Top 14 Verdict - Part 2
Charge to Le Bouclier de Brennus
May 23, 2012
Will Thierry Dusautoir be lifting Le Bouclier de Brennus again this season? © Getty Images
The play-offs kick off on Friday night with Castres taking on Montpellier at Toulouse's Stade Ernest Wallon. On Saturday, Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon are at home to Racing Metro in the second Match de Barrage. So what have I made of the top six's seasons so far? And what are their prospects of going all the way to Paris and the final on June 9..?
6th, Racing-Metro 64 points
What a tumultuous few months it has been for last year's beaten semi-finalists. The most vocal coach in Europe (Simon Mannix) was sacked; so too the continent's highest paid player (Sebastien Chabal); and then the billionaire owner had to step in and save the head coach Pierre Berbizier from the baying mob of players who had demanded his removal. In between times, Racing have been reckless on the pitch. Somehow, though, they have sneaked into the play-offs and must now travel to Toulon. Twelve months ago they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the Marseille semi-final with the tournament apparently at their mercy. This time around their cause looks helpless. So in keeping with Racing's reputation for unpredictability, I'm reluctant to write them off. Frankly, anything from implosion to glorious victory is possible at the Stade Mayol on Saturday night.
5th, Montpellier 67
The importance of rugby has been given perspective at Montpellier this season by the health battles of head coach Fabien Galthie's No.2 Eric Bechu. The entire squad wore t-shirts carrying his name during their warm-up for the round 26 match when they came close to an upset win at the same venue (Stadium de Toulouse) - and against the same opposition (Toulouse) - as they hope to be involved in a semi-final on June 2. Inspired by Galthie, as well as last year's near miss when they came within 10 minutes of claiming the title, they should not be discounted. They'll travel to Toulouse for the barrage tie "away" to Castres on Friday (May 25) knowing that their hosts have lost twice at the same ground already this season and haven't won there for 34 years. Montpellier will also be lifted by the presence of their giant Georgian enforcer Mamuka Gorgodze who was sent off against Toulouse but whose punishment with a 10-day suspension amounts to exoneration.
4th, Castres 69
Despite having given up "home" advantage for Friday's barrage tie against Montpellier - Stade Ernest Wallon holds 17,000 to Pierre Antoine's 10,000 - Castres shall start as favourites. Remarkably, it's the same match-up as last year when, at Castres' traditional home, Martin Bustos Moyano kicked all the visitors' points to secure an 18-17 victory and inflict Castres' only home league defeat of the season. This time around Castres have been more vulnerable at the Pierre Antoine yet, unlike last year, appear to be timing their season with greater maturity. The two Laurents (coaches Labit and Travers) are masters of their craft and shall be bidding farewell to two crowd favourites this season - Chris Masoe who is off to Toulon and Racing-bound Luc Ducalcon. Their departure and the menacing presence of Castres legend Gerard Cholley looking on from the public enclosure should amply compensate for the advantage lost in having switched the game to the big city.
3rd, Toulon 73
Head coach Bernard Laporte needs to be both shrewd and lucky if he's to get to Paris for the final and, in all honesty, the odds must be against him. Last weekend's Amlin final at the Twickenham Stoop was the first of what will be four straight weekends of knockout rugby if Toulon are to lift the Bouclier de Brennus for the first time in 20 years. That they lost against Biarritz in London on Friday can only have upped the ante. Toulon have more incentive than most to become champions. Last year they missed out on the play-offs altogether and in 2010 they were denied in the semi-final by referee Jerome Garces whose decision to award Davit Zirakashvili's try without having consulted the television match official was exposed as a gaffe by replays which showed the Clermont prop had dropped the ball over the line. The tie went to extra-time and Clermont won it 35-29 on their way to their first ever title. Just Racing Metro now stand between Toulon's madcap millionaire owner Mourad Boudjellal and another semi-final tilt at Clermont. The Stade Mayol faithful, worked into a frenzy by the Pilou Pilou, will have Jonny and co. puffing out their chests at kick off. Racing had better be prepared for the onslaught to follow.
2nd, Clermont Auvergne 87
A second title would be a just reward for one of Europe's most attractive teams. For starters, they would surely be celebrating a first Heineken Cup triumph this week had Wesley Fofana not fluffed the touchdown in the dying moments of the semi-final against Leinster last month. And that can only increase the pressure felt by this Clermont squad which is the most gifted and expensively assembled in the club's 100-year history. The up side of the Bordeaux botch up is that head coach Vern Cotter has been able to rest up those scarred physically and mentally by that experience. Loose-head prop Thomas Domingo's return after a dreadful year blighted by knee injuries is also timely. Aurelien Rougerie and his team will be primed to deliver when either Toulon or Racing rock up for the Toulouse semi on June 3.
1st, Toulouse 87
They finished top by virtue of having won more league points in the two matches against Clermont (5-4) which is remarkable when you consider Toulouse won the home leg 22-9 but lost 35-5 at the Stade Marcel Michelin. It is a set of statistics which rather sums up the champions who waited until the last 10 minutes of last year's Paris final before edging past Montpellier. Indeed, when judged by the lofty standards set by Guy Noves, Toulouse have been similarly underwhelming this season. Just once, in their Yuletide 45-25 gallop over Montpellier in round 13, have they been jaw-droppingly good. With Lionel Beauxis at 10; Yann David wearing 12, and Maxime Medard sidelined until the autumn, their mark for artistic impression is a long way shy of Torvill and Dean's. Just the speedster Timoci Matanavou from broken play or chasing the floated cross-kick is a consistent threat. How far they've regressed was exposed particularly by Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup quarter-final. Even so, with a "home" semi booked against either Castres or Montpellier they are probable finalists where I reckon they'll face Clermont.
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This article first appeared in The Independent on May 15, visit http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/