Things are hotting up in France as the Top 14 season reaches the business end – regular season completed, just the play-offs remain, as a plethora of international teammates turn rivals.
The six sides still in with a shot at the Bouclier de Brennus – Racing 92, La Rochelle, Lyon, Montpellier, Clermont and Toulouse – are bursting with Guinness Six Nations talent.
Stalwarts of the France side are set to lead their domestic sides into battle, backed in part by a sprinkling of foreign stardust, as this weekend’s quarter-finals near.
Racing royalty look to end La Rochelle fairytale
The first of the quarter-final clashes – the winner of which will be rewarded with a last-four match-up against Toulouse – sees the star-studded Racing host plucky La Rochelle in a David vs Goliath style contest.
That is, at least, when placed in recent context: Racing are one of the giants of French rugby, six-time Top 14 champions who can boast the likes of Teddy Thomas and Finn Russell among their ranks, while La Rochelle were only promoted to the top flight five years ago.
The Stades Yves du Manoir plays host to the Friday-night fixture, and Racing will look to their firepower from the backs to drive them to the last four.
Qui de Wenceslas Lauret ou Kevin Gourdon sortira vainqueur de ce barrage ? pic.twitter.com/fkXXcMqKW5
— TOP 14 Rugby (@top14rugby) May 31, 2019
The free-scoring side – only Toulouse dotted down on more occasions during the regular season – start with Virimi Vakatawa and Simon Zebo among their back five – two of the league’s three most prolific try-scorers – while Thomas features on the right and Russell and Maxime Machenaud will provide the creative hub.
But La Rochelle will lean on an in-form flyer of their own, Vincent Rattez enjoying something of an annus mirabilis on the left wing, while a back-line of Gregory Alldritt, Kevin Gourdon and Wiaan Liebenberg will provide a stern test for the Parisians.
Lyon and Montpellier lock up
They stood side-by-side during the Guinness Six Nations, bound to one-another in the middle of the scrum, but Paul Willemse and Felix Lambey will be on opposite sides of the ball on Saturday.
Montpellier and Lyon face off for a chance to go at Clermont in the semi-final, with the French second rows two to look out for.
Mickaël Ivaldi pour @RugbyramaFR : “On a ce petit goût de phase finale qui est exceptionnel. On sera prêt.”
J-2 avant le choc, le barrage LOU/MHR au Matmut Stadium Gerland !#TEAMLOU #TOP14 #LOUMHR #BarragesTOP14https://t.co/9zG2WRzSjb pic.twitter.com/AaK02Sqmwk
— LOU Rugby (@LeLOURugby) May 30, 2019
The duo impressed together in their Round Five triumph over Italy in this year’s Guinness Six Nations, but it was Lyon who emerged victorious in both of their Top-14 meetings this season, including a 55-13 triumph on home turf.
Toulouse and Clermont lie in wait
With a week off – their reward for taking the top-two spots in the regular season standings – two titans of French rugby will watch on with interest this weekend.
The most successful side in the history of the Top 14, Toulouse have lifted the Bouclier de Brennus on no less than 19 occasions, but a seven-year gap since their last title has left fans smarting.
They have a squad littered with internationals, a rogue’s gallery of French talent: Maxime Medard, Antoine Dupont, Yoann Huget, Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos among them.
— Maxime Médard (@MaxMedard) May 30, 2019
They blasted to top spot in the standings during the regular season, their 98 points giving them a 15-point advantage over the chasing pack.
Clermont, meanwhile, have been one of the success stories of French rugby in recent years, winning their first Top 14 title in 2010 before notching another in 2017.
Among their ranks, the likes of Wesley Fofana, Damian Penaud, Camille Lopez and Arthur Iturria can all be match-winners, while Scottish steel in the form of Greig Laidlaw provides impressive depth.
Whatever happens in the quarters, a stellar end to the season certainly awaits in France.