Toulon looking to rebound against Clermont

The row over next season’s European Cup will take backstage in France on the weekend as the Top 14 offers up more mouth-watering clashes, notably between Toulon and Clermont.

Toulon pipped Clermont to the European crown by a point last season and while rumours of an Anglo-French split from the tournament rumble on, it is back to the rough and tumble of league action, the bread-and-butter entertainment of French club rugby.

Toulon will have a point to prove, having lost 25-22 last weekend to newly-promoted Oyonnax, coach Bernard Laporte laying out in no uncertain terms his feelings after the match.

“It’s a match we could have won by 30 points but we lost it,” Laporte told AFP, having seen his star-studded outfit fall prey to a last-gasp drop goal by Argentina fly-half Benjamin Urdallipeta.

“Some players didn’t do what they had to do.”

The scalp was not Oyonnax’s first of the season, having already beaten Clermont and defending Top 14 champions Castres, as just 10 points separates leaders Stade Francais from 13th-placed Bayonne, with bottom club Biarritz the sole adrift on just seven.

But the success of the small club from eastern France, close to the Swiss city of Geneva, or the fact that Saturday’s match was against Clermont were not things that interested Laporte.

The defeat involved “players I love, players I chose with president (Mourad) Boudjellal”, the former France coach said.

“We spoke together and they reassured me that they were committed.”

Turning to the weekend, Laporte added: “Defeats are always forbidden! But the opponents count for little, I don’t care that it’s Clermont.

“They’ll do what they’ve got to do and we, if only we do what we have to do… Clermont are a very good team – we didn’t learn that this morning.”

Clermont sit in second in the table one point ahead of Toulon, and welcome back France centre Aurelien Rougerie for the game at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice.

Rougerie has been out all season with a foot injury, but will face a baptism of fire against the likes of human wrecking ball Mathieu Bastareaud and Australian playmaker Matt Giteau at the 35,000-capacity stadium.

“It’s good to get thrown into the deep end,” smiled Rougerie.

The late kick-off on Saturday pitches Stade Francais away at fifth-placed Toulouse, whose start to the season has seen them lose four of the opening eight matches.

Stade have, along with Oyonnax, undoubtedly been the surprise package of the season.

Superbly led by Italy No 8 Sergio Parisse, they have this season a little changed squad, with a host of younger players showing their full potential.

Prop Rabah Slimani, lock Alexandre Flanquart, fly-half Jules Plisson and full-back Hugo Bonneval have all shone in the opening weekends, the first two receiving deserved call-ups to a France training camp alongside flanker Antoine Burban.

Things can surely only get better with the arrival next week of Springbok fly-half Morne Steyn and his unerring boot, and Australian winger Digby Ioane, a proven finisher.

“We wanted to put in place a new gameplan, but above all recreate a soul, to strengthen the one that was there already, to define our identity,” said newly-installed coach Gonzalo Quesada, the former Argentina playmaker.

The Parisian team has no doubt also been boosted by the move into its new Jean-Bouin stadium, attracting bigger crowds and now a real “home” for the club that likes playing in pink.

An average of 16,000 fans packed the stands for the first four home games of the season, something not lost on the players.

“It’s the best set-up I’ve ever seen, we’ve got everything a rugby player can dream of,” said South African lock Gerhard Mostert, who previously played for the Lions and Sharks.

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Friday

Biarritz v Perpignan (1845)

Saturday

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