Preview: Top 14, Round Twenty

Date published: February 19 2010

After a three-week break the Top 14 gets back into full swing this weekend as Toulouse host Toulon and Castres travel to Racing Metro.

After a three-week break the Top 14 gets back into full swing this weekend as Toulouse host Toulon and Castres travel to Racing Metro.

Who will hit the ground running after the holidays? How much will the absence of the 27 members of the French and English national teams affect the results?

With a gap opening between sixth-placed Toulon and their nearest challengers (Brive) the candidates for the play-offs are becoming clearer with seven rounds to play.

The big story is the absence of giants Biarritz and Stade Français from that list or six. The Parisians still have a chance of sneaking through the back door and will be counting on a win in Bourgoin on Saturday.

The Biarritz cause however seems to be much more of a long shot and a win for the Basques over Brive on Friday will probably ruin the Correziens' chances too.

The other Basque club is in even bigger trouble. Bayonne are slipping ever closer to relegation and a trip to Montpellier – who have been near-unstoppable at home this season – looks like a tough assignment.

Of course the Top 14 always dishes up the unexpected, so don't bet your house either way. If you're looking for a safe bet though, you can be sure Clermont will run rings around ProD2-bound Albi on Saturday.

Of course the weekend's main attraction will be Toulon's trip to Toulouse where the hosts will be seeking revenge for their defeat at the Velodrome in September.

Racing Metro will be hoping to take a step closer to the play-offs at home to co-leaders Castres in the weekend's other big fixture.

Top-of-the-table Perpignan travel to the ever-intimidating Sapiac in Montauban.

The official transfer window opened on Monday meaning that clubs and players are free to start signing 'pre-contracts.' Fijian international Seremaia Bai has been the first to jump ship, inking a transfer deal from Clermont to Castres.

Friday: February 19

Biarritz v Brive

Saturday: February 20

Racing Metro v Castres
Clermont v Albi
Montpellier v Bayonne
Bourgoin v Stade Français
Montauban v Perpignan
Toulouse v Toulon

1 Perpignan 60
2 Castres 60
3 Clermont 56
4 Toulouse 55
5 Racing-Métro 52
6 Toulon 51
7 Brive 46
8 Stade Français 45
9 Biarritz 42
10 Montpellier 37
11 Montauban 33
12 Bourgoin 31
13 Bayonne 29
14 Albi 20

Friday: February 19
Biarritz Olympique v CA Brive-Corrèze
Parc des Sports d'Aguilera, Biarritz

It's looking more and more likely that Biarritz will have to pin their hopes of qualifying for next season's Heineken Cup by winning the current edition. The Basques' nine-point deficit on Toulon looks too big considering their domestic form.

Brive however are still in with a shout, especially if Toulouse can do them a favour by beating Toulon. The Correziens have made a remarkable comeback after a poor start to the season. They've lost just twice in nine starts in the Top 14 since the end of October. The five-point gap to sixth place is more than closeable and they'll be looking up.

While visitors will be missing Steve Thompson, Riki Flutey and Alexis Palisson through Six Nations call ups, BO will be without arguably their four best players, Dimitri Yachvili, Fabien Barcella, Damien Traille (all injured) and Imanol Harinordoquy. Promising full-back Paul Couet-Lannes, Magnus Lund and League convert Karmichael Hunt are also crocked.

Previous result: Biarritz won 15-12
Prediction:Brive are looking good, but home ground advantage in France should never be ignoredBiarritz by a point or two.
Kick-off: 20:45 (19.45 GMT)
Referee: Cyril Lafon

Racing-Métro 92 v Castres Olympique
Stade Yves Du Manoir – Colombes (Paris)

It's one of the big games of the weekend. Castres and Racing have provided the biggest surprises of the season. Neither the league co-leaders nor the ProD2 champions have played electrifying rugby, but you can't argue with the results gathered by their pragmatic styles.

Castres spent a week in Corsica with the intention of revitalising their squad ahead of the final sprint for the play-offs and look like genuine contenders for automatic semi-final qualification. With a full-strength squad, they'll be aiming to regain sole leadership of the league.

Sébastien Chabal has returned to training after being forced to withdraw from France's Six Nations squad with a back injury, but is unlikely to start for Pierre Berbizier's team, who know they can beat anyone after their victory over Clermont last month.

Previous result: Castres won 9-6
Prediction:Paris' other club have been impressive at home this year, so we'll back Racing to win by four.
Kick-off: 14:15 (13.15 GMT)
Referee: Romain Poite

Clermont Auvergne v SCA Albi
Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin, Clermont-Ferrand

This could end up looking like a cricket score. Clermont have broken the 30-point barrier eights time this season already. At home against a club bound for relegation, no one will be surprised if they score 50 or more.

Clermont centre Marius Joubert will attempt another comeback after two hamstring operations. Julien Bonnaire and Julien Pierre have been kept with the national side and despite them hardly playing in the Six Nations so far, Clermont's request to give them game time was denied.

Previous result: Clermont won 40-8
Prediction:The hosts might be missing five internationals, but this should be a breeze.Clermont to win with a bonus point,
Kick-off: 14.30 (13.30 GMT)
Referee:Sébastien Minery

Montpellier HRC v Aviron Bayonnais
Stade Yves Du Manoir, Montpellier

Bayonne have yet to win on the road this season so a trip Montpellier, who have one of the best home records in the league, makes for a stiff challenge. But if Bayonne are to entertain hopes of survival, this is the kind of game where they must pick up at least a point.

Montpellier's 15-0 win over leaders Castres last month was proof of how good they can be at Stade Yves Du Manoir. But the absence of Fulgence Ouedraogo and François Trinh-Duc will severely weaken Montpol so the Basque visitors could be in with chance.

Montpellier aren't completely out of the woods yet either, and with fixtures against Racing, Toulouse and Clermont next on the agenda, another home win will be very welcome.

Previous result: Bayonne won 26-3 <