Top 14 Preview: Stade to edge Racing 92 and La Rochelle to beat Bordeaux in weekend’s big French derbies

AWAY from the bright lights of the first weekend of the end-of-year rugby internationals, France’s Top 14 features a full programme of games for the first time in several coronavirus-and-European rugby-hit weeks. Here, James Harrington previews all seven games

Friday, October 23

Toulon v Castres
Stade Felix Mayol, 8.45pm (France time)
It’s 12 years since Castres last won at Stade Mayol – and it’s likely that winless run is going to stretch another year, as the visitors hobble back from a Covid-19 outbreak that saw them forfeit a Challenge Cup quarter-final, then miss two weeks of the Top 14 season.
Coach Mauricio Reggiardo has kept faith with his backline from the coronavirus-shredded side that lost 62-3 at La Rochelle last weekend. But there are changes in the pack, with Matt Tierney – who covered both sides of the front row last week – on the bench. Julius Nostadt gets his first start of the season, as does ex-Toulon lock Florent Vanverberghe. Another former Mayol favourite Stéphane Onambele is set to make his Castres’ debut off the bench, along with Uruguayan scrum-half Santiago Arata.
So, Castres have a stronger squad – a full squad, but Toulon, for all that they have lost eight players to international duty and have another seven in the infirmary, have fielded a side long on power and potential – and with an appetite to set the record straight after their Challenge Cup loss to Bristol last weekend.

Saturday, October 24

Toulouse v Lyon
Stade Ernest Wallon, 3.35pm
On paper, this is probably the Top 14 match of the weekend, though it’s pushed all the way by La Rochelle v Bordeaux on Sunday night.
The hosts have lost just once this season – that crazy opener at Clermont, where they were down to 13 players but still came close to pulling off a miracle win. The visitors look to be warming up what could be a hot streak after winning just one of their first four.
South Africa’s decision not to take part in the Rugby Championship this year means Top 14 leaders Toulouse keep hold of Cheslin Kolbe – good news for fans as they are supplying a fair percentage of the French national side – probably not such good news for Lyon.
The visitors have supplied three forwards to the French side, and just about have enough fit locks and backrows with what’s left to make a working pack. But they were still too much for Bayonne last time out, and gave Toulouse a real scare the last time they were at Ernest Wallon. Don’t see that happening again, though.

Agen v Bayonne
Stade Armandie, 6.15pm
There were signs in the defeat at Montpellier last weekend, that Agen – the only Top 14 side without a win to their name this season – were still able to mix it with the best French rugby has to offer.
But there’s no doubt this is a must-win game against a side that has really targeted a result this week. Bayonne were routed at Lyon last time out – Pierre Mignoni’s men ran in 10 tries in a 62-10 win – but they were resting some key players who are expected to return this week.
The alarms aren’t ringing just yet. But defeat this week – with a trip to Bordeaux and home matches against Lyon and Toulon in the current bloc of games – would be the beginning of a disaster.
Last year, Bayonne won a thoroughly entertaining encounter at Armandie 29-27. Expect a similarly close result this time around – for which side? You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Stade Francais v Racing 92
Stade Jean Bouin, 6.15pm
Nine internationals are absent from the Racing roster for owner Jacky Lorenzetti’s ‘favourite match’ of the Top 14 calendar, which – a week after losing a third Champions Cup final in four years – comes at an important restart time.
Racing will be keen to kick-off the post-European era with a morale-boosting win over their nearest, greatest, and oldest rivals – a team also in the midst of ‘interesting times’. Like Racing, Stade have several players away on international duty, while Argentinian fly-half Nicolas Sanchez has been far from impressive in the club’s coronavirus-shortened season to date.
Gonzalo Quesada’s side will want a win on their return to home plastic after their slip-up against Bayonne last time they were at home. This will be close, but a Stade win looks the most likely. Just.

Clermont v Pau
Stade Marcel Michelin, 6.15pm
Clermont are making the most of home comforts so far this season. They’re currently three for three at Marcel Michelin this season – and are back in familiar surroundings for the third game in a row.
The 41-27 scoreline against Stade Francais last time out was possibly somewhat flattering as they again failed to pick up a try-scoring bonus point.
But their pragmatism will go a long way to countering the genuine threat Pau – with three wins and a draw to their name in five outings – are currently posing all their opponents. Nicolas Godignon’s side, who have never finished higher than eighth in the Top 14, are currently third, and pulled a win from the jaws of defeat at home against Bordeaux last week.
Even so, that pragmatic approach has worked for Clermont so far. Home win. With a try-scoring bonus point? Probably not.

Sunday, October 25

Montpellier v Brive
GGL Stadium, 5pm
Never mind the quality, feel the discipline. In their first three outings, Montpellier averaged more than 17 penalties and two yellow cards a game.
Things were so grim that the club called on referee Alexandre Ruiz to spend a day with the players, showing them what Top 14 officials would be likely to penalise.
It worked. Against Agen last week, they gave up just nine penalties and one yellow card – for Yacouba Camara, who earned himself a one-match suspension for his considerable efforts picking up three yellows in four games.
More importantly, after three defeats, Montpellier belatedly joined the Top 14 title race with their first win of the season.
Brive, on the other hand, head into Sunday’s teatime match on the back of a down-to-earth loss at home to Toulouse. With a somewhat stitched together pack, it’s likely they will struggle to contain Montpellier’s forward power. Mark up a second win for the hosts – and make it a big one.

La Rochelle v Bordeaux
Stade Marcel Deflandre, 9.05pm
A fourth game in a row on the road for Christophe Urios’s Bordeaux – an exile from Chaban Delmas forced by Covid-19 postponements, and a match the strongman coach has described as going ‘into hell’.
The pre-match headlines will no doubt focus on the expected return to club action of fly-half Matthieu Jalibert and backrow Cameron Woki, who both pulled out of Fabien Galthie’s first autumn squad due to illness.
There’s no denying he was happier last week after the 29-24 loss at Pau, than he was when Bordeaux lost 27-10 at Lyon – but that really wasn’t hard. And a third Top 14 defeat on the spin looks the most likely against a La Rochelle side that put 62 on the board against Castres last week, and scored 36 at Bayonne the week before.
It’s early days, and it’s taken two seasons to get here, but that Top 14-Super Rugby hybrid style that Jono Gibbes and Ronan O Gara are trying to develop at La Rochelle looks like it’s finally starting to stick.

This article is part of a brief run of French rugby news, previews and reviews pieces in English. If you are interested in commissioning pieces from me, please email me.

Oh look, here’s another one: France coach Galthie opts for familiar formula as international rugby returns

France coach Galthie opts for familiar formula as international rugby returns


FRANCE coach Fabien Galthie opted for more of the same in his first team selection in eight months for Saturday’s autumn international series curtain-raiser against Wales.

Officially, the match is a friendly, as Les Bleus prepare for their coronavirus-delayed Six Nations’ showdown with Ireland at Stade de France next weekend.

But there’s nothing friendly about the two coaches’ selections, as Galthie’s opposite number, Wayne Pivac, named an equally strong squad for the closed-door encounter in Saint-Denis. As Galthie said at the press conference to unveil his team: “It’s a Test match. There are no friendly matches.”

Despite a limit of three matches per player during France’s extended six-game autumn bloc, Galthie has resisted the urge to go make wholesale changes.

Cyril Baille, Vincent Rattez and Teddy Thomas in for Jefferson Poirot, who has retired from internationals, the injured Damian Penaud, and Arthur Vincent, who drops to the bench are the only personnel differences from the side that started in March’s defeat against Scotland.

Wales fans will note, maybe with a touch of dread, the side is very similar to the one that won at the Principality in February, with Rattez for Vincent the sole change. And it is the same starting XV that beat England in the tournament’s opening round.

In comparison, there were 11 changes in Galthie’s first Six Nations’ selection compared to France’s previous Tournament iteration under Jacques Brunel against Italy in 2019.

The biggest – indeed, only – surprise was the inclusion of Racing 92 winger Teddy Thomas in the starting XV. He has not been in the best of form for his club this season, and was left out of the squad for the Champions Cup final against Exeter.

But Galthie – whose attack coach, Laurent Labit, knows Thomas as well as anyone, having coached him at Racing – defended the decision to pick him when he spoke to reporters at Marcoussis on Thursday: Teddy … started the [Six Nations] tournament with us, he started against England.

“He was left out of the Champions Cup final with Racing, that’s true, but these are the risks – it’s difficult to be a high-level player [all the time]. He had a very good week with us. When we select someone it’s because of their strengths. He has convinced us this week in training, he’s ready.”

Continuity was a regular watchword in Galthie’s repertoire throughout: “We like continuity, we set out a vision after meeting 90 players. We took the time to share the game-and-life project.

“This team that will start [on Saturday] is the same as the one that started against England, even if there are some changes on the bench. There is a need for consistency.

“When we travelled to Wales, which had more than 700 caps, the local newspapers were talking about children against men … The team must grow, that’s our ambition.

“To have a successful national team, you need continuity. We capped 29 players during the [Six Nations]; 56 players [trained] with us. Moreover we’ve targeted 10 players who are on the way up and seem ready to join the selection.

“The French players must receive the selection as something important and we have to prepare them as well as possible because the international level is important.”

Galthie has made no secret of his plan for continuous development of the France side up to the World Cup in 2023. From the outset, he has discussed his plans as France coach not in years remaining but in terms of matches to be played. Prior to the FFR-LNR agreement on player availability, he was openly hostile to plans by Top 14 clubs to limit the number of internationals their employees could play.

This is the eighth full week of preparations for the 2023 tournament, and the fifth match. By the end of the year, France will be 10 matches into what could easily become known as the Fabien Galthie project – and just about back on track after the tumult of the lockdown months.

And he has been determined to keep faith with his players as much as possible. He used just 29 in the first four matches of the Six Nations, and reports in France suggest that he intends to stick with the same formula for the first three matches of the autumn series – the friendly against Wales, the Six Nations’ match against Italy and the Autumn Nations Cup game against Fiji.

If that theory proves correct, he will then have to pull up a completely new squad for France’s final three games. It’s likely, then, that Matthieu Jalibert and Louis Carbonel – who are both in club action this weekend – will get a short run at 10, for example, with Thomas Ramos and Anthony Bouthier providing cover there for Romain Ntamack in the first three weeks of the end-of-year international period.

Read more: Weekend Top 14 outing likely for two Bordeaux France stars after Wales training camp withdrawals

As well as Fiji, France will face Italy and Scotland in next month’s Autumn Nations Cup. On Thursday, it was announced that the match against Fiji will take place in Vannes, rather than the originally scheduled Saint-Etienne, which has one of the highest rates of coronavirus infection in France.

Under current health regulations in France, the ProD2 side’s ground, Stade de la Rabine, will be able to welcome 5,000 fans.

Weekend Top 14 outing likely for two Bordeaux France stars after Wales training camp withdrawals

France in training for the friendly international against Wales on Saturday, October 24

BORDEAUX duo Matthieu Jalibert and Cameron Woki could line up for Bordeaux in the Top 14 on Sunday despite withdrawing from France coach Fabien Galthie’s squad for the international against Wales, which kicks off 24 hours earlier.

The pair pulled out of Galthie’s 31-player squad for ‘medical reasons’ a few days after it was announced and at the height of a row between the French rugby union and the clubs that went all the way to France’s highest administrative court.

But it now seems they could play at least some part in the match against Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle at Stade Marcel Deflandre on Sunday evening after they returned to training this week.

Shortly before the pair pulled out of the reckoning for Les Bleus’ first international since February, Bordeaux confirmed three cases of coronavirus, prompting the Top 14 match against Clermont to be postponed to an unspecified later date. French rugby media wasted little time speculating that that they had contracted the illness.

Neither club or country have officially said Jalibert and Woki were affected, but coach Christophe Urios told reporters at a press conference this week that the pair had been ‘in quarantine’.

The situation is simple. They were called-up, they were sick, they were placed in quarantine. They resumed [training] a week ago, so they are available for the game.”
– Christophe Urios

According to the Sud Ouest newspaper, the strongman coach contacted Galthie to confirm he could select the players for the weekend’s derby.

I called the France staff to ask if I could [select] them [for the game].
They told me, ‘There is no problem‘.”
– Christophe Urios

It should be no surprise that Galthie gave the green light for Jalibert and Woki to play at La Rochelle this weekend. A hard-fought agreement between France’s rugby union and the Ligue National de Rugby, which operates the professional leagues in France, has limited players to a maximum of three selections during the 2020 end-of-year internationals – which means he faces a few selection headaches in the coming weeks.

The international coach quickly brought in 24-year-old Toulon winger Gabien Villière, and Pau’s backrow-cum-lock Baptiste Pesenti, 23, as replacements, leaving France short of official options at fly-half for Saturday’s friendly against Wales.

It’s almost certain that Romain Ntamack will start at 10. But it is also telling that Toulouse’s Thomas Ramos and Montpellier’s Anthony Bouthier – polyvalent players both – have had recent Top 14 outings in that position.

France backs coach Laurent Labit, for one, reportedly sees Ramos as a 10 in hiding. That – or the future call-up of Toulon’s Louis Carbonel – would allow Ntamack to shift back to the inside centre slot he habitually inhabited before his impressive early fly-half shifts for France.

That, in turn, presents further selection headaches of the kind coaches routinely tell the press they are happy to have…

Meanwhile, the presence of one player at Marcoussis for this week’s training camp prompted a brief flurry of consternation.

Injury-hit loosehead Lucas Pointud has not played for Pau since January, and was still officially listed as ‘on sick leave’ on the Top 14 club’s website when he appeared in an image from France’s training camp at Marcoussis posted on France Rugby’s Instagram feed.

He was also in a photograph on Antoine Dupont’s Twitter feed.

The images prompted a flurry of discussion among French rugby media – until L’Equipe contacted Pau who confirmed the 32-year-old had returned to training in the beginning of October. France coaches had requested his presence at Marcoussis as a ‘training partner’, the club said.

Galthie, limited to 31 official selections this autumn, rather than the 42 he was permitted earlier this year as part of a previous agreement between the FFR and LNR, has raided the France 7s and u20 squads to bulk up his training camps. Pointud’s presence is part of that thinking.