Building to a perfect climax
April 17, 2014
He may be near the end of his career but Jonny Wilkinson continues to put in the hours ahead of Toulon's visit to Perpignan this weekend © Twitter
The most remarkable ever league phase of the Top 14 is approaching its climax with the atmosphere at a handful of European rugby's most febrile venues being cranked up to unprecedented levels.
Hostilities resume on Friday with the penultimate round of matches being kicked off at the Stade Pierre Antoine, home of defending champions Castres, where the visitors are league leaders Montpellier. Three years ago at the same venue, Martin Bustos Moyano kicked Montpellier to victory in a barrage tie between the two sides. This week, the Montpellier coach (as he was then) Fabien Galthie will be working on the basis his side need to win to stay on course for a top two finish and, with it, a direct route to the semi-finals. Castres' need for a result is more acute because if they're beaten then president Pierre-Yves Revol may as well buff up the Bouclier and pack it off to Paris.
The weekend's second kick-off takes place in the shadow of the Alps. The re-development of Oyonnax's Stade Charles Mathon began around this time last year with occasions like Saturday's in mind. Clermont Auvergne, Castres and Toulon are among those to have suffered defeat there this season.
Now, last season's Pro D2 champions have to put up a similar performance against 19-times champions Toulouse. The game has been a sold out for weeks and if you're new to the Top 14 then I'd recommend you find a television to watch it on. As an occasion there will be no other to touch it this season. Not at the Mayol; not at the Marcel Michelin; and perhaps not even at the Stade Jean Dauger where, on the league phase's final day, Bayonne will take on Castres with their Top 14 status at stake.
A home win at Oyonnax on Saturday would cause the most significant flicker of the seismic needle down in Perpignan where just four wins in their last 14 games have sent the 2009 champions spiralling towards the bottom. The bad news for Perpignan is that their last two games are against Toulon (at home on Saturday) and then at Clermont Auvergne on the final day. Defeat in both would make them the most likely side to join Biarritz in Pro D2 next season and with Clermont's winning sequence at home now up to 76 it's hard to imagine the Catalans stopping that from becoming 77. Clermont, after all, will almost certainly have to win the match - and possibly with all five points - to secure semi-final qualification.
Brive's hopes of a top six finish all but disappeared at Toulouse on Saturday night. But as one of just three French clubs to have won Europe's premier prize the significance of a seventh place league finish will not be lost on them. That would earn the 1997 Heineken Cup champions a play-off for the 20th spot in the inaugural Champions Cup. Given Brive have a trip to Biarritz followed by a home game against Oyonnax then you'd give them a fighting chance of doing just that.
Racing Metro come into this weekend on the back of scoring three tries in a match for the first time in almost three years © Twitter
Earlier this season, Racing owner Jacky Lorenzetti announced that their round 25 home game against Clermont was to shifted away from Paris and a few hours' west to Nantes. It always looked a potentially daft strategy; made to look dafter by Harlequins whose win there in December effectively ended Racing's Heineken Cup challenge. Had Lorenzetti persisted with the plan to take the Clermont game there then it is a decision that might have had a similar impact on their Top 14 aspirations.
Thankfully, that is for Racing fans, Lorenzetti was to reverse his decision meaning all they have to do now is repeat their Heineken Cup pool win against Les Jaunards at Colombes in October to ensure a top six finish. Racing will go into this weekend's match buoyed by last weekend's five-try mauling of hapless Biarritz. It was the first time Racing had scored five tries in a match for almost three years.
Saturday's second game in the capital is virtually a straight knockout between the teams in a share of seventh place: Stade Francais against Bordeaux-Begles. Back-to-back defeats have all but undone Les Bordelais' challenge. Saturday night offers a shot at redemption against a Paris side who since they sat on top of the log in January have picked up just seven points out of a possible 35.
Purposely I have left talking about Grenoble and Bayonne until last. For entirely different reasons I have a soft spot for both. Neither is flamboyant; that vogue word "pragmatic" would be a more suitable adjective though, even then, adopted with a euphemistic twist.
Grenoble deserve our respect having come up as Pro D2 champions two seasons ago and made themselves a tough nut to crack in the top flight. This season, as last, they have run out of steam with Spring in sight and need to arrest a dramatic slide which has seen them lose five straight matches and six of their last seven.
Defeat at home to Bayonne this weekend will leave them relying on results elsewhere to avoid a relegation that would have seemed impossible in mid-February. Bayonne's appeal is in their fanatical support and Basque traditions. The Stade Jean Dauger, though improved in recent seasons, remains underwhelming.
What stirs the blood is the atmosphere created by the followers of Aviron Bayonnais. They are less obviously affluent than their near neighbours just five kilometres down the road and bask, dare I say, in their reputation as being from the more grounded, spit 'n sawdust end of the Biarritz-Bayonne commune.
Pre-match rituals are followed with an almost religious fervour at Jean Dauger and they include the recital of the club hymn Pena Baiona which recounts tales of trips to Dax and Narbonne. Both of those two fallen giants are now in Pro D2 and I fear the song's words may yet prove prophetic with the second tier their destiny
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd