Top 14 Play-Offs
Crunch time for Toulouse and Clermont
May 6, 2010
Toulouse and Castres will renew hostilities this weekend © Getty Images
The Top 14 is more than just a competition to French players and fans; their storied league competition is ferociously hard to win and provides a thrilling conclusion year upon year.
This season there is an added twist as the doors have been opened to the top six, with two play-off games set to decide the semi-final opponents for Perpignan and Toulon, who ended the regular season on top of the pile. The first of those will take place on Friday night at Clermont Auvergne's Stade Marcel Michelin, where a sold out crowd will welcome Racing Metro.
Clermont are already considered French rugby's bridesmaids, having failed to win in any of their 10 Top 14 finals, including in the last three Stade de France showpieces. Their loss to Perpignan in last year's final was a crushing blow and their mixed league form this season was ironically bettered in Europe, where they were again tipped for top honours before falling to Leinster in the quarter-finals.
Victories over Biarritz and fellow play-off contenders Castres in recent weeks will have cheered their spirits after sloppy defeats to lowly Bayonne and Montpellier, but as ever the main question marks surround their mental preparation rather than their explosive playing reserves. Racing have enjoyed a fantastic return to the top flight following promotion last season but, backed by deep pockets, they will not want to stop here. Heineken Cup qualification for next season has been assured and while they enter the game as underdogs they have a pack, including the rejuventated Lionel Nallet, that can compete with the hosts and will not give an inch.
The fitness of French international scrum-half Morgan Parra was a concern prior to the game, with the diminutive playmaker struggling with a rib problem, but he has been passed fit to join pivot Brock James in the starting line-up. The duo may share kicking duties following the Australian's nightmare showing from the tee against Leinster.
Clermont cannot afford to miss their shots at goal, particularly as Racing Metro's Jonathan Wisniewski and Andrew Mehrtens are waiting in the wings to punish any lapses of discipline. Racing will however be without prop Baiocco Clement (thigh), back-rower Simon Raiwalui (knee) and utility back Sefulu Gaugau for the game. In a bold move, Wisniewski has been shifted to fullback, with former Springbok Francois Steyn moved from the centre to fly-half. Mehrtens starts on the bench.
Clermont's inspirational skipper Aurelien Rougerie is fit to take his place at fullback while Racing will feel the force of Clermont's giant back-three as Napolioni Nalaga and Julien Malzieu both start. Marius Joubert and Gonzalo Canale start in midfield.
In a major blow up front however, Pumas hooker Mario Ledesma will miss the game due to a knee injury. His place goes to Benoit Cabello, while Thomas Domingo and David Zirakashvili are the props. Clermont can call on their strongest back-row as Elvis Vermeulen is joined by flankers Julien Bonnaire and Alexandre Lapandry.
The other play-off sees this season's surprise package, Castres go up against the might of Toulouse. Having led the way for much of the season, Castres have tailed off in recent weeks just as, ominously, Toulouse have hit their straps.
With a Heineken Cup final looming large for Guy Noves' troops following their win over reigning champions Leinster last weekend, their earlier domestic wobbles have been forgotten in the pursuit of the double. Castres will need to put aside memories of their 25-17 defeat in Toulouse two weeks ago, when the boot of fullback Romain Teulet was not enough to salvage a result as their pack was beasted. Vilimoni Delasau, Cedric Heymans and Finau Maka scored Toulouse's tries in a big psychological victory.
Veteran campaigners Heymans and David Skrela could be rested by Toulouse while Castres are sweating over the fitness of France prop Luc Ducalcon after he was forced to sit out training this week. In better news for the underdogs, Carl Hoeft and Daniel Saayman should be fit to take their place in the front-row and centre Yohan Audrin is also nearing a return.