Updated: Saturday, 22 February 2014 11:10 | By Agence France-Presse

Montpellier target Clermont stronghold of French Top 14

Clermont and Montpellier will go head to head for the leadership of France's Top-14 championship on Saturday, with third-placed Stade Francais looking to keep up the pressure on the two leaders.

Montpellier target Clermont stronghold of French Top 14

Clermont's players warm up before their French Top 14 rugby union match against Grenoble, at the Alpes Stadium in Grenoble, on February 14, 2014 - by Romain Lafabregue

With seven rounds of games to go until the end of the regular season, when six teams will advance to the playoffs, the top eight teams are separated by just seven points in what has been a highly unpredictable campaign to date.

Clermont are top with 55 points, but they will be missing several internationals on Six Nations duty when they host Montpellier at their Stade Marcel-Michelin ground where they are unbeaten in 72 matches.

Absent will be Vincent Debaty, Thomas Domingo, Alexandre Lapandry, Damien Chouly, and Wesley Fofana, who are all in the French squad to take on Wales, while David Zirakishvili is on duty with Georgia.

Five other players are injured - Julien Bonnaire, Julien de Sousa Bardy, Benjamin Kayser, Mike Delany and Regan King - with two others doubtful - Daniel Kotze and Thierry Lacrampe).

That could open the door for Montpellier, who are less affected by the club v country imbroglio, to create a huge upset and also take over as Top-14 leaders as they go into the match just two points back.

Montpellier will be without Scots Jim Hamilton and John Beattie, prop Nicolas Mas with France and Georgians Mamuka Gorgodze and Mikheil Nariashvili.

Clermont coach Vern Cotter said Montpellier would prove to be a handful for his depleted side.

"They won against Toulouse and last week they chalked up 50 points against Perpignan, they are full of confidence and will want to finish the season well," he said.

"I think they will have high hopes and it is up to us to be vigilant from the start of the match and for the whole 80 minutes.

"But as you can see we are having to bring in some younger players from our training centre and we are especially hurting in the front row."

"There is no doubt about it that with 11 players unavailable, we are not in the best of situations to host a team in such top form as Montpellier."

- Stade missing players too -

The task on hand for Stade Francais, who are just a further point back from Montpellier, on the face of it looks easier as they have a home encounter with lowly Oyonnax, but they too have several players away on international duty.

Fly-half Jules Plisson, lock Pascal Pape and winger Hugo Bonneval are all in the France squad for Cardiff, while No. 8 Sergio Parisse will captain Italy against Scotland in Rome.

In other games, fourth-placed Castres, the reigning Top-14 champions, are at home to struggling Toulouse, who have a whopping 22 players unavailable either due to international commitments or injury, while European champions Toulon go up against Bayonne away in the only game taking place on Sunday.


Saturday (1730 GMT unless stated):

Clermont v Montpellier (1330 GMT), Bordeaux v Racing Metro, Grenoble v Biarritz, Stade Francais v Oyonnax, Perpignan v Brive, Castres v Toulouse (1935)


Bayonne v Toulon (1605)

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