Planet Rugby

Top 14 Preview: Round 24

15th April 2011 10:00

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Van Niekerk v Clerc Toulon v Toulouse

Red-and-Black v Black-and-Red: Toulon clash with Toulouse

It's another weekend for massive crowds as Toulon will host leaders Toulouse in Marseille while Clermont face Stade Français at the Stade de France.

The trend to delocalise clashes to huge soccer stadiums continues in French rugby and the fans are the winners once again. 50 000 will pack the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille while over 75 000 are expected in Paris.

With just three rounds left before the play-offs, there is no room for error with nine clubs still in contention for just six places.

Toulouse and Racing Métro are virtually assured of making it and face teams under massive pressure on Saturday: Toulon and Perpignan respectively.

The most ferocious battle is likely to take place on Friday however as Agen and La Rochelle face off in what has been dubbed the "relegation final."

There's another heavyweight clash in Perpigan where the Catalans absolutely must get a result against second-placed Racing.

Off the field, Brive and Bourgoin have been slapped with heavy fines (10 000 and 5 000 Euros respectively) for their fisticuffs in March.

Fixtures:Friday, April 15
La Rochelle v Agen

Saturday, April 16
Stade Français v Clermont
Bourgoin v Castres
Perpignan v Racing Métro
Biarritz v Brive
Montpellier v Bayonne
Toulon v Toulouse

Standings:
1 Toulouse 73
2 Racing Metro 68
3 Montpellier 65
4 Castres 64
5 Clermont 63
6 Biarritz 62
7 Toulon 61
8 Perpignan 59
9 Bayonne 58
10 Stade Français 49
11 Brive 42
12 Agen 42
13 La Rochelle 33
14 Bourgoin 5

Previews:

Stade Rochelais Atlantique v SU Agen
Stade Marcel Deflandre, La Rochelle

It's not complicated: If La Rochelle lose, they're going down! Nine points short of safety les Maritimes are playing for their Top 14 lives.

The hosts have won just once in their last seven starts while Agen are coming off victory at home against Castres.

La Rochelle have left Seru Rabeni on the bench while Greg Goosen starts at full-back ahead of Benjamin Dambielle.

Previous result: Agen won 29-14 at home
Prediction: La Rochelle will edge it, but will it be enough to avoid relegation? We doubt it. La Rochelle by five points
Kick-off: 20:45 (19.45 GMT)

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Stade Français Paris v ASM Clermont Auvergne
Stade de France, Paris

The defending champions travel to Paris under huge pressure. Just five points clear of Bayonne in ninth, les Jaunards could find themselves off the pace in the play-offs race if they don't get a positive result.

The problem is, Clermont haven't won on the road since mid-August! Their record in Paris doesn't offer much encouragement either with just one victory in nine trips to the capital.

But what frame of mind will Stade Français be in? They certainly won't be under pressure.

Although Stade Français have nothing to play for in terms of the Top 14, they will see this fixture as a warm for their Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final against Clermont at the end of the month.

The hosts haven't had the best of form at the Stade de France in recent years but with wins against Toulouse and Toulon there this season, that trend seems to be changing. With 75 000 spectators expected, owner Max Guazzini will expect them to put on a good show.

Dogged by financial troubles due to the club's poor season Guazzini, is being forced to sell off a number of his shares.

Clermont are coming off a strong home win against Biarritz while Stade Français's only success in their last five games came against lowly Agen.

Previous result: Clermont won 27-3 at home
Prediction: Tough one to call considering Stade Français's mediocre form. We'll take a risk and back the champs to come good. Clermont by a whisker
Kick-off: 14.30 (13.30 GMT)

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CS Bourgoin-Jallieu v Castres Olympique
Stade Pierre Rajon, Bourgoin

On paper, this should be a one-sided encounter as Bourgoin have already been relegated while Castres are looking to book themselves a home play-off.

But Castres's record on the road this season hasn't been great with just one win. Bourgoin also gave Montpellier a hard time a fortnight ago.

Previous result: Castres won 41-24 at home
Prediction: A second victory on the road for the visitors. Castres by ten points
Kick-off: 14.30 (13.30 GMT)

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USA Perpignan v Racing-Métro 92
Stade Aimé Giral, Perpignan

Perpignan face another massive weekend for Perpignan after the Heineken Cup success last week. Eighth, and four points short of Biarritz in the last play-off spot the Catalans have no choice but to beat three of the championships' heavyweights in the final weeks: Racing, Toulon and Castres.

USAP's winning streak came to an end with a home loss to Toulouse two weeks ago.

Racing will be the fresher of the two sides having missed out on the European quarter-finals and will be looking to show that their below-par performance in Bayonne last time out was but a momentary dip in form in an otherwise impressive season.

Former Perpignan scrum-half Nicolas Durand will return to the 'Bear pit' at the base of the Racing scrum for what he has described as a potentially "explosive" encounter.

Previous result: 18-18 draw in Paris
Prediction: Judging by the first clash this season it'll be close, but it's tough to bet against USAP in Catalogne. Perpignan by three or four points
Kick-off:14.30 (13.30 GMT)

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Biarritz Olympique v CA Brive Corrèze
Parc des Sports d'Aguilera, Biarritz

Six days after their 100-minute European humdinger in San Sebastian, Biarritz must lifts themselves for a vital home fixture.

Victory at Aguilera will represent a potential step towards a spot in the play-offs as the Basques will count on picking up points in Bourgoin on the final day.

Brive have given themselves some breathing room in the relegation battle and showed excellent form in last week's thrilling nine-try Challenge Cup quarter-final against Munster.

But having won in Biarritz just three-time in the post-war era, it seems unlikely that they cause an upset this weekend.

A losing bonus point should be enough to keep les Corréziens in the top flight for another year.

Biarritz are set to be without injured international trio Damien Traille, Imanol Harinordoquy and Sylvain Marconnet.

Previous result: Biarritz won 27-21 away
Prediction: It won't be easy for the hosts, but should have enough firepower to get the result. Biarritz by seven points.
Kick-off:14.30 (13.30 GMT)

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Montpellier HR v Aviron Bayonnais
Stade Yves Du Manoir, Montpellier

Another clash between two contenders for the play-offs but the hosts will start as overwhelming favourites.

Unbeaten at home this season, Montpol are in pole position to make the final six. Another win and Fabien Galthié's team will be able to go to Brive and then host Toulon with a lot less pressure.

For Bayonne it's the last chance saloon. Their surprise win over Racing-Métro kept them in the race for a place in Europe, but more movements off the field will not have helped them concentrate on the task at hand.

Controversial Francis Salagoïty has been replaced as club President by Michel Cacouault, who has the backing of the club's principal sponsor, Alain Afflelou.

Montpellier might have won in Bayonne earlier this season, but Bayonne were victorious on their last visit to Stade Yves Du Manoir. In fact the record books have the sides neck-and-neck: Montpellier have won seven games to Bayonne's six in fixtures since 2004.

Previous result: Montpellier won 29-18 away
Prediction: The hosts' home record speaks for itself. Montpellier by four points
Kick-off:14.30 (13.30 GMT)

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RC Toulon v Stade Toulousain
Stade Vélodrome, Marseille

The protagonists will arrive in Marseille in very different states of mind and in very different situations as all the pressure will be squarely on shoulders of the 'hosts.'

After crashing out of the Heineken Cup last week, Toulon's only objective is the Top 14 title - but at the moment they won't be thinking that far as qualification for the play-offs is far from guaranteed.

RCT need an faultless finish to the season to have any hope of making the cut, but with matches against Perpignan (home) and Montpellier (away) still to come, the task couldn't be harder.

But with so much money spent President Mourad Boudjellal won't accept failure...

Toulouse by contrast arrive with zero pressure. Next week's game against doomed Bourgoin will almost certainly book them an automatic place in the semi-finals to go with their berth in Heineken Cup final four.

Guy Novès has openly said they don't really care about the result, but has promised to line-up a competitive team and with places in the squad to travel to Leinster up for grabs, you can be sure the players in question won't lack for motivation. The 50 000 fans at the Stade Vélodrome won't be disappointed.

Toulon have won three out of four of their fixtures with Toulouse since their return to the top flight, including both the previous clashes in Marseille

Toulon have named an 27-man provisional squad including Gevin Henson, Carl Hayman and Jonny Wilkinson but without Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Rudi Wulf, who are injured.

Toulouse are set to rest most of the squad that playing the Heineken Cup quarter-final. Nicolas Vergallo - back from a five-week absence - and Jean-Marc Doussain will form the 9-10 axis since Nicolas Bézy is the latest scrum-half to be injured.

Previous result: Toulouse won 44-5 at home
Prediction: The hosts want victory so badly, it's hard to bet against them. Toulon by six points
Kick-off:14.30 (13.30 GMT)

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Friday , April 25
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Friday , April 25
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Sunday , April 20
Northampton 36 - 21 London IrishNorthampton vs London Irish Report
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Perpignan 31 - 46 ToulonPerpignan vs Toulon Report
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Harlequins 24 - 20 LeicesterHarlequins vs Leicester Report
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1Saracens2080
2Northampton2071
3Bath2064
4Leicester Tigers2064
5Harlequins2058