PREVIEW: Mad scramble for play-off places in France
TOP 14, WEEK 24: With three Top 14 rounds left, the weekend gives four teams the chance to kick away the fingers of rivals clutching at their shirt tales.
At the top, Toulouse are already sure of a bye in the first round of the play-offs. Clermont, almost certain to join them, host Perpignan, doomed to finish last.
That leaves seven teams battling for the four places in the first round of the play-offs and two fighting to avoid finishing 13th and facing a relegation play-off against a second division team.
All three of the teams chasing a top-six finish visit one of the sides they must catch.
Montpellier, in seventh, go to fourth-place Castres. Bordeaux-Begles, in eighth, travel to Lyon, who are third. The weekend finishes with Stade Francais, ninth, making the short trip to fifth-place Racing 92.
The two teams fighting to avoid the relegation play-off meet at Grenoble, where victory for Agen will ensure safety.
The match in Castres pits the reigning champions against the team that won the title in 2017.
Castres dominated a brutal game against Toulouse last week, out-scored the league leaders three tries to none and still lost 20-21.
“This defeat is cruel and leaves a bad taste,” said coach Christophe Urios. “I don’t know how we lost.”
They lost because they only landed one kick all match.
“It will be tough,” Montpellier coach Vern Cotter said. “We will have to hang on because it will be hard, especially as they lost at home to Toulouse.”
Lyon have a chance to seal a play-off spot when they face Bordeaux-Begles in a game between two teams who might feel less than confident.
Bordeaux cannot win away. Lyon lost at Agen last week.
“When we are not 100 percent, we become a little average as a team,” said Lyon prop David Attoub. “There may be a bit of weariness after 10 months of the season. We are human.”
Stade Francais, who visit local rivals Racing 92 on Sunday, proved all too human, blowing a lead last week at home to Clermont after being reduced to 13.
Racing are also coming off a loss, going down by two points at Pau, even though the hosts finished with 14.
Racing insisted they had not been distracted by the news that one of their two coaches, Laurent Labit, is leaving for the French team. Labit and Laurent Travers started coaching together in 2005.
“It would be nice to be able to close this two-man adventure with a title so that Laurent can leave by the front door,” Travers said.
For Toulouse and Clermont the challenge is to avoid further injuries while maintaining their edge.
Clermont recall French backs Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez, who rested last week, and South African lock Flip van der Merwe, after a five-week ban, against hapless Perpignan.
“We must attack the final stages of the season. We cannot fall in an exhibition match, playing balls in all directions,” said Merwe, who announced on Thursday he would retire after the season. “We have to be serious.”
For their key game at Grenoble, the Agen coaching staff tried to ensure focus by refusing to name a squad and telling all 26 healthy players to turn up on Friday morning with a piece of identity for the flight to Grenoble.
Toulouse v Pau
Castres v Montpellier
Clermont v Perpignan
Grenoble v Agen
La Rochelle v Toulon
Lyon v Bordeaux-Begles
Racing 92 v Stade Francais