Planet Rugby

Top 14 Preview: Round 21

05th March 2010 07:52

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Superclassico: Stade Français v Toulouse

It's the biggest weekend of Top 14 season so far: Toulouse visit the Stade de France in French rugby's version of the superclassico while Clermont host Perpignan for a rematch of last season's final.

If that isn't enough to whet your palate, fifth-placed Toulon are at home to struggling giants Biarritz while high-flying Racing-Métro face masters of the upset, Montpellier.

With just six games left in the regular season, clubs are gearing up for the final sprint to the line.

There's a crunch game for Bayonne, who must nab a bonus point win against Albi or face the prospect of joining their visitors in the ProD2 next season. Brive's chances of making the play-offs are getting ever slimmer and trip to leaders Castres probably won't help.

The return of the Six Nations internationals will boost a number of clubs, but with the current stop-start rhythm in the Top 14 smoothly reintegrating those player will be almost as much of a challenge as playing without them.

Of course not everyone will have all their Test players back since England are hanging onto their entire squad - much to the disgust of Stade Français who are paying James Haskell's salary in his absence are thus not happy with the idea of "funding England's preparations," especially in light of Martin Johnson and co.'s visit to Paris in a fortnight

Fixtures:

Friday, March 6

Clermont v Perpignan

Saturday, March 6

Castre v Brive
Bayonne v Albi
Bourgoin v Montauban
Toulon v Biarritz
Stade Français v Toulouse
Montpellier v Racing Metro

Standings:

1 Castres 62
2 Perpignan 61
----------------
3 Clermont 61
4 Toulouse 56
5 Toulon 55
6 Racing-Métro 54
---------------
7 Stade Français 49
8 Brive 47
9 Biarritz 46
10 Montpellier 38
11 Montauban 37
12 Bourgoin 36
---------------
13 Bayonne 34
14 Albi 20

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Previews:

Friday, March 6

Clermont Auvergne v USA Perpignan
Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin, Clermont Ferrand

Level on points in second place in the standings, Clermont and Perpignan go head-to-head in the race of automatic semi-final qualification reserved for the top-two finishers of the regular season.

Unbeaten at home this season, Clermont have a full-strength squad and while the players refuse to talk of 'revenge' the crowd at Marcel Michelin will be baying for blood after defeat in last year's final and their heavy loss in Perpignan in September.

France wing Aurélien Rougerie is back to skipper Clermont after recovering from the neck injury he sustained in the opening minutes of the Six Nations match against Scotland. No less than seven other internationals - Thomas Domingo , Julien Pierre, Alexandre Lapandry, Julien Bonnaire, Morgan Parra, Julien Malzieu and Davit Zirakashvili- return to the Clermont ranks while Italy centre Gonzalo Canale is given a rest.

For the visitors, who lost to Montauban two weeks ago, Maxime Mermoz is in the squad and as he makes his return from a long injury lay-off. Bleus Nicolas Mas and David Marty will also be on the train heading North.

Previous result: Perpignan won 19 -3
Prediction: Considering Clermont's record at home and Perpignan's form on the road the hosts must be favourites. Clermont to win by seven points
Kick-off: 20:45 (19.45 GMT)
Referee: Jérôme Garces

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Saturday, March 6

Castres Olympique v CA Brive-Corrèze
Stade Pierre Antoine, Castres

Still Undefeated at home this season, Castres will start the final sprint for play-off in pole position.

A draw against Racing Metro was enough to lift Castres back to the top on the standings but the Tarnais must travel to Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse in the final weeks so four more points this weekend are very much needed but Brive will provid a stiff challenge.

Beaten in Biarritz on their last outing, les Brivistes still harbour a glimmer of hope of making the play offs. A loss at Pierre Antoine would surely extinguish their chances.

Andy Goode is gone to the Shraks and Riki Flutey (who wants to go to Munster) is on duty with England. Better news however is that England hooker Steve Thompson and centre Jamie Noon are in the squad as well as Tricolors Alexis Palisson and Fabrice Estebanez.

Previous result: Brive won 11-9
Prediction:Castres by six points
Kick-off: 14:30 (13.30 GMT)
Referee: Laurent Cardona

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Aviron Bayonnais v SCA Albi
Stade Jean Dauger, Bayonne

Bayonne captain Rémy Martin made his return after a 40-day suspension against Bourgoin last week, but it wasn't enough to stop the Basques from slipping back into the relegation zone.

Anything less than victory against relegation-certainties Albi could spell disaster.

Albi coach Eric Bechu has offered to resign (again) as a reaction to growing discontent amongst the players ranks, but club president Bernard Archilla has refused to accept the offer and has moved to dispel rumours of mutiny.

With tempers frayed on both sides, we can be sure of an explosive encounter, especially considering the fisticuffs of their previous meeting.

Previous result: Albi won 19-14
Prediction: We predict...a fight, a couple of cards and then a Bayonne victory by six points
Kick-off: 14:30 (13.30 GMT)
Referee: Eric Gauzins

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Bourgoin-Jallieu v Montauban
Stade Pierre Rajon, Bourgoin

Bourgoin host their second vital relegation battle in as many weeks. Montauban's shock win over champions Perpignan last time out mean they are still one point clear of Bourgoin.

With Bayonne likely to win against Albi, the losers of the clash at Pierre Rajon are likely to find themselves in the drop zone.

Montauban will arrive full of confidence after the win over champions Perpignan two weeks ago, but will do well to remember Bourgoin how beat them on their own turf in September.

Previous result: Bourgoin won 12-15
Prediction: It'll be close and it'll probably be ugly. When in doubt, pick the home side. Bourgoin by a whisker
Kick-off:14:30 (13.30 GMT)
Referee: Pascal Gauzere

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Toulon v Biarritz Olympique
Stade Felix Mayol, Toulon

Ninth and eight points off the pace in the play-offs race, Biarritz cannot afford to put a foot wrong until the end of the season.

Bad news for BO is, Toulon have yet to lose at home in a year - that's twelve matches - and don't look like doing so any time soon.

Three straight wins - including one of the road against Toulouse - have put the RCT in the thick of the mix for a place in Europe and the play-offs.

While Jonny Wilkinson is away with the England team, scrum-half Pierre Mignoni is back in a near full-strength squad.

Biarritz have been boosted by the return from injury of French internationals Damien Traille and Dimitri Yachvili and Australian league convert Hunt Karmikael. Fabien Barcella is the only BO international still not available.

Previous result: Biarritz won 23-9
Prediction: You can't argue with the Varois' home form. Toulon to win by eight points
Kick-off:14:30 (13.30 GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)

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Stade Français Paris v Stade Toulousain
Stade de France, Paris

The biggest game in French rugby sees fourth take on seventh. Eh? Fourth versus seventh? That can't be right.

Unfortunately for the hosts, the 2009-2010 season has seen the emergence of Toulon and Racing Metro amongst France's elite and somebody had to make room. Now the giants from the capital trail their Parisian rivals Racing by five points and are in serious danger of missing out on Europe and the play-offs.

Toulouse are looking a little shaky themselves after their shock home loss to Toulon a fortnight ago, but the return of their legion of Test players should steady the ship.

The teams have met in the French league on 26 occasions, holding twelve victories each before the draw in their last clash, in Toulouse in September.

The last time Toulouse visited the Stade de France, however, they were 26-13 victors.

Toulouse have won just four of their team away games this season but Stade not Français have been beaten at home three times.

Previous result: 9-9 draw
Prediction: The hosts record at the Stade de France isn't great, so we'll stick our necks out. Toulouse by a point or two
Kick-off:16:25 (15.25 GMT)
Referee: Jean-Pierre Matheu

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Montpellier HRC v Racing Metro 92
Stade Yves Du Manoir, Montpellier

Montpellier looked unstoppable form at home until Bayonne burst their bubble last time out. Montpol are flirting dangerously with relegation, especially considering that they must travel to Toulouse and Clermont in the next two rounds.

Off the back of a home draw against leaders Castres, Racing Metro will be looking to keep Stade Français at bay and take a step closer to the play-offs.

France second row partners Lionel Nallet and Sébastien Chabal will start for the visitors, as will new France squad member Clément Baïocco.

Previous result: Racing won 18-14
Prediction: The return of the Bleus will help the hosts no end. Montpellier by three points
Kick-off:20:45 (19.45 GMT)
Referee: Franck Maciello

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