Toulouse, Perpignan, Toulon and Clermont battle for place in final
Title-holders Perpignan will take on Stade Toulouse this Friday and beleaguered Clermont will battle Toulon on Saturday for a place in the Top 14 final, to be played in Stade de France on May 29.
AFP - Toulouse, with one eye on a sixth European Cup final, face a tough Top 14 semi-final outing against reigning domestic champions Perpignan in their bid to do the double this season.
Toulouse put Castres to the sword in the play-offs, 35-12, to move smoothly into their 17th French championship semi-final in 17 seasons, and the 17-time French champions seem to be peaking at just the right time.
However, coach Guy Noves has been at pains to describe Perpignan as perhaps having an advantage because they have not played recently.
"They've been in their cage for three weeks without playing," he was quoted by L'Equipe as saying, rather tongue-in-cheek. "Starved, they will devour us."
Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel admitted that his team had had a strange couple of off weekends but said they had remained "focused".
"We have ambition to do a double, but over two seasons, while for others it's in one," joked Brunel.
Toulouse centre Yannick Jauzion, arguably hitting the form of his life, said his team were "expecting a massive match and a huge physical challenge because Perpignan excel in that aspect of the game".
Jauzion added that a winning run had helped dispel the regular end-of-season feeling.
"On one hand there's the accumulated fatigue and on the other there's the confidence garnered from these back-to-back victories.
"Like everyone, I can see that doing the double is something very tough to achieve.
"I'm sure that those who'll play against Perpignan on Friday will do their best -- that's a certainty.
"As players, when we run out on the paddock it's to win."
The winner of the Toulouse v Perpignan match will play the victor of Saturday's semi-final between Toulon and Clermont at St Etienne.
Clermont relied on an impressive forward display and Morgan Parra's boot to get past Racing Metro 21-17 and into the semis.
Toulon, boasting just three French starters in their XV the last time they played, have been in outstanding form and have also booked a date to play Cardiff Blues in the final of the European Challenge Cup on May 23.
Toulon scrum-half Pierre Mignoni, who was born and bred in the Mediterranean city but left aged 19 to ply his trade at Beziers, Dax and latterly Clermont, warned that the team were out to push for their own double.
"This squad has a terrible appetite -- they don't know their own limits," he said of his star-studded team-mates, who include ex-Springbok and captain Joe van Niekerk and World Cup-winning England outside-half Jonny Wilkinson.
"I decided to come home last year," said the 33-year-old Mignoni. "It wasn't the easiest choice to make because you're much more in the public eye.
"I refused to allow myself to take a back seat. I wanted to raise the challenge and relive these feelings with more experience and maturity. The bet was won."
Clermont face injury doubts over influential Argentinian hooker Mario Ledsma (knee) and No 8 Elvis Vermuelen (knee) but Brock James has trained normally after recovering from a shoulder injury.
Coach Vern Cotter warned that Toulon were a "well-structured, explosive team".
"At the start of the season, they struggled in some parts of their game but now it's a team that plays with a lot of coherence and confidence," the New Zealander said.
Friday at Montpellier (kick-off 1845 GMT): Perpignan v Toulouse
Saturday at Saint-Etienne (kick-off 1430GMT): Toulon v Clermont