There are stories of elation and dejection just waiting to be written as we enter the final stages of the Top 14, it's too close to call...
Spare a thought this week for Grenoble manager Fabrice Landreau. At the end of March his side were in the top six of the Top 14 and looking good for a place in next season’s Champions Cup. They’d just beaten Stade Francais on the road, only the second time the Parisians had lost at home this season, and next up for Grenoble was the visit of bottom-placed Castres. It should have been another victory to move them further up the table, but a slack first-half cost Grenoble dear and they lost 16-12.
Morale slumped, form, too, and three more defeats followed to leave Grenoble hovering above the drop zone and trying not to think of the financial implications of relegation to the ProD2. “This championship, it’s terrible, for us and for the other clubs,” mused Landreau on Saturday evening, in the wake of Grenoble’s 37-17 defeat to Clermont. “These two last weekends are going to be terrible for the nerves.”
Next up for Grenoble is the visit to the Stade des Alpes on Saturday of in-form Toulouse, who have won their last five league matches to move into third. This is the same Toulouse side who in the early autumn lost the same number of games on the bounce. If Grenoble lose to Toulouse their fate will be decided on the final weekend of the championship when they go to Lyon.
That is at least some comfort to Landreau and his fellow coach, former Leinster and Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman. Lyon are ten points adrift at the foot of the table and, barring a mathematical miracle, as good as relegated. They travel to Oyonnax on Friday night, to play the surprise package of this season’s Top 14. Lying fifth in the table, Oyonnax know that with their final game away at Toulon they must beat Lyon if they’re to have any chance of finishing in the top six.
Lying one place above Lyon are Bayonne, on 47 points, the same number as Castres who have a superior points difference. Bayonne are at Bordeaux on Saturday, a tough place to visit at any time, but particularly when their hosts are still in with a chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions Cup.
Bayonne’s final match is at home to La Rochelle, another side who have punched above their weight this season, but the hosts will be quietly confident of victory given what is at stake and the atmosphere of their raucous supporters.
As for Castres, they have the biggest game of their season on Saturday when they welcome Brive to the Stade Pierre Antoine. Brive, hammered 67-19 by Toulouse on Saturday, are on 48 points (the same number as Grenoble) and victory over Castres should ensure their survival, as they’re at home to Stade Francais for the final match of the season. Not an easy fixture but a better one than Castres, whose season concludes with a trip to Racing Metro.
Racing Metro are experiencing another season of frustrating inconsistency. Though they reached the last eight of the Champions Cup for the first time, Racing’s indiscipline in the dying seconds of the quarter-final against Saracens cost them a place in the semi. It also appears to have cost them their confidence as Racing have failed to win their three league games since that slip-up against Sarries.
Racing are sixth in the table and it’s conceivable that with an awkward away trip to La Rochelle on Saturday they could finish outside the top six. Were that to happen one imagines there would be repercussions from owner Jacky Lorenzetti who, despite huge investment, has yet to see any major silverware in the nine years since he got involved with the Parisian club. Lorenzetti has never been the No1 fan of Mourad Boudjellal but how he must envy his Toulon counterpart whose involvement with the Cote d’Azur club also began in 2006.
Having won an unprecedented third European title at the start of the month, Toulon are well placed to clinch a second successive Top 14 title, and at the same time create another piece of rugby history by winning back-to-back doubles.
Four points ahead of second placed Clermont, Toulon clash with their arch rivals on Sunday night at the Stade Marcel Michelin, but the pressure will be more on the hosts’ shoulders. Clermont are just one point clear of Toulouse and two in front of Stade Francais, and after Toulon Les Jaunards wrap up their regular season with a trip to Montpellier, who are now finding some form under Jake White.
So tight is it at the top that Clermont could win the regular season championship or they could finish fifth, sixth or, albeit very unlikely, seventh. As Landreau said, the next fortnight are going to be “terrible for the nerves”, for those at the top and at the bottom.