Updated: Friday, 21 March 2014 13:43 | By Agence France-Presse

Clermont, Toulon in battle for top spot

Clermont and Toulon will battle it out for the Top 14 leadership in Auvergne on Friday evening with both sides badly hit by injuries and player unavailability

Clermont, Toulon in battle for top spot

Clermont's Davit Zirakashvili catches the ball on October 5, 2013 during a French Top 14 match against Toulon at the Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice - by Jean-Christophe Magnenet

The two powerhouses of French rugby both have 60 points to their credit with five games to go before the end of the regular season when six teams will proceed into the playoffs.

Both sides seem assured of achieving that primary goal, but will be keen to stay in the top two places, thus avoiding having to play in the first round of the playoffs.

Clermont, the 2010 champions, who are unbeaten at home in 73 games could be without several of their international stars.

Lock Alexandre Lapandry injured a shoulder in France's loss to Ireland in the last of the Six Nations games and missed training, while centre Wesley Fofana (bruised ribs), and flanker Julien Bonnaire (fractured arm) are still sidelined and waiting medical clearance before resuming playing.

While coach Vern Cotter will have Mike Delany, Regan King and Raphael Chaume back at his disposal, he will have to do without Julien Malzieu, Julien Bardy and Benjamin Kayser.

European champions Toulon will miss international centres Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Bastaraud, both rested a week after the loss to Ireland, as well as Italian prop Martin Castrogiovanni, for the same reason.

Australian international Matt Giteau and Rudi Wulf will make up the centre partnership with Frederic Michalak likely to get the nod ahead of Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half.

England prop Andrew Sheridan and Springbok lock Bathies Botha are nursing long-term injuries, but coach Bernard Laporte will be able to recall scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde, who has recovered from a foot injury, and full-back Alexis Palisson who has been absent since December with a shoulder injury.

Saturday's opening game sees fourth-placed Stade Francais host fifth-placed Toulouse with the latter's coach, Guy Noves, saying that he intended to call on his international contingent despite the proximity of the last Six Nations game.

Maxime Medard, Yoann Huget, Gael Fickou, Yoann Maestri and Louis Picamoles all played in the 22-20 loss to Ireland , while Jean-Marc Doussain came on as a substitute.

"Some have already been resting, others have still to have a day off but this weekend there will be no rest," Noves said.

"We're approaching a tricky part of the season. We have two trips against two of the best teams in France (Stade Francais and Toulon) at the moment. We're going to be able to gauge our team and players based on these two matches."

Stade assistant coach Jeff Dubois said that Toulouse had battled back to their best and would be a handful to deal with in Paris especially with his side having several players coming back after international duty.

"We saw they (Toulouse) were back to their best when they scored 37 points against Perpignan. The have got all their injured players back, especially Luke McAlister, who is a masterly playmaker, and all their internationals. We will be going up against a powerful team with 23 on-form players at their disposal," he added.

Elsewhere, third-placed Montpellier travel to Oyonnax, while regining champions Castres, currently occupying the last of the six play-off berths, are at home to Brive.

Biarritz could be consigned to the drop if, as expected, they lose at Perpignan, while Bordeaux travel to Bayonne in a mid-table matchup.

Sunday's game sees Paris side Racing-Metro travel to Grenoble, hoping that a win could hoist them into the top six.


Clermont v Toulon (1945 GMT)


Stade Français v Toulouse (1400), Bayonne v Bordeaux-Bègles, Castres v Brive, Oyonnax v Montpellier, Perpignan v Biarritz (all at 1730),


Grenoble v Racing-Métro (1935)

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