Clash of pacesetters kicks off Top 14 weekend
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France's Top 14 might kick off at Saturday lunchtime, but Montpellier's trip to La Rochelle will determine who is top at the end of the weekend.
La Rochelle finished atop the league table last season only to be eliminated in the playoff semi-finals. They have started strongly again this time with eight wins in 11 matches, but Montpellier, who have the same record, lead the league because they have picked up two more bonus points.
The pair boast the most prolific attacks in the Top 14: Montpellier has scored 323 points, La Rochelle 322. La Rochelle are the third stingiest defense, having conceded 208 points, while Montpellier is fourth, allowing 238.
The key might be the traditional divergence in the Top 14 between home form and away form.
All of Montpellier's defeats have been away and last week they were shutout at Racing, 26-0. Montpellier have scored 42 tries this season but only eight of them have been away.
La Rochelle have the advantage of playing at their fortress, the Stade Marcel Deflandre. In winning their five home games the yellow and black have scored 26 tries and allowed only seven.
Despite the high stakes, Montpellier plan to use only one of the five players who have been away on international duty, Georgian lock forward Konstantin Mikautadze. The other four, including French lock Louis Picamoles, will have been given a week's rest. La Rochelle welcome back France wing Gabriel Lacroix and Fijian centre Levani Botia.
Just behind the two pacesetters are three clubs who know that a victory should lift them into second.
Toulouse have home advantage as they take on Castres who are one place and three points behind them. Third-place Lyon travel to the wounded giants, Toulon. On Sunday, Racing make the short trip through the western Paris to visit near neighbours Stade Francais in the final game of the weekend.
Toulon's run of three straight defeats coincided with the autumn internationals. Their global array of stars mean Toulon were particularly weakened by call-ups.
They will have Guilhem Guirardo back from a traumatic spell with captaining France, though he is expected to start on the bench. Mathieu Bastareaud, the French centre, South African Duane Vermeulen and Fijian Josua Tuisova are likely to go straight into the lineup.
Toulon's losing runs means that this will be a "stressful match" said Fabien Galthie, the club's head coach.
The club's owner, Mourad Boudjellal, turned up the heat by calling the game against Lyon "the most important of the season."
The pressure will be just as intense in Brive where the home team host Oyonnax.
On a weekend which brings together the top two, the bottom two also face each other and their statistics are far less impressive. Brive have won two matches all season, Oyonnax have won just one and the pair are in danger of losing touch with the clubs above them.
Saturday (1700 GMT unless stated)
La Rochelle v Montpellier (1345), Toulouse v Castres, Brive v Oyonnax, Pau v Bordeaux-Begles, Toulon v Lyon (1945)
Clermont v Agen (1230), Stade Francais v Racing 92 (1650)
© 2017 AFP