1. Racing Metro are getting it together at just the right time.
Back in January, Racing Metro really couldn’t do anything right. December seemed to signal an end to their poor form with a 14-3 victory over Toulon filling them with confidence, but the knives were out once again when they followed it up with a dour 6-0 defeat at the hands of Oyonnax.
Of their three star signings, Jonny Sexton looked unhappy and perplexed at playing in a constantly changing backline, Jamie Roberts had hardly featured due to injury and Dan Lydiate couldn’t seem to get his head around French rugby. The week before the Six Nations started, however, Mike Phillips made his debut and Sexton crossed for a fifth minute try in a 25-5 in over Toulouse and they haven’t looked back.
A run of 7 wins and a draw since was capped by a 22-6 hammering of Clermont in Paris at the weekend. The victory handed them qualification for next year’s Champions Cup and guaranteed a play-off place, while putting them in the driving seat for a home quarter-final. No Heineken Cup rugby has left them to focus on sorting out their domestic form and this has led to results of the level the owner Jacky Lorenzetti would have expected for his money. Sexton and Maxime Machenaud have formed an improving partnership and are ably backed up by Phillips and Juan Martin Hernandez. Roberts has gotten a run of games and the scores are flowing, with 142 points in their last 5 games.
Sexton playing with a smile on his face is about as dangerous a proposition as there is in Northern Hemisphere rugby and though they may lack the forward power of Toulon, in this form they are a threat to any team in the knockout stages.
2. Toulon are still the team to beat.
Last year’s beaten finalists made it 7 wins from 8 with a 46-31 win over Perpignan, and that the solitary defeat came in a 22-16 reverse away to Clermont makes the run all the more impressive. Fielding a team without Jonny Wilkinson, Mathieu Basteraud, Carl Hayman, Drew Mitchell and Sebastian Tillous-Borde from the team that beat Leinster, They nonetheless carried on their march to top spot in the league season, as ever making full use of their extensive forward power. Frederic Michalak did his best Wilkinson impression, making the most of his opportunities to kick 26 points.
The Heineken Cup champions have looked irresistible since January, and are playing like a team determined to make up for their shock 19-14 defeat to Castres in last year’s final. It’s going to take a huge performance to stop them in the semi-final or final.
3. It’s a long, long road back for Biarritz.
Biarritz, champions in 2002, 2005, 2006 and two-time Heineken Cup finalists, who gained a begrudging respect and even affection from Irish supporters during their numerous battles with the provinces, have hit upon hard times. Two consecutive 9th place finishes had seen them drop out of the elite, but no one could have predicted the collapse that has occurred this season. Their relegation was mathematically confirmed in the round of games after the end of the Six Nations and they sit a huge 20 points adrift at the bottom of the table.
Their 19-13 win over Brive, just their 5th of the season, would have come as a relief to supporters, but a close look at the team sheets tells you all you need to know about the future for this once great team.
The victory was an emotional one, as it came in the last home game of legendary scrum half Dimitri Yachvili before his retirement. At 33, Yachvili’s body has had enough, and it’s hard to blame the Grand Slam winner and World Cup 2011 silver medalist if he doesn’t fancy dragging Biarritz out of Pro D2. Alongside him, as ever, were Imanol Harinordoquy (34) and Damian Traille (34) at full back. After so many years being built around these players, the team has grown old together and a serious rebuilding job is needed. They have begun by signing Scotland’s Nick De Luca for next season, a sure sign of how the mighty have fallen.
4.Saracens and Munster have mountains to climb.
With the Top 14 taking a break next week for the Heineken Cup semi-finals, Clermont and Toulon took advantage of the fact that they have already qualified for the knock-out stages (and took advantage of their packed to bursting point squads) to rest some key players ahead of their ties with Saracens and Munster. As mentioned above, Munster seem to have a particularly daunting task, as they head to Marseille to take on a Toulon side who had the luxury of leaving Basteraud on the bench for the full 80, while Mitchell was allowed to stretch his legs with a seven-minute run.
Moreover, Jonny Wilkinson and Bryan Habana are both available for selection again after recent injuries. Likewise, Clermont took to the field without Julian Bonnaire, Jamie Cudmore, Morgan Parra, Brock James and Wesley Fofana and it seems apparent that having finally won their first Top 14 title in 2010, they are more intent than ever on ending their years of hurt in the Heineken Cup.
5. Relegation has gone to the wire.
Irish scrum half James Hart kicked 11 points for Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble but ultimately it wasn’t enough to secure a win against Bayonne, as the visitors kicked a late penalty to earn a 21-21 draw, which leaves both teams still struggling against relegation heading into the final round of league games.
Grenoble sit on 53 points, 3 ahead of a group comprising Perpignan, Oyonnax and Bayonne on 50. Perpignan in particular were perplexed having scored 3 tries and 31 points against the mighty Toulon, and yet come away from the game without even a losing bonus point, while Oyonnax managed a crucial draw with Toulouse. Perpignan are hot favourites for the drop, having to travel to Clermont, and are hindered by the knowledge that they trail Oyonnax on head to head if they finish level on points. Oyonnax have the somewhat easier task of a trip to Brive, while Grenoble travel to Toulouse and Bayonne host Castres.
Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena.