Toulon face tough Stade Francais Test

Star-studded league newboys Toulon host unbeaten Stade Francais in the French rugby union championship this weekend desperate to get back to winning ways.


The club’s newest signing, South African flanker Joe Van Niekerk (pictured), is one player itching to be pitched into Top 14 battle just 10 days after arriving in France.


“I saw that Toulon were talented in their league opener against Clermont (whom they beat),” the 51-time capped Springbok said of his new club that surged back into French premiership rugby after on the back of heavy investment from its president Mourad Boudjellal.


“I know that it has since gone less well but it is difficult to win in the South-West bastions. The club must face up to that and I am here to help them do it.”


Toulon lost last week 25-18 to Mont-de-Marsan, also newly-promoted from Pro D2, and drew 3-3 with Brive the week before.


Van Niekerk said he expected the clash with Stade Francais, unbeaten in three outings, to be a “tough up-front battle”.


But the key might likely come from the teams’ linchpins at outside-half, where Stade boast the enviable talents of Argentinian Juan Martin Hernandez and France international Lionel Beauxis.


Despite having recruited 19 new players in the off season, Toulon are still struggling to fill the gap left by the departure of influential former All Black Andrew Mehrtens.


On Friday, French veteran Sebastien Fauque will wear Toulon’s No 10 shirt with Italian international Ramiro Pez dropping back to full-back.


But neither player has so far impressed Toulon coach Tana Umaga.


“We have some good players but their decisions are not good,” said the former All Black captain of his outside-half options. “They’re still struggling somewhat to make their mark in our gameplan.”


The other unbeaten side in the league, Bayonne, travel from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean for an encounter against Perpignan.


Saturday also sees a mouth-watering clash between ninth-placed Clermont and Toulouse, a re-run of last season’s Top 14 play-off final, won by the latter.


Clermont’s failure to beat Toulouse was the eighth time in the club’s history it had spurned the chance of guaranteeing any silverware.


“I don’t have any particular worries. There are no psychological problems or wounds to heal,” said Clermont president Rene Fontes.


With captain Aurelien Rougerie out for at least three months, and Springbok captain John Smit having left the club, Toulouse seem to hold the upper hand.


After beating Biarritz last Sunday, coach Guy Noves has decided to rotate his squad, but Byron Kelleher will once again be in action after Jean-Baptiste Elissalde was ruled out with injury.


David Skrela will also be handed a first game at outside-half, but No 8 Finau Maka will be out for a month after fracturing his hand against Biarritz.


Other matches see Castres host bottom club Dax, third-placed Montauban travel to Montpellier, Bourgoin entertain Mont-de-Marsan, and Brive play away at Biarritz.


Fixtures


Friday
Toulon v Stade Francais

Saturday
Perpignan v Bayonne, Castres v Dax, Montpellier v Montauban,
Bourgoin v Mont-de-Marsan, Clermont v Toulouse, Biarritz v Brive


Sapa-AFP – Top14Rugby.com

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