By Gavin Mortimer
TWO ROUNDS of the Top 14 to go and down at the foot of the table it’s looking tight. Lyon are doomed, that much is sure, even though the club clearly doesn’t intend to hang around too long in Division Two. Last month they announced the signings of Lionel Nallet and Sebastien Chabal which, along with the probable arrival of hooker Huw Bennett from the Ospreys, should ensure they bounce straight back up.
But who will join Lyon in taking their leave from the Top 14? In theory it could be any one of six clubs – Agen, Biarritz, Perpignan, Bordeaux-Begles, Brive and Bayonne – though the last two are in the greatest peril. Brive and Bayonne are stuck on 42 points, three fewer than the rest of their relegation-threatened rivals, and both have crucial home encounters this weekend. Brive host Bordeaux-Begles while Bayonne entertain Agen, must-win games for both as what follows on the last weekend of the championship is grim. Brive travel to Clermont, who haven’t lost a home league match for 42 matches, while Bayonne go to Castres, who’ll be hoping to secure their place in the play-offs with a victory.
Brive’s English fly-half Shane Geraghty has already announced he’s jumping ship whatever the outcome of the relegation dogfight, returning to London Irish in a two-year year deal. The future of scrum-half Mike Phillips at Bayonne, however, is less uncertain. At the end of March the French rugby newspaper Midi Olympique announced that the Welshman, who turns 30 in August, would “stay at Bayonne next year even if the club is relegated to Division Two”. It added that Phillips, capped 65 times by Wales, was even prepared to “accept a drop in wage in the event of relegation”.
But a fortnight ago a report appeared in WalesOnline.co.uk calling into question Phillips’ future with Bayonne if they did go down. “Phillips has a long-term deal with Bayonne,” ran the report, “but it’s unclear whether he has a release clause should they be relegated.”
Phillips is staying mum on the subject, preferring to do his talking on the pitch and doing his best to drag Bayonne out of the mire. He put in a man-of-the-match performance in the 24-19 derby victory over Biarritz last month, and was also to the fore when Bayonne beat Lyon the following week, two victories that have given the club a fighting chance of avoiding the drop to financial oblivion.
But if Bayonne were to be relegated would Phillips really stay on? Next season culminates with a Lions tour to Australia and nine months in the anonymity of the French Second Division, playing against the likes of Albi and Auch, won’t exactly help Phillips stake a claim for selection in Warren Gatland’s squad. There are a lot of good No 9’s in British and Irish rugby right now, and there was the odd sign during Wales’ Six Nations success that Phillips was a yard off the pace in thought and deed. He needs to be keeping himself sharp and testing himself against the best week in and week out if he wants to be on the plane Down Under – not wasting himself with Bayonne in the back of beyond.