Clermont face heavyweight clash at La Rochelle

Fri, 08 Sep 2017 10:40
Large franck azema clermont 800

TOP 14, ROUND THREE: Reigning Top 14 champions Clermont will look to back up their win over Toulon when they make the trip to last season's regular-season table-toppers La Rochelle on Saturday.

Franck Azema's men got their campaign off the ground with a victory over Toulon in a repeat of the 2016-17 final, after starting their title defence with a shock defeat at Bordeaux-Begles.

Clermont were still unconvincing at times last Sunday, benefiting from a period when Toulon were reduced to only 13 men.

But they will be boosted against La Rochelle by the return from injury of French international fullback Scott Spedding for his first appearance of the season.

Clermont's second French league triumph has at least put to bed some worries about their performances in big matches, having lost four Top 14 finals and three European Cup finals since 2007.

Known as the perennial nearly-men, Clermont have to kick on this season and show their ruthless side.

"A lot will be expected of us this season so nothing will be easy," said captain Damien Chouly.

"We'll have to be focused for every match."

Patrice Collazo's La Rochelle come into the match off the back of a defeat in Paris by Stade Francais last time out after a season-opening win at Brive but will be far tougher to beat on home turf.

There are no harder games in the Top 14 though than a trip to the Stade Marcel-Deflandre.

La Rochelle were unbeaten at home last season, having claimed a thrilling 30-30 draw with Clermont on the opening day of the Top14.

Arguably though, the biggest threat to Clermont's title hopes appears set to come from a Montpellier side reinvigorated by the return of France number eight Louis Picamoles.

Add the likes of New Zealand international flyhalf Aaron Cruden and the South African trio of Bismarck du Plessis, Francois Steyn and Ruan Pienaar, and early-season leaders Montpellier look formidable.

Although they have only won the Top 14 title once, in 2011, Montpellier head into their Saturday clash with Castres looking to make it three straight wins to start the season under new coach Vern Cotter.

Picamoles, named captain by former Scotland boss Cotter, played his first match for Montpellier since 2009 last week against Oyonnax.

But the 31-year-old still expects more from himself and his team.

"There is still work to be done," he said after Montpellier's second straight bonus-point victory.

"We must quickly eliminate indiscipline and uncertainty from our game, but still keep our [good] state of mind and defence.

"I was not satisfied with my performance because of wastefulness. I took my bearings little by little, but I had little rugby during pre-season and I'll have to quickly put in the work to catch up and bring more to the team,"

Former Clermont flank Julien Bardy is set to make his Montpellier debut at Castres, with Georgian prop Davit Kubriashvili fit again after a calf injury.

Lyon sit second in the fledgeling table behind Montpellier as the only other outfit to record back-to-back wins, and they take on Pau.

The second heavyweight encounter of the weekend comes in Toulon on Sunday, where Fabien Galthie's men face a difficult match against Toulouse to avoid successive losses.

Elsewhere on Saturday, Bordeaux host Stade Francais looking to back up their excellent home win on the opening weekend over Clermont and Brive welcome Racing 92 to the Stade Amedee-Domenech.

Fixtures

Saturday:
La Rochelle v Clermont
Bordeaux-Begles v Stade Francais
Brive v Racing 92
Oyonnax v Agen
Castres v Montpellier

Sunday
Pau v Lyon
Toulon v Toulouse

Agence France-Presse