Top 14: The impact of the World Cup absentees
More than half of the France starting XV at Eden Park on Saturday night are contracted to either Toulouse or Clermont Auvergne. Nothing unusual about that. They are two of the biggest hitters; the last two winners of the Bouclier de Brennus. Mind you – and given that both clubs also have players in New Zealand with the squads of Fiji, South Africa, Australia, Georgia, Wales, Argentina and Italy – you might have expected them both to struggle just a little bit over the first two months of the Top 14.
That couldn’t be much further from the truth.
Clermont, champions two years ago and with a dozen members of their squad away in New Zealand, are the only unbeaten side after five rounds and three points clear of their closest pursuers. Reigning champions Toulouse, meanwhile, are without 13 players at the World Cup; an impediment which hasn’t stopped them recording two wins away from home with their only defeat coming on the opening night at Bayonne. They are in a share of second spot with Castres – three points behind Les Jaunards.
Both clubs are, of course, not battling in the budget stakes though that doesn’t mean that the pain of being without so many quality players isn’t felt. They just seem to have a rather skilful way of coping.
Elsewhere, though, the impact of World Cup absences is hitting hard.
Take Montpellier, for example. It’s only weeks ago that, with 70 minutes gone on the clock, they were leading the Top 14 final in Paris. In the end, they fell just short but such had been their improvement last season –and with an increased budget to plunder on new blood – things looked as if they could only get better.
True, like more illustrious rivals, Montpellier too were facing up to the prospect of an early season stripped of World Cup stars. But they did stock up during the summer with proven Top 14 performers who were on neither Marc Lievremont’s radar nor any of his international equivalents. They include Thibaut Privat, a former France international who, time and again last season, kept Julien Pierre out of Vern Cotter’s starting line-up at Clermont and, in the absence of the injured captain Aurelien Rougerie, led them in the semi-final in May.
Also drafted into the Montpellier squad were Yoan Audrin, a versatile free-scoring wing / centre from Castres; Bayonne’s full-back / wing Jean-Baptiste Peyras and, from the same club, the former France and Stade Francais flanker Remy Martin. All are excellent Top 14 workhorses whose international ambitions have dwindled. In short, great signings for coach Fabien Galthie.
Yet the Midas touch which characterised the former France scrum-half’s first season in charge at Montpellier has deserted him in the first month of the new season. And he seems at a loss to explain how a team which beat Toulon, Castres and Racing-Metro on its way to the Top 14 final should before the end of September have succumbed to home defeats at the hands of two sides thought by afcionados to be the most likely to be relegated, Brive and Bordeaux-Begles.
Montpellier have yet to record a league victory with their best return a 19-19 draw at Stade Francais in round three.
But if you think things are looking grim for Galthie, spare a thought for the Bayonne Express Patrick Lagisquet. By their own high standards Biarritz have had a disappointing couple of years. They missed out on the play-offs two seasons ago and only just sneaked in last time. President Serge Blanco acted swiftly in the off-season. Having felt that the squad needed the firm hand of a figure highly respected in the Basque region he turned to Lagisquet who had led the club to three French championship titles in five seasons between 2002 and ’06.
By early in the summer Lagisquet was back at the helm and calling the shots in pre-season training. What’s happened over the first five weeks, though, must be making him wonder whether he should have come back at all. Like Montpellier, Biarritz have just one draw to show for their efforts – at home to Agen. Remarkably, they’ve already lost twice at their Stade Aguilera home (to Castres and Perpignan).
Next up for Biarritz is a two-hour drive up to Bordeaux-Begles on Friday night. As road trips go – and under normal circumstances – it’s a match Lagisquet would be targeting as a potential “four-pointer”
But “normal” is not where les Biarrots find themselves now. For Lagisquet, the return from New Zealand of names likes Harinordoquy, Yachvili, Traille and Barcella can’t come quickly enough.
ESPN rugby expert Martin Gillingham is the lead commentator for the broadcaster’s live coverage of the French rugby union championship, the Top 14. Visit espn.co.uk/tv for more informationTagged in: rugby union, top 14, world cup
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