Four teams are all battling to avoid the drop from the French top flight as the season reaches its climax – here's the lowdown…
In the foothills of the Alps last Saturday no one gave a hoot about the Heineken Cup. Instead all eyes in Oyonnax were on their rearranged Top 14 fixture against Bordeaux. Originally, the match had been scheduled for February, but the shocking weather that battered the British Isles for much of that month also brought havoc in France and the match was postponed because of severe flooding.
On Saturday evening Oyonnax beat Bordeaux 26-12 in the rearranged fixture, a result that lifts them from 13th to 11th. They now have 48 points, four more than Bayonne, who slip into the relegation zone, and two more than Perpignan. With Biarritz already condemned to the Pro2 next season, it means Bayonne, Perpignan, Oyonnax and Grenoble (on 50 points) must all scrap like crazy in the three remaining rounds of the regular season.
Relegation dogfights are always vicious affairs but this season’s will have more bite than usual given the recent TV deal agreed between the LNR and Canal Plus. Of the €355m heading the way of the French domestic game in the next five years, 63% will feather the nests of Top 14 clubs with the remaining 37% divided up among the 16 clubs in the Pro2. That’s a huge discrepancy, one guaranteed to give the presidents of those four clubs in the relegation red zone sleepless nights between now and 3 May, the date of the final round of matches.
In gravest danger of the drop are Bayonne, which would be a devastating blow to Basque pride. To see one regional club relegated in a season is bad enough, but were Biarritz and Bayonne both to forfeit their elite status then it would only strengthen the calls in some quarters for the two clubs to merge.
Bayonne’s trio of outstanding matches are tough. This Saturday they host Stade Francais with the Parisians knowing they must win to keep alive their hopes of qualifying for the play-offs. On the penultimate weekend of the regular season, Bayonne travel to Grenoble, who have lost only twice at home this season, and last up are Castres. While the reigning champions have an appalling record on the road this season (just one win in Montpellier), they will be desperate to win to guarantee their place in the place-offs.
Perpignan’s trio of matches are hardly any less daunting. The Catalans host Oyonnax on Saturday, followed a week later by Toulon and their campaign then ends at Clermont.
And spare a thought for Oyonnax. After their trip to Perpignan, they entertain Toulouse before bringing down the curtain on their season with a trip to Brive, beaten just once at home this season.
Grenoble must also face Toulouse – on the last day of the championship – but before then they host Montpellier and Bayonne. The fact they’ve six more points than Bayonne means that if Grenoble secure a bonus-point win against the Basques on 19 April they’ll be safe.
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In the top half of the table, meanwhile, Oyonnax’s win was good news for a host of clubs locked in the struggle to secure one of the six play-off places. Only eight points separate leaders Montpellier from Toulouse in sixth, hence the reason Toulouse put in such a limp performance against Munster on Saturday. The Top 14 is their priority and while their 58 points keeps them in the play-offs, Bordeaux and Stade (7th and 8th) have the same number of points while 9th-placed Brive are on 55 and have arguably the easiest run-in.
All of which means we’re in for a tense few weeks this side of the Channel. Anyone know the French for ‘squeaky bum time’?