Top 14 Preview: Round 11

Date published: December 27 2015

The Top 14 is back this week and there are two blockbuster games at the top of the table between potential title contenders.

Leaders Clermont host Racing 92, who are currently fourth while Toulon in second, travel to third-place Toulouse.

Elsewhere Oyonnax have to win, but face a tough task against champions Stade Français.

Conrad Smith makes his full debut as Pau host La Rochelle and Montpellier will look to get back into the play-off race at home to Agen.

Finally Castres take an impressive Brive side and revitalised Bordeaux host Grenoble.


Oyonnax v Stade Français
Bordeaux-Bègles v Grenoble
Castres v Brive
Montpellier v Agen
Pau v La Rochelle
Clermont Auvergne v Racing 92
Toulouse v Toulon

Oyonnax v Stade Français
Stade Charles Mathon, Oyonnax

There was always a concern heading into the season that the sheer turnover at Oyonnax would lead to a major downturn in performances at Oyonnax, and so far they have done little to disprove that theory.

Rooted to the bottom of the table, cut adrift in Europe, Johann Authier's side desperately need a win to stay in touch in the battle for survival, but face a Stade team equally in need of points.

The defending champions are still playing catch-up after a rough start to the season, and are still ten points away from the play-off spots.

Their hopes of recovery start with winning some games on the road, and at the moment, Oyonnax looks a good place to start.

The Parisians have just picked up back-to-back wins over Treviso while being able to rotate their squad. They are still dealing with a number of injuries, but with Heinke van der Merwe and Rabah Slimani starting in the front row, and the combination of Will Genia and Morne Steyn, they should be strong in the basics.

For their part, Oyonnax are also without some key players, not least Nicky Robinson, but their back row of Viliami Ma'afu, Valentin Ursache and Olivier Missoup is among the strongest combinations they can put out.

It's an area they will need to dominate if they are to pick up a first win in any competition since October.

The teams:

Oyonnax: 15 Florian Denos, 14 Silvere Tian, 13 Jimmy Yobo, 12 Vincent Martin, 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10 Régis Lespinas, 9 Fabien Cibray, 8 Viliami Ma’afu, 7 Olivier Missoup, 6 Valentin Ursache, 5 Geoffrey Fabbri, 4 Leon Power, 3 Antoine Guillamon, 2 Jody Jenneker, 1 Laurent Desboubles
Replacements: 16 Jéremie Maurouard, 17 Soane Tonga'uiha, 18 George Robson, 19 Pedrie Wannenburg, 20 Pierrick Gunther, 21 Julien Blanc, 22 Quentin Etienne, 23 Marc Clerc

Stade Français: 15 Djibril Camara, 14 Waisale Nayacalevu, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Jeremy Sinzelle, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Will Genia, 8 Jono Ross, 7 Raphael Lakafia, 6 Mathieu Ugena, 5 Pascal Papé, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2  Craig BurdenLaurent Sempere, 1 Heinke van der Merwe
Replacements: 16 Laurent Panis, 17 Sakaria Taulafo, 18 Paul Gabrillagues, 19 Sekou Macalou, 20 Clement Daguin, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Josaia Raisque, 23 Paul Alo-Emile

Previous result: Oyonnax won 15-13
Kick-off: 14:00 local (13:00 GMT)
Referee: Tual Trainini

Bordeaux-Bègles v Grenoble
Stade Chaban Delmas, Bordeaux

Currently occupying the final play-off spot, Bordeaux look like a team on the up, and picked up their first Champions Cup win last week against the Ospreys.

That was also Adam Ashley-Cooper's debut game, even if he was mainly a bystander as Bordeaux ran in four tries.

He grabbed the headlines after the game following a Twitter spat with Brian O'Driscoll after taking offence at insinuations over his motives for coming to France.

According to O'Driscoll, AAC didn't come to Bordeaux to win the Top 14 title. While they are probably still a season or two away from being genuine contenders, another win here will cement their place in the top six.

And the likes of Loann Goujon, Yann Lesgourgues and Sofiane Guitoune have plenty on the line when it comes to catching Guy Novès' eye.

Grenoble have lost their last three in the league since a huge win over Toulon, and are already looking long shots to reach the play-offs.

Fabrice Landreau's team don't look quite as strong as last year, but have gone for their strongest line-up in this one, and with the likes of Rory Grice and Fabien Alexandre in the back row, as well as the kicking of Jonathan Wisniewski, they have a team to trouble anyone.

The teams:

Bordeaux-Bègles: 15 Jean Marcellin Buttin, 14 Sofiane Guitoune, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Julien Rey, 11 Blair Connor, 10 Simon Hickey, 9 Yann Lesgourgues, 8 Loann Goujon, 7 Hugh Chalmers, 6 Louis Benoit Madaule, 5 Jandre Marais, 4 Julien Ledevedec, 3 Francisco Gomez Kodela, 2 Wayne Avei, 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16 Benat Auzqui, 17 Jefferson Poirot, 18 Berend Botha, 19 Marco Tauleigne, 20 Heini Adams, 21 Pierre Bernard, 22 Felix Le Bourhis, 23 Sekope Kepu

Grenoble: 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Timo Nemani, 13 Chris Farrell, 12 Nigel Hunt, 11 Lucas Dupont, 10 Jonathan Wisniewski, 9 Christophe Loustalot, 8 Rory Grice, 7 Fabien Alexandre, 6 Stephen Setephano, 5 Peter Kimlin, 4 Ben Hand, 3 Roussow De Klerk, 2 Laurent Bouchet, 1 Sona Taumalolo
Replacements: 16 Arnaud Heguy, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Jonathan Best, 19 Mahamadou Diaby, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Gillies Bosch, 22 Daniel Killoni, 23 Dayna Edwards

Previous result: Bordeaux won 34-16
Kick-off: 16:00 local (15:00 GMT)
Referee: Salem Attalah

Castres v Brive
Stade Pierre Antoine, Castres

Only four points separate Castres and their visitors to Pierre Antoine, Brive, but it is the latter who are much happier with their performances so far this season.

Nicolas Godignon's team have been the surprise package in the league this year, and even though they lost last time out, they pushed rivals Clermont all the way before finally settling for a losing bonus point.

At Castres Christophe Urios has had to deal with a host of injuries, not least in the fly-half role, but some of those key players are starting to return.

Antoine Tichit at loosehead will be hoping to impress Guy Novès but will have his work cut out against one of the best scrums in the Top 14.

There has also been increased talk of Gaëtan Germain getting rewarded for his fine form at Brive. Widely regarded as the best goal-kicker in the Top 14, Germain has also improved as a counter-attacking threat from full-back, but it remains to be seen if he will get the chance – and take it – on the Test stage.

Helping Brive pick up yet another win on the road could only improve his chances, as well as keeping Brive in an unlikely challenge for a play-off spot.

The teams:

Castres: tbc

Brive: tbc

Previous result: Castres won 21-15
Kick-off: 16:00 local (15:00 GMT)
Referee: Adrien Descottes

Montpellier v Agen
Altrad Stadium, Montpellier

Montpellier need to close the gap on the play-off spots, and after a couple of entertaining games against Cardiff Blues, a home tie against Agen has to be the springboard for their season.

The Du Plessis brothers will start together against Agen in a powerful front row and the inclusion of Fulgence Ouedraogo as captain is key.

Still, the fact there are only four Frenchmen in the starting lineup is unsettling, even if Jake White's side are far from the only team in this position.

Agen were involved in one of the all-time great European matches that nobody watched last week, going down 48-45 at Grenoble. In that game they scored seven tries and still ended up losing.

Philippe Sella will hope for more of the same on the attacking front, but with far more on the line, it's seems unlikely this game will be quite as open.

Burton Francis has been a pleasant surprise for Agen this season, but despite some promising displays, they are already five points adrift of safety. Any sort of result at Montpellier seems a long shot but it would certainly help their survival ambitions.

The teams: 

Montpellier: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Benjamin Fall, 13 Anthony Tuitavake, 12 Ben Lucas, 11 Marvin O'Connor, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Benôit Paillaugue, 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Wiaan Liebenberg, 6 Fulgence Ouedraogo, 5 Robins Tchale-Watchou, 4 Paul Willemse, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Mikheil Nariashvili
Replacements: 16 Charles Geli, 17 Jamie Mackintosh, 18 Thibault Privat, 19 Antoine Battut, 20 Nic White, 21 Julien Malzieu, 22 Pierre Bérard, 23 Davit Kubriashvili

Agen: 15 Benoît Sicart, 14 Tamaz Mchedlidze, 13 Julien Hériteau, 12 Johann Sadie, 11 Georges Tilsley, 10 Burton Francis, 9 Alexi Balès, 8 Luke Hamilton, 7 Antoine Erbani, 6 Remy Vaquin, 5 William Demotte, 4 Marco Kotze, 3 Dave Ryan, 2 Djalil Narjissi, 1 Arsene Nnomo
Replacements: 16 Mike Tadjer, 17 Viliamu Afatia, 18 Api Ratuniyarawa, 19 Sione Tau, 20 Clement Darbo, 21 Francois Bouvier, 22 Filipo Nkosi, 23 Ruaan du Preez

Previous result: Montpellier won 32-15 in 2012
Kick-off: 16:00 local (15:00 GMT)
Referee: Adrien Descottes

Pau v La Rochelle
Stade du Hameau, Pau

For most of this season Pau have appeared to be a team awaiting their biggest stars. Colin Slade and Conrad Smith are here now, and last year's Pro D2 champions need to start winning games.

The league's worst attack needs to find a way of being more productive, and the All Black World Cup winners will be tasked with solving that problem.

Experience certainly won't be lacking in a backline that also features Sireli Bobo and Damien Traille, but there must be concerns that every member of the outside backs is on the wrong side of 30.

For La Rochelle, much of the Christmas break has been spent playing down rumours that club captain Uini Atonio could be on his way at the end of the season.

Julien Audy is definitely off, having signed with Bordeaux after losing his starting role to Ricky Januarie, but given the likes of Brock James and potentially Victor Vito are on their way, La Rochelle will fancy their chances of building provided they avoid a relegation battle this season.

The teams: 

Pau: 15 Damien Traille, 14 Sireli Bobo, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Watisoni Votu, 11 Mosese Ratuvou, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Thibault Daubagna, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Paddy Butler, 6 Sean Dougall, 5 Daniel Ramsay, 4 Julien Pierre, 3 Chris King, 2 Mehdi Boundjema, 1 Julien Jacquot
Replacements: 16 Quentin Lespiaucq, 17 Geoffrey Moïse, 18 Claude Dry, 19 Jovili Domolailai, 20 Thierry Lacrampe, 21 Brandon Fajardo, 22 Julien Fumat, 23 Giorgi Natsharashvili

La Rochelle: 15 Kini Murimurivalu, 14 Gabriel Lacroix, 13 Pierre Aguillon, 12 Malietoa Hingano, 11 Alex Northam, 10 Zach Holmes, 9 Ricky Januarie, 8 Kevin Gourdon, 7 Afa Amosa, 6 Zeno Kieft, 5 Romana Graham, 4 Jason Eaton, 3 Uini Atonio, 2 Maxime Gau, 1 Vincent Pelo
Replacements: 16 David Roumieu, 17 Mike Corbel, 18 Leandro Cedaro, 19 Jone Qovu, 20 Romain Sazy, 21 Julien Audy, 22 Eliot Roudil, 23 Gagi Bazadze

Previous result: La Rochelle won 19-18 in Pro D2 in 2013
Kick-off: 16:00 local (15:00 GMT)
Referee: Cédric Marchat

Clermont Auvergne v Racing 92
Stade Marcel Michelin, Clermont Ferrand

Conceding a bonus-point defeat at Exeter two weeks after being thrashed at home by Toulon, there were question marks over Clermont.

They responded in style by hammering Exeter, the current Premiership leaders, and will expect more of the same against a weakened Racing team.

There are very real concerns over Franck Azéma's side, who have also been decimated by injuries, particularly in midfield.

However it would be a surprise to see them lose a second straight league game at the Marcel Michelin.

Racing are flying high in Europe, made a successful start with star arrival Dan Carter and are also very much in touch in the Top 14 play-off race.

Carter drops to the bench for this one, with Benjamin Dambielle stepping in. But while this has something of a second string feel to it, Maxime Machenaud will be eager to prove that he should still be first choice at scrum-half, having seemingly lost his spot over the last fortnight.

The battle between Wenceslas Lauret and Camille Gérondeau will also be fascinating in the back row, arguably no French flankers have been more impressive so far this season.

The teams:

Clermont: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 David Strettle, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Jonathan Davies, 11 Alivereti Raka, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Alexandre Lapandry, 6 Camille Gérondeau, 5 Sébastian Vahaamahina, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Daniel Kotze, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Vincent Debaty
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Raphaël Chaume, 18 Paul Jedrasiak, 19 Peceli Yato, 20 Ludovic Radoslavjevic, 21 Pato Fernandez, 22 Albert Vulivuli, 23 Clément Ric

Racing: 15 Johan Goosen, 14 Louis Dupichot, 13 Etienne Dussartre, 12 Henry Chavancy, 11 Marc Andreu, 10 Benjamin Dambielle, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Antonie Claassen, 7 Thibault Dubarry, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Francois van der Merwe, 4 Manuel Carizza, 3 Luc Ducalcon, 2 Camille Chat, 1 Julien Brugnaut.
Replacements: 16 Dimitri Szarzewski, 17 Davit Khinchagashvili, 18 Juandré Kruger, 19 Chris Masoe, 20 Xavier Chauveau, 21 Dan Carter, 22 Casey Laulala, 23 Martin Castrogiovanni

Previous result: Clermont won 32-6
Kick-off: 18:00 local (17:00 GMT)
Referee: Alexandre Ruiz

Toulouse v Toulon
Stadium Municipal, Toulouse

Two teams that are level on points but in very different mental positions face at the football stadium in Toulouse.

That in itself is notable for the fact that Toulouse have not played there in two seasons because of the renovations ahead of Euro 2016.

The club has been hit financially, and there is no question that despite a bigger overall budget, they now trail Toulon, at least, when it comes to squad depth.

Still, winning at Toulouse is not something that Toulon have managed often, with just one win in the last decade.

In fact Toulouse did the double last season, and probably need this game more than their opponents. Ugo Mola has stuck with some of the team that lost to Ulster last time out, notably with the half-back pairing of Sébastien Bézy and Jean-Marc Doussain, as Luke McAlister and Toby Flood try to get back into his good books.

Toulon have also rung the changes after back-to-back wins over Leinster. Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell are among those with an extended Christmas break, but in to replace them are former All Black Tom Taylor and ex-Wallaby James O'Connor.

A start for Levan Chilachava also makes Toulon look more formidable up front, and they will be hoping to add another big scalp on the road after their win at Clermont at the end of November.

Win this one and Toulon will look favourites for a top two place at the least, and as likely as anyone to reclaimn the crown they lost to Stade Français last season.

For Toulouse, a loss would cement their position as dark horses at best, but if they can get back on track, they can at least build on the league while using the final fortnight of European action to rest up while their closest rivals have to give it everything in the battle for a quarter-final spot.

The teams:

Toulouse: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Gaël Fickou, 12 Florian Fritz, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Jean-Marc Doussain, 9 Nicolas Bézy, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Louis Picamoles, 6 Thierry Dusautoir, 5 Patricio Albacete, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Census Johnston, 2 Julien Marchand, 1 Vasil Kakovin
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Cyril Baille, 18 Joe Tekori, 19 Yacouba Camara, 20 GIllian Galan, 21 Luke McAlister, 22 Toby Flood, 23 Dorian Aldegheri

Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 James O'Connor, 13 Maxime Mermoz, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Tom Taylor, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Mamuka Gorgodze, 5 Konstantin Mikautadze, 4 Jocelino Suta, 3 Levin Chilachava, 2 Anthony Etrillard, 1 Xavier Chiocci 
Replacements: 16 Guihelm Guirado, 17 Florian Fresia, 18 Romain Taofifeuna, 19 Juan Smith, 20 Quade Cooper, 21 Theo Belan, 22 Eric Escande, 23 Matt Stevens

Previous result: Toulouse won 21-10 
Kick-off: 21:00 local (20:00 GMT)
Referee: Maxime Chalon