Preview: Clermont v Montpellier the headliner
TOP 14: One of the most humiliating weeks in the history of French rugby ends with a sliver of salvation as leaders Clermont head to last season’s beaten finalists Montpellier to kickstart Round 11 on Saturday.
It is a golden chance for the cream of the French game to show that last weekend’s horror show at the Stade de France when Les Bleus stumbled to defeat against Fiji was a mere aberration.
Three members of the French squad – Louis Picamoles, Benjamin Fall and Kelian Galletier – are likely to feature in Vern Cotter’s Montpellier side alongside their two returning Georgians, Misha Nariashvili and Levan Chilachava.
They will have to wait until next season for French captain Guilhem Guirado who confirmed his move from Toulon earlier on Thursday but they may have the bonus of Johan Goosen coming back after six weeks out with an ankle injury.
Goosen – who retired from the sport in 2016 before joining the Top 14 runners up in the off-season – was carried off the field on a stretcher in October’s victory over Toulon.
But the 13-time Springbok has made a good recovery and could face Clermont.
Montpellier, who are currently ninth just four points behind fourth-placed La Rochelle, face a Clermont who put four tries past Lyon in a 31-11 win last week without their internationals.
The potential return of Camille Lopez, Rabah Slimani, Sebastien Vahaamahina and Arthur Iturria will only make them stronger.
While it is a game to mend some reputations it is also a chance for others to build theirs, none more so than Clermont’s Fijian-born wing Alveriti Raka who will receive his French citizenship on December 8, making him eligible for Jacques Brunel’s side in the Six Nations.
Another player creeping on to Brunel’s radar is 20-year-old Stade Francais flank Ryan Chapuis who will get a further chance to impress in Sunday’s feature match against second-placed Toulouse.
Chapuis has taken advantage of the injuries and absences this season to make a toehold in the Paris-based team. He has played a part in all 12 competitive games that Stade have played, starting nine, and has made a strong impression.
“People didn’t really believe in him,” former France captain Pascal Pape who coached him at the Stade academy told sports daily L’Equipe.
“He isn’t enormous physically and he is not the strongest. But he is the smartest. You have to be smart to succeed. You don’t need to be able to lift four hundred pounds to progress, it is also in the head.”
The other Parisian team Racing 92, third in the table seven points behind Clermont, also face an awkward weekend when they travel to La Rochelle who are one place and one point behind them – and unbeaten since the end of September.
That game is an indication of the congestion in the top half of the table – only four points separate third-placed Racing from Montpellier in ninth.
The bottom end of the table is a little clearer as Perpignan go into round 11 with just four points and a record of: Won 0, Drawn 0, Lost 10.
And now there is talk of Irish fly-half Paddy Jackson leaving the club. According to reports in the French media, the former Ulster playmaker has been spotted talking to Lyon about the possibility of jumping ship should Perpignan go down.
The Catalans, who were promoted in May as second division champions, are at home to Bordeaux-Begles who are seventh and keen to stay in the hunt for the play-offs.
Once mighty Toulon have stumbled on hard times of late. With just three wins to their name they are twelfth but a win over Grenoble on Saturday would lift them above their opponents.
Fixtures (all times GMT):
Saturday, December 1:
Montpellier v Clermont (13.45)
Lyon v Pau (17.05)
Castres v Agen (17.05)
La Rochelle v Racing 92 (17.05)
Toulon v Grenoble (19.45)
Sunday, December 2:
Perpignan v Bordeaux-Bègles (11.30)
Toulouse v Stade Francais (15.50)