Lyon aim to go one better in Top 14 semi-finals
Lyon take on Clermont in the Top 14 semi-finals this weekend hoping to go one better than their last-four exit last season.
Pierre Mignoni's team have already gone one better in that they finished the regular season in third, improving on their fifth position in the 2018 season.
Mignoni oversaw a play-off victory over one of his former teams, Toulon, 12 months ago, before losing to Montpellier.
This time around, Lyon scraped past Montpellier into Sunday's semi-final against Clermont (where former France scrum-half Mignoni also played for six seasons) in Bordeaux, which will also host Toulouse v la Rochelle on Saturday.
European Challenge Cup champions Clermont can pick from a squad boasting at least 25 internationals, and one at least was refusing to engage on social media with Lyon backrower Carl Fearns.
"Lyon v Clermont in the semis this weekend and @nick_abendanon won?t answer my calls. Such a code head."
So the English forward tweeted about Clermont winger and compatriot Abendanon in the build-up to what is one of the biggest games in decades for the former's club.
League and cup champions back in 1933, Lyon have more recently won the second division ProD2 title in 2011, 2014 and 2016 as they bounced between promotion and relegation from the elite Top 14.
Fearns missed the 21-16 victory over Montpellier in the play-offs with a neck injury sustained in April, but the barn-storming Liverpudlian has been key to a side who finished third after the regular season after notching up 17 wins a draw from 26 games.
Clermont will be without injured "little general" Morgan Parra, so it will fall to Scotland captain Greg Laidlaw to steer the French giants' ship in what coach Franck Azema predicted would be a tough match.
"Lyon have been consistent from start to finish, combative and with players who've shined in their squad," Azema said.
"Their back-row has been very strong, as has their half-back pairing, with (scrum-half) Baptiste Couilloud in great current form.
"They assumed the favourites' mantle against Montpellier and although the game was very tight, they did the job and did it well."
Toulouse, who topped the Top 14 table at the end of the season, are the bookies' big favourites going into their showdown with La Rochelle.
Coach Ugo Mola has been credited with forging a team where adaptability has been key in their run to the top, with just three defeats all season.
South African Cheslin Kolbe has been a revelation at wing or full-back, while young half-backs Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, and goal-kicking full-back Thomas Ramos have more than complimented a gnarly pack including the likes of Joe Tekori and Jerome Kaino.
No 8 Kaino was a key member of the All Blacks' two-time World Cup winning squads in 2011 and 2015, just as La Rochelle blindside flanker Victor Vito was.
The Samoan-origin duo's head-to-head, fitness notwithstanding, could well be key in what promises to be a thrilling match.
Semi-final fixtures (all times GMT):
Toulouse v La Rochelle (1900)
Clermont v Lyon (1430)
Final, June 15
At Stade de France, Paris (1900)
? 2019 AFP