Clermont welcome 'new adventure' in second phase of Top 14
After a two-week hiatus to accommodate the end of the World Cup, rugby in France resumes this weekend with two stand-out games to kick off the second phase of the Top 14.
Clermont coach Frank Azema was looking forward to "a new adventure" ahead of his side's trip to defending champions Toulouse on Saturday.
Sunday's Paris derby, meanwhile, sees Racing 92 travel to the Jean Bouin Stadium to face Stade Francais.
All four clubs have struggled without their World Cup stars in the opening eight rounds.
Clermont have fared best, winning five and losing three to stand in fourth position, 10 points behind leaders Lyon whom they beat in the last round.
The others are all in the bottom four, with the Paris clubs propping up the table.
"We are totally focussed on Toulouse," says Azema, playing down the distraction of the next week's European Champions Cup.
"This is a great challenge, the type of rendezvous you really want. That's a sufficient goal in itself."
This weekend will be the first chance for them to play at anywhere near full strength. The phoney war is over.
France players such as Camille Lopez will be back in yellow although the fly-half admitted this week that he was unsettled by rumours that scrum-half Morgan Parra, who is under contract until 2022, could be on his way out of Clermont at the end of this season and off to Toulouse.
"If he leaves the club it would be very difficult for me," Lopez told Midi-Olympique. "He has been the father of the club for some years."
Cheslin Kolbe is back in France but is unlikely to play for Toulouse just a week after scoring a try in South Africa's World Cup final win over England.
- Paris headaches -
Stade Francais, who have won just two games so far and have just nine points, are in desperate need of a victory.
They will be relying on home advantage and praying that former Springbok fly-half Morne Steyn can deliver one final show-stopping performance before he returns to Pretoria to take up residence once more with the Blue Bulls.
"Looking forward to my last week and game in Paris! It's definitely been a highlight of my career!! Thanks for all the GOOD TIMES! MERCI BEAUCOUP," Steyn tweeted this week.
There is always an edge to the Paris derby but the two sides' perilous positions in the table will lend an extra frisson.
"It's always a big challenge," says Racing captain Henry Chavancy.
"It's the first time the two clubs are in danger of relegation but maybe we will have a little less pressure when not playing at home."
Racing have won just once away from home this season, against Pau, but picked up bonus points on the road at Toulouse and Toulon and lost just 12-6 at La Rochelle in the last round.
They will benefit from the return of their French contingent with Cedate Gomes Sa, Wenceslas Lauret, Bernard Le Roux, Maxime Machenaud, Camille Chat and Virimi Vakatawa all making themselves available.
- Racing absentees -
Two notable absentees, though, come in the shape of Fijian lock Leone Nakarawa and Tonga prop Ben Tameifuna.
Nakarawa still hasn't returned from World Cup duty and is potentially facing the sack.
Tameifuna meanwhile did fly back to Paris, albeit with 20 kilos of excess baggage.
After reporting back for duty at 160kg, he has been told he will not be selected until he gets his weight back to the 140kg he was when he left to join up with the Tonga squad.
Bordeaux Begles will go top of the table if they take a bonus point win from their home game against Agenon Saturday although Lyon will take it back again if they beat La Rochelle on Sunday.
Pau will travel to Bayonne without Jesse Mogg. The Australian international, who was set to return to action for the first time since injuring his tibia in April, repeated the injury in training and will be out for several more months.
This weekend's Top 14 fixtures (all times 1700GMT unless stated):
Toulon v Montpellier (1430), Bayonne v Pau, Bordeaux Begles v Agen, Castres v Brive (all 1700), Toulouse v Clermont (1945)
Lyon v La Rochelle (1130), Stade Francais v Racing 92 (1550)
© 2019 AFP