Champions Castres face make or break Montpellier clash
Castres forward Antonie Claassen passes the ball after being tackled during a match against Clermont at the Michelin stadium in Clermont-Ferrand, France, on April 11, 2014 - by Thierry Zoccolan
Castres hold the sixth and last play-off qualification spot -- also the last guaranteed place in next season's European Cup -- but with just two games remaining they are in the firing line of two teams hoping to deny them the chance to extend their campaign.
In this most competitive and surprising of Top 14 seasons, only Montpellier have so far secured a play-off berth, although Clermont and European champions Toulon both need only a losing bonus point to take their places.
The champions have been in poor form in recent weeks, with just one win in their last four matches, leaving them only three points above Stade Francais and Bordeaux-Begles.
They have also not won away since the end of November, when they came away from Montpellier with a narrow 20-16 success.
"We can honestly say that it's a last 16 knock-out clash," said Castres centre Remi Lamerat, alluding to the idea that they need to win to make the top six, where the teams who finish from third to sixth play a knock-out qurter-final while the top two receive a bye straight into the semi-finals.
"But given how close the championship is, there will be many crucial matches both to make the top six and to avoid relegation."
Montpellier are the form team of the moment with four wins in a row and seven from their last eight matches, including a 15-12 upset victory at Toulouse.
But Montpellier president Mohed Altrad is taking nothing for granted especially as Castres beat them in the first round of the play-offs last season.
"We're going to Castres, it's going to be very tough," he said.
"If we win we can finish first or second but if we lose then we have to probably play Racing, who could spring a surprise this year."
With Bordeaux travelling to Stade Francais on Saturday, Castres may find their destiny taken out of their hands before the final match of the season away to relegation-threatened Bayonne.
This weekend is all about the play-off permutations with ninth-placed Brive, who travel to already-relegated Biarritz, also still in with a chance of making the play-offs, six points behind Castres.
While the top three are more interested in trying to secure a top two finish to ensure they miss the first round of play-offs, fourth-placed Racing-Metro, the next most in-form team behind Montpellier, remain vulnerable ahead of their reception of Clermont on Saturday.
That's followed by a trip to Montpellier on the final weekend of the season and defeat in both would mean they could be caught by either Parisian neighbours Stade Francais or Bordeaux-Begles, should either end on two straight wins.
However, with four straight wins and only one defeat in their last eight, Racing are just starting to deliver on their immense potential and will be feeling confident.
Down at the bottom there is a four-way battle to avoid joining Biarritz in the second tier next season.
Oyonnax currently occupy that spot but Bayonne are only ahead of them on head-to-head record with Perpignan two points and Grenoble three points above.
Both of those are in a precarious position.
Perpignan's last two matches couldn't be tougher with the seven-time champions hosting Toulon followed by a trip to Clermont, who beat them in the 2010 championship final.
Grenoble are almost as vulnerable having lost their last five matches in a row, including at home to hapless Biarittz.
They host Bayonne before finishing their campaign away to Toulouse and anything other than a win Saturday could be fatal to their survival chances.
Oyonnax also won't be feeling confident, though, as they host Toulouse before travelling to Brive.
Fixtures (all 1730 GMT unless stated):
Castres v Montpellier (1945)
Oyonnax v Toulouse (1355), Perpignan v Toulon (1600), Biarritz v Brive, Grenoble v Bayonne, Racing-Metro v Clermont, Stade Francais v Bordeaux-Begles (1935)