Top 14 leaders dip into the basement
TOP 14 PREVIEW: After the top of the table battle with Toulouse last week, Top 14 leaders Clermont dip into the basement on Saturday for the points that will guarantee them top spot heading into 2019.
Franck Azema’s team head down to Catalonia to face a Perpignan side which is already planning for a swift return to the second division, having mustered just four points from the opening 12 games.
Last Saturday they conceded 10 tries in a 28-64 thrashing by Racing 92.
Azema and his forwards coach Bernard Goutta will feel Perpignan’s pain. Both men spent some happy years there as players, Goutta making a record 298 appearances for the club, 128 of them as captain.
They both then spent time on the coaching staff and were a part of Jacques Brunel’s set-up in 2008-09 when Perpignan blazed a glittering trail to the Top 14 title.
The team they beat in the final? Clermont.
“We have enough perspective today to say that this is not the fight of Goutta or Azema,” said Clermont head coach Azema.
“We are at the halfway point in our championship and if we are challengers then we must get points everywhere, in Perpignan or wherever.”
The empathy will be left at the gates – or perhaps at the new Bar and Britz which is to be opened in honour of former lock Barend Britz who was beaten to death in his Perpignan bar at the start of the month – as Azema and Goutta look to consign their old club to a 13th straight defeat.
“I have a lot of respect for Perpignan, I’m happy to go back, it’s been a long time but it stops there,” said Azema. “We have a specific task to perform out on the pitch.”
Azema’s side are currently three points ahead of Toulouse and a win in Catalonia would ensure that they finish the year and the first half of the Top 14 programme in top spot.
Toulouse have sold 31 000 seats for Sunday evening’s meeting with a Toulon side that have shown glimmers of revival in recent weeks in spite of the continued absence of Julian Savea who is in New Zealand for his brother’s wedding and only due to return in early January.
Toulouse are just three points ahead of La Rochelle who collected a valuable win on the road at Pau and now play host to champions Castres whose season appears to be crumbling after last week’s crushing home defeat by Bordeaux-Begles.
Lyon’s bid for a play-off place has hit the skids of late with just one win in their last five matches in all competitions, a record they will look to improve upon at Agen, a team whose problems have been largely overlooked only because of Perpignan’s pitiful plight.
Racing, in fourth, face a difficult road trip to fifth-placed Bordeaux while Pau coach Simon Mannix will be feeling the pressure if his side lose for a sixth straight game at fellow New Zealander Vern Cotter’s Montpellier.
Fixtures (all times GMT):
Lyon v Agen (13.30)
Stade Francais v Grenoble (15.30)
La Rochelle v Castres (17.30)
Perpignan v Clermont (20.00)
Montpellier v Pau (15.00)
Bordeaux-Begles v Racing 92 (17.00)
Toulouse v Toulon (19.45)
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