Euro finalists juggle Top 14 hopes
PREVIEW: La Rochelle might have qualified for their second successive European Champions Cup Final, but a week before that continental showpiece comes a crucial Top 14 match.
Having lost to Toulouse in last year’s Euro Final, La Rochelle beat Racing 92 in the semis and will be hoping for better fortunes when they take on Leinster in the Final in Marseille on May 28.
Domestically, however, they head into the penultimate round of the regular season one place shy of the leading six clubs in the Top 14, with just that number guaranteed a spot in the end-of-season play-offs.
Coach Ronan O’Gara, the former Ireland flyhalf, will surely test the strength in depth of his squad when his team host Stade Francais on Saturday.
Skipper Gregory Alldritt, outstanding in the victory over Racing, insisted the side would not be resting on their laurels.
“We’ve got a massive game this weekend in the Top 14,” he said.
Racing coach Laurent Travers, speaking after watching his side fold to La Rochelle, was also under no illusions about the dogfight coming over the next three weeks.
“We have just two Top 14 matches left,” he said. “We’re still not qualified so we have to stay focused on nailing down a top-six spot.”
Nine teams are still in the running for the play-offs.
Montpellier, who play Racing on Saturday, currently top the table on 69 points, two ahead of Bordeaux-Begles and Castres.
Racing sit fourth on 66pts, with Lyon (63) and Toulouse (62) presently occupying fifth and sixth.
La Rochelle are also on 62pts, while Toulon (59) and Clermont (57) have it all to play for in matches against Pau and already-relegated Biarritz respectively.
A shake-up is bound to come with Bordeaux-Begles hosting Lyon and Toulouse travelling to Brive, out of the running for a top-six finish, while Castres take on 13th-placed Perpignan in Sunday’s match.
The run-in to the end of the regular season is doubly complicated for Lyon and Toulon, who meet in the European Challenge Cup final, also in Marseille, on May 27.
Lyon scrumhalf Baptiste Couilloud called the scenario “thrilling”.
“We have been in this configuration for several weeks: we play knock-out matches every weekend,” said the 24-year-old capped eight times by France and a non-playing squad member this year who celebrated the Six Nations Grand Slam by jumping into the Seine River after the final victory over England in Paris.
“It’s historic for the club. And we are better in the skin of the hunter. We know that we no longer have the right to make mistakes. These are the best weeks to live, we’ll enjoy them.”
Currently the leading try scorer in the Top 14 with 10, Couilloud said that a record like that “wouldn’t count for much if we don’t make it into the top six”.
Likewise, thoughts were not on trying to make France’s Rugby World Cup squad on home soil next year.
“We’re all focused on the club,” he insisted. “The best way of having a chance to play for France is to have good results, in the Challenge Cup and Top 14.”
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Bordeaux-Begles v Lyon (13.00)
Biarritz v Clermont
Montpellier v Racing 92
Toulon v Pau
La Rochelle v Stade Francais (all 15.15)
Brive v Toulouse (19.05)
Castres v Perpignan (19.05)