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Kolisi's big job against Top 14 heavyweights

PREVIEW: Siya Kolisi’s Racing 92 will face La Rochelle in the final round of the French Top 14’s regular season on Saturday as one of five clubs eyeing the final two play-off spots.

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A win for Racing on the Atlantic coast against fifth-placed La Rochelle would guarantee them a spot in next weekend’s matches with the hosts, Perpignan, Castres and Clermont also in with a chance.

A defeat would leave Racing’s hopes depending on other results as they look to avoid missing out on the play-offs for the first time since promotion to the Top 14 in 2009.

Iconic loose forward Kolisi joined the sixth-placed Parisians this season after leading South Africa to a second straight World Cup in October.

“There are a lot of competitors in the team who are energised by the challenge,” Racing head coach Stuart Lancaster told reporters on Thursday.

“Now we’ve got to his point, all the work, it comes down to this weekend,” the former England coach added.

Adding to the drama is that of all the games start at the same time and teams will be separated by their head-to-head record if they finish on the same amount of points.

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Seventh-placed Perpignan go to Pau, Castres in eighth spot travel to Bayonne and Clermont in ninth host struggling Montpellier.

“It’s pretty unique,” Lancaster said.

“If you worry too much about what everyone else is doing you lose focus on your own performance and you lose the game,” he added.

La Rochelle power

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Former Leinster coach Lancaster takes the trip to Stade Marcel-Deflandre, where La Rochelle have lost just once in the league this season, with some extra motivation.

La Rochelle and their giant pack including prop Uini Atonio, lock Will Skelton and No.8 Gregory Alldritt beat Lancaster’s Leinster in two straight Champions Cup Finals, denying the Irish province a fifth title.

The defensive abilities of Kolisi, whose season has been hampered by injuries, to stop La Rochelle’s monstrous forwards as well as Racing’s talented backs such as Fiji wing Josua Tuisova and France scrumhalf Nolann Le Garrec could be crucial in helping them to the play-offs.

“I have a lot of respect for La Rochelle because of my experiences at Leinster, how strong they are,” Lancaster said.

“The power of Skelton and Atonio together and Alldritt’s a world-class player.

“They have a lot of options,” the 54-year-old in his first season in charge of Racing added.

For Pau, chasing a Champions Cup berth for next season, New Zealand lock Sam Whitelock is set to play the final game of his illustrious career having bowed out of Test rugby after last year’s World Cup Final defeat to Kolisi’s Springboks.

Also, leaders Toulouse, who are already guaranteed of a semifinal berth, head to Lyon with scrumhalf Antoine Dupont rested having won the Champions Cup and the World Rugby Sevens event in Madrid in the space of eight days.

Third-placed Toulon can claim a surprise last four spot if they beat Stade Francais who are in second, after a stuttering season which has included February’s run of three straight league defeats.

Toulon’s trip to Paris comes almost a decade to the day since their star-studded side including Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Bakkies Botha claimed a Champions Cup and Top 14 double.

Elsewhere in French rugby this weekend, Grenoble play Vannes in the Final of the second-tier ProD2 for promotion to the top-flight.

The loser of Saturday’s game in Toulouse will get a second chance of moving up when they play Montpellier in June 16’s promotion play-off.

Fixtures:

Top 14:

Saturday:
Bayonne v Castres
Bordeaux-Begles v Oyonnax
Clermont v Montpellier
La Rochelle v Racing 92
Lyon v Toulouse
Stade Francais v Toulon
Pau v Perpignan

ProD2 Final

Saturday:
Grenoble v Vannes

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