Clubs look to squad depth to negotiate Top 14 log-jam
Clermont's Jean-Marcellin Buttin (L) runs during a French Top 14 match in France on September 4, 2013. Clermont travel to Stade Francais with key players Buttin, Julien Pierre, Damien Chouly, Brock James, Wesley Fofana, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga.
The early log-jam is not something new, Top 14 organisers, the LNR, having to squeeze in 29 league rounds and three in the play-offs), nine European Cup weekends and 11 international Tests in their calendar year.
The LNR has to organise those playing weekends in tandem with respect for players' holidays and a pre-season window.
To make matters worse for clubs, any player having been on the paddock for more than 80 minutes in the first two matches, last weekend and Wednesday, "should not play in the third game" on Sunday, the LNR has advised.
"It's a recommendation which we started to mull over in February," said Bernard Dusfour, head of the LNR's medical committee.
"It's the fruit of long discussions between experts, that's to say, doctors and trainers but also coaches."
Dusfour said that proper "biological rehabilitation" started 72 hours after a match, and a string of games close together risked increased levels of fatigue and with that injury.
Needless to say, coaches have not been left overly impressed.
Racing-Metro coach Laurent Travers said it was "impossible" to play three games in so little time, stressing that rugby was a traumatic contact sport which also demanded a "mental freshness".
"If you don't pay for it immediately, it will come back later to haunt you," added Stade Francais backs coach Jean-Frederic Dubois.
Players' union president Serge Simon promised "more radical" action should there be an overwhelmingly negative outcome to playing games so close together.
"But I firstly see the positive side: it's the first time that we're trying to fix a rule and there's a real debate about the health of players," Simon said.
With a maximum of 35 players contracted to each club in the Top 14, there are some outfits that will undoubtedly suffer more than, say, Toulouse, Clermont or Toulon, big-spending clubs with large budgets.
If clubs do decide to follow the LNR recommendation, more than 120 players will in theory not be taking to the pitch this Sunday.
Clermont travel to Stade Francais with key players Julien Pierre, Damien Chouly, Brock James, Wesley Fofana, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Napolioni Nalaga and Jean-Marcellin Buttin all having played more than two hours of rugby since Saturday.
Stade sent out a weakened side to play champions Castres on Wednesday and came out second-best to a 38-10 thumping, but only Julien Dupuy, Gerhard Mostert, Pascal Pape and Meyer Bosman have played more than 80 minutes.
It all means that Sunday's results will count for little in the greater scheme of the Top 14 as clubs look to put this crammed window behind them in a fluctuating start to the season.
European champions Toulon travel to Biarritz fresh from a 62-12 hammering of newly-promoted Brive, who will see the visit of fellow strugglers Bayonne as a chance of a home scalp.
Montpellier host Toulouse in the early match, the latter buoyant after a 30-6 victory over Racing-Metro, who are yet to find their feet after signing a raft of big-name players in the off-season and play Perpignan.
In other matches, Grenoble entertain Bordeaux-Begles and Oyonnax face Castres.
Fixtures (all GMT)
Montpellier v Toulouse (1330), Biarritz v Toulon, Brive v Bayonne, Grenoble v Bordeaux-Begles, Oyonnax v Castres, Racing-Metro v Perpignan (all 1600), Stade Francais v Clermont (1900)