As Top 14 makes brief return, pace-setting pair can cement lead
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France's Top 14 makes a brief reappearance this weekend between the European Champions Cup and the Six Nations with a pair of heavyweight clashes as second-place Lyon host third-place Toulon while champions Toulouse welcome leaders Bordeaux.
The 13th round of the regular season was played in the first weekend of January. The 15th will be played on February 15 and 16.
Most of the players in action know that, after a frenzied January, they will have a two-week break after this match.
Some, particularly at the clubs with the most European international players, also know that the four Top 14 rounds played over the course of the Six Nations present an opportunity.
France coach Fabien Galthie has released 14 of his squad from training at Nice for this weekend but he has kept 28 core players to prepare for the Six Nations opener against England on February 2.
That leaves the spots of those 28 France squad members for coaches to fill.
"For me these aren't problems," said Patrice Collazo, the Toulon coach.
"We have to find solutions to go forward and I have confidence in the players."
Toulouse topped their Champions Cup group and Toulon and Bordeaux-Begles did the same in the second-tier Challenge Cup.
However, Lyon were less successful, losing five of six games in Europe. The Top 14 is now their chief remaining goal.
"They're second in the Top 14," said Collazo. "They've had a huge start to the season."
On Saturday, Lyon can tighten their grip on second place and a bye in the first round of the playoffs. They are already eight points ahead of Toulon in the standings.
- 'Good dynamic' -
Bordeaux opened the season with a win at home over Toulouse, depleted then by World Cup call-ups, and have not looked back.
"It was stressful to host the champions in the first match of the season. Winning was good for us," said back row Marco Tauleigne.
"It gave us a good dynamic."
That dynamic has carried Bordeaux to victory in 10 of their 13 Top 14 matches and five of their six Challenge Cup group games. They lead Lyon in the French table by three points.
Toulouse are still struggling to establish consistent domestic form. They are also hardest hit by France call-ups with five men away this weekend, although Galthie, surprisingly, released his most experienced fullback, Thomas Ramos, to play for Toulouse.
"It's the period when the international players will be away we'll be at a disadvantage, but so will they," said Jean-Baptiste Dubie, the veteran Bordeaux back.
"It's going to be a hyper-physical match," he said. "Afterwards both sides are going to have a few days of holidays."
Toulouse carry the aura of the defending champions but they start the weekend just outside the playoff places
"They need to win as much as we do," said Dubie. "It gives us a chance to put a bit more distance between ourselves and Toulouse."
Saturday (all times GMT)
Lyon v Toulon (1430), Brive v Pau (1700), Castres v Racing 92 (1700), La Rochelle v Montpellier (1700), Clermont v Stade Francais (1945)
Bayonne v Agen (1130), Toulouse v Bordeaux Begles (1550)
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