A GOLDEN AGE OF FRENCH CLUB RUGBY?
The return of European competition is about to let us know
In the strangest of years, we move from the end of a European season and straight into the next within a matter of weeks with all 14 French teams in action this coming weekend. So which teams will get their Christmas gifts early? And who’ll end up with an empty stocking?
The weekend’s European action kicks off on Friday with Bordeaux taking the trip to Franklin’s Gardens to face a Northampton side in poor form in the Premiership. Bordeaux’s attacking style of play, getting the best out of key players such as Jalibert, Ben Lam, and Cordero, could prove too much for a Northampton side who have leaked tries this season.
Following Bordeaux’s game comes what many feel will be the game of the weekend. Toulouse’s star-studded squad travel to the intimidating atmosphere of the Kingspan Stadium, where they meet in-form Ulster. The Northern Irish outfit have won 8 out of their opening 8 games this season and look a formidable proposition. Ulster’s last loss was to Toulouse in the quarterfinal of the Champions Cup in September. Will they have learnt their lessons from this defeat? This one is too close to call.
Saturday action starts with Clermont’s trip to reigning European Challenge Cup champions, Bristol Bears. Clermont’s dominance in European rugby has waned in recent years, especially when not at the Stade Marcel Michelin. An in-form Bristol will provide a stern test.
Toulon against Sale is an intriguing prospect. Both sides are yet to hit top form this season. Sale have been rocked by the sudden departure of long-standing Director of Rugby, Steve Diamond. Toulon might look to take advantage of that, extending their recent good home form with a win in Europe.
Montpellier welcome European powerhouse Leinster to the south of France for what will prove a tough opening game for Xavier Garbajosa’s side. Montpellier are struggling to produce consistent performances this season in the TOP 14, but with the likes of Cobus Reinach in their ranks, they’ll always stand a chance.
TOP 14 leaders, La Rochelle make the trip up to Edinburgh on Saturday evening hoping to replicate their domestic form. Standing in their way, an out-of-sorts Edinburgh side, who have leaked nearly 100 points in their last two games. La Rochelle must come into this game as favourites.
Lyon kick off Sunday’s action welcoming Gloucester to the Stade de Gerland. With 6 wins from their last 7 games, Lyon are one of Europe’s most in form sides. Their opponents Gloucester have struggled to find consistency this season and may find themselves on the end of another defeat if they cannot find a way to stop TOP 14 top try scorer Josua Tuisova crossing the whitewash again.
Last season’s Champions Cup runners-up, Racing 92 hope to go one better this season and are overwhelming favourites to start their campaign off with a win as they welcome Connacht to Paris. Finn Russell and Co. should have too much for them.
On Friday afternoon, Stade Français take on Benetton in their opening Challenge Cup game. Benetton are struggling domestically, losing all seven of their opening games. Stade Francais’ recent good home form should see them as comfortable winners in this one, even against a spirited Benetton.
Brive taking on Leicester pits two historic teams, full of rugby heritage, looking to relive past glories as they clash at Welford Road. Leicester’s woeful form in 2020 will give Brive confidence, especially after their first away win of the season vs. Agen in the TOP 14.
A faltering half-back partnership at club and country, big names, Ben Youngs and George Ford, look to provide Leicester with a base to attack, whilst Brive will secretly fancy their chances of achieving a famous win.
Saturday evening’s clash between Pau and Worcester sees two sides, struggling domestically, looking to forget their league troubles with an opening day Challenge cup victory. Pau have been unlucky with their results so far, losing by under seven points in each of their last four games. Worcester, however, have been dispatched quite easily in their last two games, and with the home advantage for Pau, they will be going in as favourites.
Also, over the weekend, Bayonne travel to Italy to play Zebre, Castres have a tough trip to the Liberty stadium where they will face Ospreys, and Agen welcome London Irish.
Some mouth-watering clashes in the offing. Which TOP 14 sides do you think will start their European campaigns with a victory, and which teams will have it all to do come matchday 2? Let us know on Facebook and Instagram.