Planet Rugby

Top 14 Preview: Round 18

11th February 2011 13:02

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Stade francais Biarritz

Clash in the capital: Stade Français host Biarritz

Domestic actions returns to France this weekend leaving the title contenders to go to battle without many of their big guns.

The Six Nations has deprived all of the top clubs of a number of stars: Biarritz are the worst affected with nine players off on national duty. Toulouse are missing six while Clermont and Racing have each been stripped of five internationals.

Stars or no stars, the battle for the play-offs is hotter than ever as the final quarter of the season approaches.

The pick of the weekend's clashes see Biarritz visit Stade Français while Montpellier and Clermont duke it out for second spot on the table.

Racing Metro and Castres are also in line to capture second place in the standings when they face off in the capital, but no one can overtake leaders Toulouse, who take a depleted squad to La Rochelle.

Elsewhere, Toulon will be out for revenge against Brive while Perpignan and Bayonne will want to get out of the bottom half of the standings against Agen and Bourgoin respectively.

Brive, Agen and La Rochelle are separated by just three points in a scrap to avoid joining Bourgoin in the ProD2 next season.

Fixtures:

Friday, February 11
La Rochelle v Toulouse

Saturday, February 11
Toulon v Brive
Bayonne v Bourgoin
Perpignan v Agen
Racing Métro v Castres
Montpellier v Clermont
Stade Français v Biarritz

Standings:

1 Toulouse 56
2 Clermont 49
3 Racing Metro 49
4 Biarritz 48
5 Montpellier 47
6 Castres 46
7 Toulon 45
8 Bayonne 44
9 Stade Français 40
10 Perpignan 36
11 Agen 28
12 La Rochelle 27
13 Brive 26
14 Bourgoin 10

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Previews:

Stade Rochelais Atlantique v Stade Toulousain
Stade Marcel Deflandre, La Rochelle

La Rochelle host a Toulouse team absolutely decimated by Six Nations call -ups and injury.

Seven Toulouse players are in the French squad in Dublin while scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain is with the U20s. David Skrela, Yves Donguy, Romain Millo-Chluski, Yannick Nyanga, Byron Kelleher and Yann David are either injured or not yet match fit while Florian Fritz is suspended!

If ever there was a chance for les Maritimes to cause an upset, this is it! The league leaders have not travelled particularly well this season and La Rochelle, who put up a good fight in Toulon last time out, will know victory will be a massive step towards avoiding relegation.

Agen have lost just twice at home this season, picking up bonus point on both occasions. Toulouse are in for a fight!

Previous result: Toulouse won 50-3 at home.
Prediction: We're not brave enough to bet against the Big Red Machine. Toulouse by a whisker
Kick-off: 20:45 (19.45 GMT)

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RC Toulon v CA Brive Corrèze
Stade Felix Mayol, Toulon

This is a crunch tie for both sides as Brive are desperate for points in the relegation battle and Toulon are in danger of falling off the pace in the race for the play-offs.

With just five points separating seven teams in a congested mid-table, a slip up could cost the hosts dearly. After scraping past Agen last time out, RCT need to string a run of wins together to secure a place in the top six.

Brive's have found some decent form in recent times, beating Clermont at home in Round 16.

Toulon are struggling at fly-half with Jonny Wilkinson on England duty and both Felipe Contepomi and Gavin Henson still injured.

Joe van Niekerk and Paul Sackey do not feature in the matchday squad.

Previous result: Brive won 27-9 at home
Prediction: It'll be closer than Toulon would like. Toulon by six points
Kick-off: 13.50 (12.50 GMT)

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Aviron Bayonnais v CS Bourgoin-Jallieu
Stade Jean Dauger, Bayonne

Bayonne put themselves back in the hunt for a play-off spot with victory in Brive last time out.

At home to ProD2-bound Bourgoin, the Basques will back themselves to climb back into the top half of the standings for the first time since Round Eight.

CSBJ will arrive with a team packed with youngsters as the a number of first-teamers have already been sold off to try bolster the coffers.

Previous result: Bayonne won 28-23 away
Prediction:The hosts should win easily. Bayonne to win with a bonus point.
Kick-off: 14.00 (13.00 GMT)

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USA Perpignan v SU Agen
Stade Aimé Giral, Perpignan

With time fast running out for USAP, the Catalans must grab a bonus point win or forget about catching up with the play-offs pack.

Ten points behind sixth-placed Castres, anything less would mean the end of the road for the 2009 champions.

Jacques Brunel put in a big performance in Biarritz a fortnight ago, leading 21-0 only to crumble at the end. It was a similar story when they travelled Agen, where they threw away a 20-point lead and half-time to be held to a draw.

Without their skipper Nicolas Mas, who is in Ireland with les Bleus, Perpignan need to keep their foot down for all 80 minutes.

Agen climbed out of the red zone thanks to a win over Bourgoin - their fifth win in seven games - and will travel to the Mediterranean coast with everything to gain

Previous result: 23-23 draw in Agen
Prediction: USAP should have too much for their visitors. Perpignan by fifteen points
Kick-off: 14.00 (13.00 GMT)

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

Racing have flattered to deceive of late but the stats all point to another victory this week.

Unbeaten at home this season, Racing will be hoping to maintain that record before hitting the road for three straight weeks. The Parisians were well beaten when they visited Clermont in Round 17, but have not lost two consecutive games this season.

Castres also have a perfect home record but have yet to tastes success on the road. But the Tarnais are one of the few clubs not to be affected by the Six Nations call ups and will take heart from their recent win over Stade Français and the 24-draw from their visit to Colombes last season.

Without Sébastien Chabal, Lionel Nallet and their Italian internationals, Racing will look to Juan Martin Hernandez and Frans Steyn to provide the inspiration.

Previous result: Castres 31-25 at home
Prediction: You can't agrue with a Racing's record at home. Rqacing to win by five points.
Kick-off: 14.00 (13.00 GMT)

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Montpellier HR v ASM Clermont Auvergne
Stade Yves Du Manoir, Montpellier

The defending champions visit the season's surprise package in the big clash of the weekend with second place in the standings on the line. Clermont have been in great form at home but are missing a bunch of players and have only won once on the road this season.

Having been one of the pace-setters for much of the season, the hosts have not won in the new year and are now just two points clear of seventh-placed Toulon.

While Clermont have been stripped of seven internationals, Montpellier are missing just one, but an important one: fly-half François Trinh-Duc.

Fulgence Ouedraogo, however, is available for the hosts as he isn't part of this weekend's French squad. Head Coach Fabien Galthié will be a notable absentee as he must fulfill television commentary obligations in Dublin, although he has been with the side all week and will only leave late on Friday.

Previous result: Clermont won 27-10 at home
Prediction: Montpellier have been unstoppable at home. Montpellier by five points
Kick-off: 14.00 (13.00 GMT)

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Stade Français Paris v Biarritz Olympique
Stade Charléty, Paris

Like Perpignan, Stade Français are under pressure to make the cut to for the play-offs. Six points short of where they need to be, the Parisians must lift themselves after defeat to Castres.

Stade Français centre Mathieu Bastareaud has been in the headlines this week as he and national coach Marc Lièvremont exchangds words with regards to his non-selection and supposed lack of dedication, an accusation that Bastareaud has denied pointing rather to misinformation in the press.

Biarritz arrive buoyed by their qualification for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals but missing their keys players i.e.. Dimitri Yachvili, captain Imanol Harinordoquy and Damien Traille. They will also be without a recognized scrum-half, with Julien Peyrelongue forced to wear number nine shirt.

Stade are also struggling with France wing Julian Arias ruled out for three months with a hand injury in addition to a long list of other injuries and international call-ups. Lock Pascal Papé will play his first game at number eight! David Attoub will make his first start of the season.

Previous result: Biarritz won 19-11 at home
Prediction: Tough one to call, we'll go with the hosts. Stade Fraçais by three points
Kick-off: 20:35 (19.35 GMT)

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