantage count. 

Hence head coach Pierre Mignoni’s obvious frustration. “In games like that, you have to be patient, work together and blow your opponents away physically,” Mignoni continued. But our power didn’t take over, we didn’t blow them away at all. That’s what disappoints me the most.” 

Worse, Lyon were 11-9 ahead at halftime. But when they slipped behind, they became reckless in trying to regain the lead and gave Pau too many easy defensive options.

Montpellier followed up their hard-won draw at Toulon last weekend with an entertaining 39-17 win over Brive – a match that featured eight of the round’s total number of tries.

Truth be told, however, Montpellier really should have picked up a try-scoring bonus. Centre Thomas Darmon summed it up: “Last season, I think we didn’t put 40 points on a team. We wanted to show that it would be difficult to come and win with us, and we succeeded.

“We are more confident this season, we play a serious game, we respect the fundamentals … We have to continue like this, but work, because there are things to improve.”

Next weekend, Montpellier entertain Toulouse in a first major challenge to their new mental fortitude.

Perpignan came out on top against Biarritz in an early meeting of the Top 14’s two promoted sides – and thus avoided the nightmare of their last top-flight campaign when they had to wait until after Christmas for their first win.

In Melvyn Jaminet and Tristan Tedder it seems they have found a playmaking and point-scoring partnership to worry more than a few sides. They were certainly in match-winning mode on Saturday afternoon, for all that Perpignan were aided and abetted by some oddly reckless Biarritz defending – at one point the visitors were down to 13 players.

The France fullback, playing his first-ever Top 14 game, converted all three of Perpignan’s tries, and added a trio of penalties, while Tedder scored a five-pointer of his own as well as a drop goal.

There’s a long way to go to the end of the season, yet, and a great deal of rugby between here and now and there and then. Both promoted sides could yet find themselves at the relegation end of the table at the business end of the season – but, today, both are in the middle of the peloton, not that far off the head of the race.

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

Top 14 preview: Internationals return to boost clubs ahead of second round of games

Photo: Stade Francais / Twitter

ROUND two of the Top 14 season kicks off on Saturday, with those players who went to Australia with France now available for selection, while a number of overseas returnees and new arrivals could make their campaign bows.

France’s captain in Australia, Anthony Jelonch, is expected to make his debut for new side Toulouse, probably off the bench, while it’s hard to see Perpignan failing to select Melvyn Jaminet, or Castres not welcoming Gaetan Barlot back into the starting side at the earliest opportunity. Arthur Vincent and Anthony Bouthier may make the starting line-up for Montpellier’s match against Brive.

Kotaro Matsushima has returned to training at Clermont, but it might just be too early for him to make the squad. On the other hand, it’s not impossible that Toulon will select Fiji international Jiuta Wainiqolo for Sunday night’s trip to Ernest Wallon – with Louis Carbonel also likely to be in action. Meanwhile, Pau boss Sebastien Piqueronies has a choice at 10 – the returning Antoine Hastoy, or Zack Henry, who scored all his side’s points in their 16-12 loss at Castres last weekend.

In the UK and Ireland, Top 14 broadcasters Premier Sports TV are showing Perpignan v Biarritz, Bordeaux v Stade Francais and Racing 92 v La Rochelle on Saturday, as well as Toulouse v Toulon on Sunday.

Here, then, a look ahead to the weekend’s Top 14 matches.

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 11

Montpellier v Brive
(kick off 3pm France time) GGL Stadium

Last week at Toulon, Philippe Saint-Andre’s Montpellier showed plenty of the grit that lifted them out of the Top 14 relegation zone and won the Challenge Cup last season, as Zach Mercer scored the after-the-hooter try that gave them a hard-earned draw. 

Now, in front of their home fans for the first time this season, it’s  time to add some style to the steel. Brive – who this week announced that head coach Jeremy Davidson had extended his stay in the Correze – are never easy opponents, however, and will be buoyed by their own big opening day win at home to Perpignan. 

Perpignan v Biarritz
(kick off 3pm France time) Stade Aime Giral 

After very different opening day experiences, the Top 14’s newly promoted sides meet for the first time since their ProD2 days. The hosts had the better of their three meetings last season, winning at home and – crucially – in the final at Montpellier. 

It was, however, Biarritz who landed the first blow with an early season 21-12 win, a year and a week ago. Perpignan will want to bounce back after being well beaten at Brive last weekend, but face a Biarritz side brimming with confidence after knocking the complacent stuffing out of a lackadaisical Bordeaux in the curtain-raiser to the Top 14 campaign.

Clermont v Castres
(kick off 3pm France time) Stade Marcel Michelin

Clermont expect Japan international Kotaro Matsushima to be back in action for the visit of Castres on Saturday. 

The second match of the season is a bit early to brand a must-win, but there’s no denying Jono Gibbes’ Clermont were second best by some distance in more areas than just the scoreboard at Lyon last weekend, and fans will expect better. 

Home turf and healthy support from a packed Marcel Michelin should be enough to beat what’s sure to be a dogged Castres side, even if some or all of their summer tourists return to the matchday squad.

Pau v Lyon
(kick off 3pm France time) Stade du Hameau

Pau’s new head coach Sebastien Piqueronies will have been quietly pleased with the losing bonus point his side picked up at Castres last weekend – it was the least they deserved for a gutsy performance on the road. 

But that point will have raised a few expectations – and heaped on the pressure for the first home outing of the campaign. Opponents Lyon, fresh from an impressive three-tries-to-one opening-day win over Clermont, will take some beating, however. 

Bordeaux v Stade Francais
(kick off 5.15pm France time) Stade Chaban-Delmas

Two sides in need of an immediate improvement following sub-par performances in their opening matches meet at what is sure to be a packed Stade Chaban-Delmas. 

The hosts’ ‘strongman’ coach Christophe Urios will not accept a repeat of his side’s performance in their 27-15 loss at newly promoted Biarritz, in which they appeared to be a preseason match or so shy or Top 14 campaign ready.

That could be bad news for Gonzalo Quesada’s Stade, still feeling the hurt from their own opening day heartbreak, a 36-21 home derby loss to Racing 92.

Racing 92 v La Rochelle
(kick off 9.05pm France time) La Defense Arena

It’s fair to say Ronan O’Gara was far from impressed with referee Jonathan Durfort’s decision to red card Will Skelton in last week’s opening round home defeat to Toulouse at Marcel Deflandre.

He said the game was ‘too big’ for a non-international referee to handle – the referee this week is Tual Trainini, an engineer by day and non-international referee at weekends. 

This match will be no easier. Racing impressed last time out, as centre pairing Gael Fickou and Virimi Vakatawa made light of the high-expectations of their opposite numbers Ngani Laumape and Waisea Nayacalevu. Can’t help but admire the club’s social media operation, too…

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 12

Toulouse v Toulon
(kick off 9.05pm France time) Stade Ernest Wallon

A second Sunday night kick off in as many weeks for Toulouse, who finally shift to Saturday rugby next week when they head to Montpellier. Their referee-assisted 20-16 win at La Rochelle last week will have blown away a few cobwebs, but there’s no doubting Ugo Mola’s side – who opted for only four weeks of preseason – looked short on preparation. 

That they were still able to find a way to win should be a concern for every other side in French and European competition – and it’s most immediately a concern for Patrice Collazo’s Toulon, who at least will welcome back a few internationals to their squad this week – new recruits Jiuta Wainiqolo and Leone Nakarawa have been making an impression in training. Expect, too, to see France’s touring captain Anthony Jelonch make his bow for the hosts. 

The exhilating – frustrating – mediocre – brilliant first weekend of France’s Top 14

The Top 14 table after the opening round of matches. Image: LNR

Four home wins, two away victories and a draw, five yellow cards, one red, 22 tries – and two horses. The opening weekend of the 2021/22 Top 14 season in numbers fails to describe seven games that were, by turns, exhilarating, frustrating, mediocre, brilliant, fascinating, and enthralling.

Bordeaux boss Christophe Urios was, unsurprisingly, unimpressed with his side’s performance in defeat at newly promoted Biarritz – for whom ex-Quin Brett Herron contributed 17 points on his competitive debut.

The visitors looked a preseason outing shy of campaign-ready as they lost 27-15 at Parc des Sports Aguilera.

The result meant the Monday debrief at Bordeaux was always going to be a fly-on-the-waller – but it would have been much worse, had his players not found some late pride … or, possibly, terror … and scored two late tries.

The Basque side’s notice of intent was clear – and the 12 other Top 14 sides will have taken note – but head coach Matthew Clarkin will want his side to maintain concentration for the full 80. They won’t always be far enough ahead to ship 12 points in the closing minutes.

Perpignan, promoted as ProD2 champions at a canter, discovered life was a little more difficult back in the Top 14, losing 36-15 at Brive.

The hosts’ Enzo Herve scored 26 points – including the try, conversion, penalty, drop full-house – as the hosts finished the opening day at the head of the Top 14, having picked up the only try-scoring bonus of the round.

Be interesting to see if Perpignan will do better against Biarritz next weekend.

‘A hard-fought arm wrestle’ would be the polite way to describe Castres-Pau, which finished 16-12 in favour of the hosts. 

Missable would be more accurate. This was far from a thrilling affair and one more suited to a miserable January evening than a sun-soaked August afternoon, though both sides would take positives from it – not least fly-half Zack Henry, who scored all of Pau’s points on his competitive debut.

The losing bonus for Sebastien Piqueronies’ side was deserved – while opposite number Pierre-Henry Broncan will be pleased enough that Castres only conceded 10 penalties in the whole game. 

And there’s always the first Rory Kockott moment of the season to savour.

You’ll miss him when he retires at the end of the season.

There have been more bizarre pre-match events at Stade Francais than a bloke bringing in the match ball while standing on two horses – but you can find those yourself.

Fortunately, the game lived up to the equine hype. It was a breathless, error-strewn affair – finishing 21-36 to the visitors. 

Let’s be honest, backs with the talent of the ones wearing Racing’s shirts don’t need many second chances to make the most of their opponents’ mistakes. Watch out for Donovan Taofifenua’s try and Olivier Klemenczak’s touchdown in particular. They’re breathtaking.

Saturday opened with an Atlantic coast rivalry and ended with a Med one, as Toulon – missing no fewer than 20 senior players – entertained Montpellier at Stade Mayol in the fifth of seven matches at the weekend.

Anthony Belleau, on his return to competitive rugby after a knee injury kept him out for the bulk of last season, scored all 24 of Toulon’s points, as the hosts looked set to claim an opening-day victory. It would have been an important one, too, for a side that finished eighth last season and is hoping some big new recruits will bring the good times back to the Var.

But Toulon counted without former Bath backrow Zach Mercer. He’d been Mercer-standard decent throughout – but paid back at least some of his salary with a short-range after-the-hooter touchdown under the posts that gave young fly-half Louis Foursans the simplest of chances to level the scores with the last kick of the game. 

But there’s bad news for former France captain Guilhem Guirado – another to announce that this will be his last season as a player. He has suffered a shoulder injury that is expected to keep him out of action for four months. The final, Montpellier-phase of his career, which started with an serious injury in his opening game in 2019, is his most frustrating … and he was captain of France.

Former Munster out-half JJ Hanrahan’s competitive career at Clermont got off to a mixed start.

He needed treatment after being winded challenging for a high ball a matter of a few seconds after the match kicked off. Then he scored a try in the eighth minute of the game – but that was about as good as it got, as Lyon ran in three scores in reply to win 28-19, including this one

And this one

Then again, Clermont’s Morgan Parra, landed a 42nd consecutive kick at goal, taking him past former team-mate Brock James’ long-standing record

The opening weekend ended with a repeat of last season’s Top 14 and Champions Cup finals, as La Rochelle entertained Toulouse at a full and fervent Stade Marcel Deflandre.

It started at warp factor 10. It didn’t really let up from there – and turned, as the Champions Cup final did back in May, on a red card, this time for Will Skelton.

La Rochelle’s new head coach Ronan O’Gara was unimpressed with that decision from referee Jonathan Dufort – and, it would appear, a few others. He told reporters after the match that “the game was too big for the referee” and questioned why an internationally experienced ref wasn’t appointed for such a big game.

Even so, it took a spellbinding score from Romain Ntamack, nine minutes or so after Skelton’s departure, to finally swing the scoreboard in Toulouse’s favour.

What makes it even better – and what this clip doesn’t show – is Ntamack and centre Lucas Tauzin plotting away as the scrum that started it all was being set up. Either that, or they were deciding on where to stop for late-night scran on the way home…

The visitors ended up winning 16-20 – their 10th victory in 11 meetings over La Rochelle.

So that’s it. The first round of the 2021/22 Top 14 done and dusted. Here again, for what it’s worth, is the first league table of the new season. 

No wonder Brive president Simon Gillham has called for the title race to be halted…

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

Top 14 rugby is back: what you need to know about the opening weekend

This time there will be crowds. On Saturday, September 4, some 71 days after Toulouse lifted the Bouclier de Brennus to bring the curtain down on a Covid-hit 2020/21 season, the race for the title begins again.

The season kicks off with an opening weekend bang. It features an-all Nouvelle-Aquitaine opener as newly promoted Biarritz host Bordeaux. Then, Stade Francais meet Racing 92 in a capital derby; Toulon host Med rivals Montpellier, Lyon and Clermont face off in an Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region battle for bragging rights, while La Rochelle look for early revenge against their nemesis side of last season, Top 14 champions Toulouse.

Four of the weekend’s seven matches – Stade Francais v Racing 92, Toulon v Montpellier, Lyon v Clermont and La Rochelle v Toulouse – will be broadcast in the UK and Ireland on Premier Sports 1.

So, here’s what you should be watching for this weekend from each of the seven Top 14 encounters.

ALSO READ My Top 14 club-by-club season preview for Rugby World

SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 4

Biarritz v Bordeaux

(kick-off 2pm France time) Parc des Sports Aguilera

Newly promoted Biarritz, in what could be their last season in the far southwest, open their Top 14 account against Atlantic coast rivals Bordeaux, under what weather forecasters have promised will be cloudless skies and in comfortable temperatures.

The two sides met in Lille in preseason, with today’s visitors winning 28-7. But the Basque side did enough to suggest their return to the top flight for the first time since 2014 will last longer than a season. The northern city is potentially Biarritz’s future home if a long-running row between club and city council over the redevelopment of Aguilera cannot be resolved (and a recent interview with club president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé in Le Figaro suggests relations aren’t in good shape)

Brive v Perpignan

(kick-off 4.05pm France time ) Stade Amédée-Domenech 4.05pm

Brive were sweating on the fitness of inter-season arrival Andrés Zafra in the days leading up to their season opener against Perpignan – who won the ProD2 title at a canter last season and will be wanting to avoid a repeat of their straight-back-down-again 2018-19 campaign after winning promotion easily the season before.

Covetous eyes are already on Perpignan’s star fullback Melvyn Jaminet – who followed-up his debut season with a successful personal tour of Australia with France. He’s already had to quiet rumours of an early departure for Toulouse, by declaring his intention to continue with Perpignan … but it’s hard to see that first refusal deterring other interested parties.

Castres v Pau

(kick-off 4.05pm France time ) Stade Pierre Fabre

In news that will no doubt please rivals in France and Europe, not to mention referees, Castres’ scrum-half Rory Kockott this week formally announced that he will retire at the end of this season, after more than a decade at the Top 14 outfit.

The bad news is he’ll want to go out on a high. Castres, for all their recent struggles, are routinely underestimated by pundits. They’re not a fashionable side by any means – they’re difficult and gnarly and tough … and conditions, with rain around, could suit them well.

But they’ll face a stern opening-day test from opponents Pau, under new head coach Sebastien Piqueronies. The Bearn side did not win either of their pre-season outings, but we all know preseason form means little heading into the campaign proper.

Stade Francais v Racing 92

(kick off 6.15pm France time ) Stade Jean Bouin

A potentially stormy – in meteorological terms at least – early evening slot for the first ‘proper’ derby of the season, four hours and 15 minutes after the campaign kicks off.

The conditions may not be favourable to the style both sides like to play, which is a real shame, but there’s sure to be plenty of talent on show in what promises to be a highly charged battle for Parisian hearts and minds.

While there are few worries over their terrifyingly talented backs, Racing were caught out more than once by a lack of beef in their pack last season – but they believe they have rectified that by signing France international Baptiste Pesenti from Pau. The hope, too, is that Jordan Joseph is ready to fulfil his potential.

Toulon v Montpellier

(kick off 9.05pm France time) Stade Felix Mayol

Toulon made a decent start to last season but suffered a dismal second half; the less said about Montpellier’s early run the better – but they at least enjoyed a Challenge Cup-winning finish. Between them, the two sides enjoyed a strong campaign. Now, they both want to go it alone.

There’ll be some patching-up work for both coaches this week, with neither side able to field any French internationals who played in the Australia tour, or – obviously – those internationals currently on Rugby Championship duty, while Toulon are also missing Fiji stars Leone Nakawara and Juita Wainiqolo for administrative reasons.

Wainiqolo, at least, has found a way to get to France – via Sydney and Dublin – though, unsurprisingly, he’s listed as unavailable to play this week.

But Saturday is set fair in Toulon, after a stormy Friday, so the opening Saturday’s big match could be a thriller. If the notoriously patchy Mayol pitch holds up.

SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 5

Lyon v Clermont

(kick off 5.45pm France time) Stadium Gerland

A tough opener for both sides looking to get off to a strong start under a warm early evening sun and clear skies in southeast France.

Lyon won a close preseason outing between the two sides last weekend, but should expect a less messy performance from their opponents on Sunday evening. 

They’ll also be aware they owe their fans an improvement on last season, when they finished ninth. They’ve recruited smartly, bringing in Guillaume Marchand on loan from Toulouse, and Lima Sopoaga from Wasps, as well as France 7s star Tavite Veredamu.

Clermont’s recruitment has been more measured – JJ Hanrahan and Tomas Lavanini are their only two senior signings, if Lavanini could ever be called ‘measured’. But the squad looks a little more balanced this season, if – running against current Top 14 norms – a little … ahem … experienced.

La Rochelle v Toulouse

(kick off 9.05pm France time) Stade Marcel Deflandre

Unsurprisingly, this rerun of last season’s Champions Cup and Top 14 finals is a broadcasters’ wet-dream of a match to bring the curtain down on the opening weekend of the new season. 

More good news – after tricky weather conditions denied fans the Top 14 final they deserved from these sides, the weather is set fair along France’s Atlantic coast on Sunday night – perfect for some all-out attacking rugby. 

The biggest changes to La Rochelle’s ranks have been among the coaching staff, with new head coach making a number of changes, bringing in old Munster mucker Donnacha Ryan and ex-Springbok loosehead Gurthro Steenkamp to continue what he and former colleague Jono Gibbes started.

The big news round Toulouse, meanwhile, has centred on Cheslin Kolbe’s sudden departure to Toulon – but the bigger miss is likely to be AB Zondagh, who’s joining Gregor Townsend’s staff at Scotland. That’s said, you’d expect this Toulouse set-up to be able to deal with that easily enough – they certainly looked like they’d got over the Kolbe shock when they beat Toulon 52-10 in Nimes in a preseason friendly the day after the deal was announced.

Biarritz could face Covid-19 sanctions after winning promotion to the Top 14

Newly promoted Top 14 side Biarritz could be in trouble with local officials for breaches of French Covid-19 rules during a tension-fuelled promotion play-off against Basque Country neighbours Bayonne.

Biarritz won on penalties, after the two sides could not be separated in normal or extra time at the end of a hard-fought, blood-and-thunder winner-takes-all encounter at Parc des Sports Aguilera.

But the prefecture of Pyrénées Atlantiques was less-than impressed with Biarritz’s crowd control in the age of Covid-19. Under current French rules, the limit on crowds in open-air stadiums is set at 65% of capacity, up to a maximum of 5,000.

The Prefecture insisted in a press release that the 5,000 limit at the the 13,400-capacity stadium had ‘obviously been exceeded’, and said it was aware of other possible breaches of health rules.

“For the match between Biarritz Olympique and Aviron Bayonnais on 12 June 2021, the capacity of the Aguiléra Stadium, set at 5,000 people by decree no. 2021-699 of 1 June 2021 prescribing the general measures necessary for the management of the health crisis, was clearly exceeded. 

“In addition, the national police noted the sale of takeaway alcohol within the stadium. In addition, the club did not systematically carry out health pass checks at the stadium entrances,” the statement continued.

“Finally, at the end of the match, the pitch was invaded without any respect for health measures.”

Club president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé was photographed celebrating with fans immediately after the final whistle.

“During the preparatory meetings held by the sous-prefecture of Bayonne, Biarritz Olympique fully committed to respecting the 5,000-person limit and not to sell take-away alcohol.

“The prefect of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques firmly condemns this failure to comply with the rules laid down by decree no. 2021-699 of 1 June 2021, which aim to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“He recalls that it is the responsibility of event organisers, particularly sports organisers, to ensure that these rules are respected in order to avoid the spread of the virus. 

“Consequently, the prefect of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, in accordance with article 40 of the code of criminal procedure, has referred the matter to the public prosecutor of Bayonne and is studying administrative sanctions that could be taken.”

Biarritz coach Shaun Sowerby did try to diffuse the situation. “No, I counted, there were about 5,000 people … who made a lot more noise than 5,000,” he smilingly told regional newspaper Sud Ouest.

But an LNR official told RMC Sport there were between ‘8,000 and 9,000’ spectators at the ground. Supporters in the ground included an apparently maskless Teddy Thomas, whose career kicked off at Biarritz, a day after he helped Racing 92 book their semi-final place against La Rochelle.

Any sanction from the prefecture is unlikely to affect the result of the match, nor prevent Biarritz’s promotion and Bayonne’s relegation. A fine, and possibly a ground ban, are more likely. The LNR – which has imposed fines for breaches of health measures –  may also take an interest.

This is the second time in a week that crowds at rugby matches in France have sparked controversy. The police were reportedly called to Castres Olympique’s Stade Pierre Fabre during the post-curfew match against Toulon on the final round of the season because of fans in the ground.

According to La Depeche du Midi, officers were called by Toulon president Bernard Lemaitre – who also reportedly was involved in heated discussions with club coach Patrice Collazo. Mr Lemaitre denied the newspaper’s claim.

Top 14 rugby is back on TV in the UK and Ireland – here’s what you need to know about the season so far

The Top 14 returns to TV screens in the UK and Ireland for the first time since 2019 tonight, after pay-TV channel Premier Sports agreed a deal to broadcast four matches from rugby’s richest league from now to the end of the 2022/23 season.

From tonight (May 28), Premier Sports will show four Top 14 matches every weekend during the regular season, as well as a half-hour highlights show. Their campaign kicks off this evening with Stade Francais v Lyon (7.45pm). 

Tomorrow, the broadcaster will show three games – Toulon v Bordeaux (1.45pm), La Rochelle v Pau (4pm), and Toulouse v Clermont (8pm).

There are only two rounds of the Covid-hit 2020/21 campaign before the play-offs, but there’s still plenty to play for. It’s tough at the top and bottom, but in the middle it’s so tough you could cut diamonds with it. Here, then, is a look at the teams, in league order, and their hopes and nightmares for what’s left.

Toulouse (73pts)

Newly crowned European champions, Top 14 leaders and – heading into this penultimate weekend – the only side already mathematically guaranteed a play-off place. Toulouse stuttered in the league in the lead-up to London, but with the Champions Cup now behind them, dreams of a domestic and European double are on track. The first step – securing a pass straight to the semi-finals.

Matches remaining: Clermont (H), Bordeaux (A)

La Rochelle (72pts)

A week after coming up short in their first Champions Cup final, the Rochelais will want to set a few records straight by ensuring their place in the play-offs with a win against Pau. Marcel Deflandre is, generally, a ground where visiting teams go to die. There’s no reason to believe anything different will happen tomorrow – but that final-weekend trip to Clermont could be tense.

Matches remaining: Pau (H), Clermont (A)

Bordeaux Begles (72pts)

A 57-9 win over a near-embryonic post-Challenge Cup Montpellier side on Tuesday leaves Bordeaux on the brink of the play-offs for the first time in their history – but for Covid, they would have done it last year. Manager Christophe Urios has added the necessary steel to the Bordeaux style since joining from Castres, but they have an awfully tough run-in.

Matches remaining: Toulon (A), Toulouse (H)

Racing 92 (68pts)

Despite their undoubted riches, Racing had a Top 14 wobble earlier in March and April, losing five on the bounce in all competitions before returning to winning ways against Clermont earlier this month. They have a friendly end-of-season calendar – anything less than a maximum 10 points should be considered a disappointment as they chase an outside shot at a bye to the semi-finals, or at least home advantage in the barrages.

Matches remaining: Agen (A), Brive (H)

ASM Clermont (67pts)

After 10 years, the Franck Azema era at Clermont is nearing its end. The coach – long believed to be heading south to Montpellier – has, for now, nowhere to go. The club, meanwhile, should be confidently thinking about an attack on the post-season ahead of Jono Gibbes’ arrival from La Rochelle at the end of the season. Depending on results elsewhere, however, heading home from Toulouse with no points in the bag tomorrow night would leave them looking nervously over their shoulder heading into the final round of the season.

Matches remaining: Toulouse (A), La Rochelle (H)

Toulon (62pts)

Four teams are fighting for the sixth and final play-off place currently held, by the thinnest of margins, by Patrice Collazo’s side. This version of Toulon is very different from the Galacticos that laid waste to Europe for three glory-filled seasons. It’s more French. It’s younger. It can be more brazen. And it definitely does make more mistakes. But there’s no more room for error at this, the nervy end of the campaign. These next two games are a real test of his, and his side’s mettle.

Matches remaining: Bordeaux (H), Castres (A)

Stade Francais (62pts)

Tonight’s match between Stade Francais and Lyon at Stade Jean Bouin has all the hallmarks of a knockout game. Both sides head into the match with a shout of making the play-offs. One side will come out of it with their post-season hopes in tatters. Are you not entertained? Gonzalo Quesada has engineered some turnaround since taking over – belatedly – from Heyneke Meyer.

Matches remaining: Lyon (H), Bayonne (A)

Castres Olympique (60pts)

On December 27, 2020, the 2018 champions were languishing in 13th place, the Top 14’s relegation play-off spot. Ten wins in 14 games since the turn of the year leaves them with an outside chance of the top six. Former Bath coach Pierre-Henry Broncon has been the architect of the change in fortunes since taking over from Mauricio Reggiardo as head coach midway through the season. But defeat this weekend would stop their relegation-to-riches story in its tracks.

Matches remaining: Brive (A), Toulon (H)

Lyon (60pts)

With no Bastareaud, Taufua or Sobela to count on for tonight’s trip to Stade Francais, Lyon coach Pierre Mignoni has rolled the dice and named Josua Tuisova at eight. The winger-cum-centre has made special one-off attacking scrum appearances there to good effect – but has never started in the scrum. Injuries for this win-or-bust match have also forced a shuffle in the backs, with Toby Arnold on the wing and Charlie Ngatai at fullback.

Matches remaining: Stade Francais (A), Agen (H)

Montpellier (50pts)

A season of two halves for Montpellier, who – at one point – were in serious danger of the drop. A change in coach, from Xavier Garbajosa to Philippe Saint-Andre, sparked a change in fortunes, which eventually led to relative safety, which really should be confirmed on Saturday against Bayonne, and the Challenge Cup title … with its free pass to next season’s Champions Cup. It’s just about season done for Montpellier, with a win tomorrow more than enough to see them safe.

Matches remaining: Bayonne (H), Pau (A)

Brive (50pts)

Like Montpellier, proud, fighting Brive have just about wrapped-up this season – though their run-in, with matches against playoff-chasing Castres and Racing 92, is more difficult to navigate. It is perhaps ironic that, after kickstarting Castres’ turnaround in fortunes by beating them at Stade Pierre Fabre just before Christmas, they could be the side that ends their play-off hopes this weekend.

Matches remaining: Castres (H), Racing 92 (A)

Bayonne (44pts)

Yannick Bru’s side have got the best of a number of sides this season – but they’ve also slipped up in their fair share of matches. Looking at their run-in, it seems they will be relying on results from elsewhere to avoid dropping into 13th place and the Top 14 relegation play-off zone … but it also looks like they really should get the help they’re hoping for. Though it will most likely go right down to the wire.

Matches remaining: Montpellier (A), Stade Francais (H)

Pau (41pts)

It really doesn’t look good for Pau. The arrival of former France under-20s coach Sébastien Piqueronies at the beginning of May appears to have come too late to spare them from a Top 14 relegation play-off match against the losing side in the ProD2 final. To be fair, they were unlucky not to pick up anything last time out against Racing 92, missing out on even a bonus point at the end of an entertaining 29-35 game. But, looking at their remaining matches, it’s hard to see them overhauling Bayonne.

Matches remaining: La Rochelle (A), Montpellier (H)

Agen (2pts)

That is not a typo. Edmund Blackadder could have summed up Agen’s season when he said, “It started badly, dipped a bit in the middle … and the least said about the end, the better.” Long-relegated, with no wins and just two bonus points to their name – the most recent picked up in October – they are on track for the worst-ever campaign in the French top flight. Unless something hugely unlikely happens, they will break the 1,000 points conceded barrier against Racing 92 tomorrow.

Matches remaining: Racing 92 (H), Lyon (A)

Top 14 Preview: Clubs resist temptation to bring in internationals after France-Fiji cancellation

The cancellation of France’s Autumn Nations Cup opener against Fiji threatened to throw coaches’ plans in the air – but most resisted the opportunity to bring unexpectedly released players back into the club fold this late in the game.

Here’s a look ahead to the weekend’s Top 14 fixtures – minus Clermont v Lyon, which has been postponed because of positive coronavirus tests among the Lyon camp.

Castres v Bordeaux 
Friday, November 13, 8.45pm (France time)
Stade Pierre Fabre

These two sides last met at Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban Delmas on what turned out to be the final day of the 2019/20 season. It was a remarkable match. Bordeaux had raced to a 20-12 halftime lead, and – despite the visitors’ retiring captain Rodrigo Capo Ortega scoring one of the tries of the season in reply – the result appeared locked-in. After all, Christophe Urios’s side were unbeatable at the time. 

No one told Castres, though. They touched down twice in the second half, while Bordeaux could only manage two second-half penalties through Ben Botica. Those six points would be, thanks to a missed late conversion from Ben Urdapilleta, just enough, as Bordeaux held out for a 26-24 win.

Neither side has enjoyed the start to the season they were hoping for. But Bordeaux followed four defeats in a row on the road with two big wins at home, while Castres recovered from Covid-19 and a 63-3 hammering with a skeleton squad at La Rochelle to beat Racing 92 at home and then draw with Toulouse away. Coming into this game, both sides have some reason to be confident. It remains to be seen who quiet converts that confidence into points

Pau v Toulouse
Saturday, November 14, 3.15pm
Stade du Hameau

Gonzalo Quesada said, after the cancellation of the France-Fiji Autumn Nations Cup game, that he would give his returning internationals a break this weekend and not select them for Sunday’s game against La Rochelle. No such bets could be made for Ugo Mola, who’s facing a bonfire of injuries at Toulouse – and even may have breathed a massive sigh of relief on hearing that Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Thomas Ramos and Julien Marchand were haring down the autoroute from deepest Brittany. But he resisted the temptation to call up those players as Fabien Galthie quickly revised his squad selection for next weekend’s match against Scotland in Edinburgh.

It has been a rough period for both sides, after promising starts. Pau have lost their last three, while Toulouse have lost two and drawn one. Neither of them will want that streak to continue – but you’d have to favour Toulouse even if Mola has decided not to bring his internationals back into the fray.

Agen v Toulon
Saturday, November 14, 5.30pm
Stade Armandie

Agen played much better last weekend at home against Lyon, following a week of self-coaching and with a matchday squad picked by their president, days after he relieved his club’s senior coaching staff. They still lost – for the eighth time in as many games – but they at least picked up a bonus point.

But, already seven points behind 13th-placed Brive, there’s a reason Agen are hot favourites for relegation. To make matters worse, they are missing 10 players – including leading try-scorer Gabriel Ibitoye – for this weekend’s match against Toulon.

The visitors are missing a fair few players of their own, but should have far too much strength in depth to miss out on at least four points here. Agen were helped by a poor Lyon performance last weekend. Patrice Collazo will have watched and taken notes.

Bayonne v Montpellier
Saturday, November 14, 5.45pm
Stade Jean Dauger

Two sides, both alike in their number of league points, in fair Bayonne, where we lay our scene… I don’t know about ancient grudges breaking to new mutiny – but the similarities pretty much end there. Montpellier have played two matches fewer than their hosts, yet sit just above them in the table. 

Even so, it has not been plain sailing for Xavier Garbajosa’s side. Director of Rugby Philippe Saint-Andre has come down from on high to help out with the day-to-day in recent weeks, and Olivier Azam has joined the staff to bolster forwards training.

Bayonne’s wily coach Yannick Bru will have noticed the faultlines in the Montpellier set-up, which has been affected by coronavirus postponements, and will look to make the most of them. Only a brave person would bet against them…

Brive v Racing 92
Saturday, November 14, 6pm
Stade Amadee Domenech

Four defeats on the bounce – including two big losses at home – have seen Brive slip from sixth to 13th. It’s hardly the ideal time to welcome a Racing side that has dogged out two wins from three while their internationals have been away, and are expected to welcome back Simon Zebo to their ranks.

Henry Chavancy is a doubt, however, which may see the polyvalent Kurtley Beale get his first start at centre, while the return of hookers Chat and Baubigny will be a relief for head coach Laurent Travers, who was facing a severe shortage of players at hooker. He brought in Baubigny to sit on the bench with Le Guen starting in the middle of the front row. Prop Eddy Ben Arous played in that position for an hour last week, winning a spot on Midi Olympique’s team of the week in the process. Brive need to improve, or a fifth defeat is very probable.

Stade Francais v La Rochelle
Sunday, November 15, 9.05pm
Stade Jean Bouin

With Clermont v Lyon postponed because of a number of positive coronavirus tests in the Lyon camp, this match has been moved from its originally planned 7pm slot to Canal+’s primetime live sport position on Sunday night.

Stade head coach Gonzalo Quesada has pledged not to call up those players who have been released from international duty, meaning his side will be shorn of the services Julien Delbouis and Gael Fickou. But that doesn’t mean the Parisians, currently eighth in the table, will be a pushover – even for the league leaders who come into this match with a record of six wins from their seven games to date.

Top 14 Preview: Toulouse old guard set for much-needed return

SATURDAY’S scheduled Top 14 match between Montpellier and Stade Francais has been postponed ‘to a later date’ after a number of positive Covid-19 tests were reported among the hosts’ playing group.

We have to get used to frequent match postponements like this. We know it’s not the first. It won’t be the last. France is not the only European country experiencing a serious spike in coronavirus cases. France is not the only European country to put normal life on hold for a second time as it battles to bring the pandemic under something that looks a bit like control.

Professional sport is continuing – as much to offer, as it did in the days before coronavirus, a brief break from the day-to-day. It’s not easy. Players and coaches have to try to maintain a bubble. They are tested regularly. It can go wrong. Meanwhile, the financial cliff-edge French rugby finds itself staring at without crowds is a topic for discussion elsewhere.

In the meantime, here’s a look ahead to the six games on the weekend’s Top 14 programme.

Toulon v Brive
Stade Felix Mayol
Friday, November 6, 9pm

A radically different Toulon – missing 14 players to international call-ups and injury, captained by 21-year-old Louis Carbonel, and with international Fiji 7s winger Ro Dakuwaqa packing down at 7 – welcome Brive to Stade Mayol for a match that will be broadcast in France free-to-air.
Toulon are looking for their third Top 14 win in a row, but had an unexpected break last weekend after their match against Bayonne was postponed that may have derailed their momentum.
This is a difficult bloc of matches for their opponents – who have brought new signing Daniel Brennan straight into the squad after he joined from Montpellier earlier this week. They come into Friday’s match on the back of consecutive losses against Toulouse (home), Montpellier (away) and Clermont (home). Stade Mayol is not the best place to end losing streaks and rediscover confidence, especially for a side that is struggling to score points away from home. To make matters worse, they face Racing next weekend.

Toulouse v Castres
Stade Ernest Wallon
Saturday, November 7, 3.15pm

Toulouse have suffered in the early part of this extended international window. Having supplied a sizeable chunk of the France squad, they lost at home to Lyon a fortnight ago, and were well beaten by Stade Francais in the Classico in Paris last week.
They are still without newly elected Player of the Six Nations Antoine Dupont, halfback partner in crime Romain Ntamack, fullback Thomas Ramos, hooker and club captain Julien Marchand, prop Dorian Aldegheri, and backrow Francois Cros – who broke a bone in his foot in France’s victory over Ireland.
But they are expected to welcome back from injury Jerome Kaino, Rynhardt Elstadt, Alexi Bales, Pita Ahki, Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard. Huget is reported to be heading to Bayonne next season – while there has been speculation that Medard, too, could be close to a surprising exit from Ernest Wallon at the end of this campaign.
As such, it is likely a much more experienced Toulouse side will step out to face derby rivals Castres. There was a brief period in 2018, when the visitors had the wood over their opponents – with two victories, including their first in 39 years at Ernest Wallon in their title-winning season. Since then normal service has resumed – and should continue on Saturday afternoon.

Bordeaux v Bayonne
Stade Chaban Delmas
Saturday, November 7, 6.15pm

After four matches on the road, Bordeaux marked their return to Chaban Delmas last weekend with a 10-try, 71-5, demolition of Agen. They are enjoying the comforts of home for a second weekend in a row, and the smart money should probably be on another Bordeaux win.
They’ve lost key players to international call-ups this week, notably in the engine room of the second row, where the squad is now down to the bare bones. You’d expect them to cope, though. And they’re also missing hooker Clément Maynadier, who’s injured, meaning Joseph Dweba could be set for his first start.
And yet… Bayonne, despite being down in 10th and after a week’s enforced break because of positive coronavirus tests in their group, have won two out of three on the road. They will be without John Ulugia, who has returned briefly to Australia for family reasons. How quickly they can get back in the straps after their week off remains to be seen. Chaban Delmas, like Mayol, is probably not the ground to try it…

Racing 92 v Pau
La Defense Arena
Saturday, November 7, 6.15pm

No Chat, Le Roux, Baubigny, Vakatawa – on international duty with France. No Zebo, Gomes-Sa, Thomas, Iribaren, Begic – injured. It’s a good job Racing are well stocked. They still have Beale, Dupichot, Klemenckzak, Machenaud, Gibert, Trinh-Duc, Lauret, Ryan, and Bird.
The Champions Cup finalists lost on the road to a determined Castres last weekend – but it would be difficult to see them missing out on points at home, even with a side shorn of some serious talent.
Despite the absentees, you’d expect Racing to be far too strong at home for a Pau side reeling from two losses on the bounce – including their first at home, last weekend, to La Rochelle, when they recovered from 32-3 at halftime to lose 35-24.

Agen v Lyon
Stade Armandie
Sunday, November 8, 7pm

Agen legend Philippe Sella told Midi Olympique this week that the bottom-of-the-table side ‘must believe [they will] stay up’. History is against them, however.
No side that has lost six games has managed that. Only one – Castres in 2014/15 – has survived after losing five. Agen are nought-for-seven right now, without a coach, and with – reportedly – three players told they will never play for the club again.
They face a Lyon side that hasn’t been beaten since the second weekend of the 2020/21 season, with three wins and a draw to their name – and two postponements. Given the situation in Agen, where the players have been self-training, it’s hard to see anything other than a Lyon win.

La Rochelle v Clermont
Stade Marcel Deflandre
Sunday, November 8, 9pm

Undeniably the match of the weekend – second-placed La Rochelle against leaders Clermont. A shame it will be in an empty stadium. Arguably more of a shame that broadcaster Canal Plus is planning to pipe in fake crowd noise – complete with the occasional ‘Ici! Ici! C’est La Rochelle!‘.
But that’s by-the-by. Two sides, each undefeated since September 11, and each looking their fifth win on the bounce, meet at Stade Marcel Deflandre for the first time since October 2018, a match the hosts won 16-12. Back then, the stands were packed – as they always were for La Rochelle home games. This time, because of coronavirus, they will be empty. Will that make a difference?
La Rochelle’s Uini Atonio should have recovered from the leg injury that kept him out of last week’s win at Pau, but Ezeala, Moala and Parra are still missing for Clermont, while Raka could return next week after seeing out his four-week ban for a dangerous tackle.

Top 14 Preview: A French rugby Classico weekend with a pandemic difference

James Harrington looks ahead to the weekend’s matches, as French Top 14 rugby prepares to enter the unwanted new world of games in empty stadiums

IT IS a shortened Top 14 fixture list this week, after two of the weekend’s matches were postponed because of coronavirus – leaving schedulers with yet more headaches even after they found ‘space’ in the packed rugby fixture list later this month to reschedule four games held over from earlier in the season.

Bayonne-Toulon and Lyon-Montpellier were called off after positive tests were recorded in the hosts’ camps in the week that France headed into modified confinement because of coronavirus.

There was some good news for Toulon, however – the long wait for Ma’a Nonu to arrive on a short-term medical joker contract is over. He arrived at the end of the week, passed a medical and has toured the club’s new training campus at Berg, but – according to Var Matin – now faces seven days’ isolation before he can join up with his teammates.

As we head into what is – officially – the seventh round of the French domestic rugby campaign, with all matches now taking place behind closed doors, here’s a preview of the five games still standing:

Brive v Clermont

Saturday, October 31, 3.15pm (France time)
Stade Amédée-Domenech

The postponement of Bayonne-Toulon, which had been scheduled for Friday night, means the first match of the Top 14 weekend – and, under France’s tightened coronavirus confinement measures, the first to be played behind closed doors – is the 101st Massif Central derby.

It’s a crucial one for 11th-placed Brive. Two defeats in their last two outings – a big loss at home to Toulouse and a typically dogged Briviste performance in defeat at Montpellier last week has seen them slip from sixth to 11th in two weekends. 

They face a Clermont side that has benefited from four home matches in its first five outings. Franck Azema’s men are unbeaten at home, but lost to Bayonne on their only away day so far in this pandemic-hit season. France 7s loanee Jean-Pascal Barraque should start his fourth game in a row at centre. He’s due to return to the 7s set-up in January, but has said that he would be keen to extend his stay at Clermont a while longer.

Make no mistake, Brive will be up for this. It’ll be close, but – even in front of no fans – they will not want to lose this particular game. 

In other news for Clermont, winger Alivereti Raka has had his suspension for a high tackle on Agen’s Paul Abadie reduced from five to four weeks on appeal. He will be available for selection in time for the match against Lyon on November 15.

Bordeaux v Agen

Saturday, October 31, 6.15pm
Stade Chaban Delmas

If Clermont have enjoyed – relative – home comforts in four of their five games to date, Bordeaux have been on the road since September 12 … and have lost three of their four Top 14 outings to sit 12th in the table. They have not won a game of any sort since beating Edinburgh in the Challenge Cup on September 19.

While they will not be able to welcome fans to the ground, the familiar surroundings of Chaban Delmas will be a welcome sight for Christophe Urios’s men.

The opponents, too. After travelling to Lyon, La Rochelle and high-flying Pau, Bordeaux have a couple of home games to revive their season. Next week, they face Bayonne. But this week, it’s troubled Agen – who have picked up only one point all season – and that was on the opening weekend in a close home defeat to Castres.

Missing Matthieu Jalibert, somewhat bizarrely called up to the France squad as cover for Teddy Thomas after recovering from illness, will be something of a blow, but the hosts should be confident of victory – even if the on-his-way-out Ben Botica had something of an off-day at La Rochelle last weekend. A try-scoring bonus is very much on the cards, too.

Castres Olympique v Racing 92

Saturday, October 31, 6.15pm
Stade Pierre Fabre

Only the second home match this season for coronavirus-hit Castres Olympique. They lost their first, against Stade Francais, and head into this match 13th in the table, ahead only of winless Agen, and with just one victory in four games.

Their losing streak includes a 62-3 mauling at La Rochelle, when they could only field 22 players, with prop Mike Tierney covering both sides of the front row, at the end of a week of training in which they could not pull together enough players for a training game. 

There were signs of an improvement last weekend as they frustrated Toulon at Stade Mayol – and they will be keen to set the record straight against Racing after their 27-0 hiding in the same fixture last season. 

Racing are expected to field close to the same internationals-shorn side that beat Stade in Paris with the final kick of the game last weekend, when young out-half Antoine Gibert took responsibility for the after-the-bell penalty and made no mistake. Jordan Joseph had another  strong game and is predicted to start again. It appears he’s finally made the leap from prodigious teenage promise to fully fledged Top 14 barnstormer.

This one has all the hallmarks of a close one. Too close to call, here. Sorry.

Pau v La Rochelle

Sunday, November 1, 5pm
Stade du Hameau

Sixth entertains third in the first of Sunday’s two Top 14 games, as one of the form sides of the competition – La Rochelle, unbeaten since September 12 – head to one of the early-season pleasant surprises, who are unbeaten on home soil.

Something, clearly, has to give. 

The hosts will be without Watisoni Votu, who has been suspended for six weeks for a dangerous tackle, but are otherwise pretty close to full strength as they look for an immediate bounce back after last weekend’s thoroughly entertaining 50-29 loss at Clermont.

La Rochelle have concerns over Uini Atonio, who picked up a thigh injury in last week’s win over Bordeaux, but the impressive backrow of Liebenberg, Gourdon and Bordeau is likely to be back together.

Importantly, both sides are playing with a collective spirit that was noticeable by its absence last season. This one should be a hoot, and Pau should, just about, do enough to win. As the hosts’ coach Nicolas Gordignon told reporters on Friday: “We hope to thrill the audience in front of their TV or radio.”

Stade Francais v Toulouse

Sunday, November 1, 9.05pm
Stade Jean Bouin

Toulouse coach Ugo Mola probably best described both sides’ approach to Sunday’s ‘Classico’ at a press conference on Friday: “We want to put on a good performance in Paris. It will be a game with a lot at stake for both teams.”

With Antoine Dupont away on France duty and questions over the fitness of Alexi Bales, who suffered a concussion early in the second half of last weekend’s loss against Lyon, it’s not impossible that Toulouse could field two 19-year-old scrum-halves.

France under-20 Théo Idjellidaine impressed with his speed and awareness, scoring Toulouse’s only try when he came on as a replacement for Bales last weekend. Bench cover would likely come from the equally promising Baptiste Germain, who joined the frankly frightening Toulouse academy from Bordeaux in the summer.

It’s easy to point at the number and quality of absent players and claim this is why Toulouse lost at home for the first time in two years against Lyon last weekend. But it’s an easy out that fails to take into account the Toulouse Way of integrating academy and senior squad training in case of situations like this. Frankly, it’s an insult to the players, who know what’s expected of them and are drilled to do it. 

Toulouse have played worse than they did against Lyon and won.

The Parisians, meanwhile, could have done better than they did against Racing last weekend, when they conceded defeat in a game they really should have won.

Stade coach Gonzalo Quesada is in the position opposition counterpart Ugo Mola was a few seasons ago: in possession of a squad rammed with talent and potential that needs to be transformed into a team. Mola managed it. Quesada, no doubt, will do the same. 

But Mola’s right – there’s a lot at stake here, as both sides come into the weekend on the back of home defeats. Expect the side that smells strongest of team spirit to head south with the points after a tense encounter.

This article is part of a brief run of French rugby news, previews and reviews in English. I also do interviews, features and opinion pieces – please check out my portfolio. If you are interested in commissioning pieces from me, please email me.