Stade meet Racing in Paris derby for top-six spot
Clermont players celebrate after scoring a try during their Top 14 match against Montpellier in central France on February 22, 2014 - by Thierry Zoccolan
With teams having only four more games until the end of the regular season, 10 clubs realistically remain in the race for a place in the top six places for the end-of-season play-offs.
Clermont, away to ninth-placed Brive in Friday's match, top the table on 64 points. Toulon sit second on 61pts, ahead of Montpellier on points difference, with defending champions Castres fourth on 60.
Ahead of this weekend, the two final provisional spots in the top sextet belong to Stade Francais (58) and Toulouse (57).
Paris' second side Racing-Metro (56) travel across the city to play Stade at their Jean Bouin stadium, knowing a victory would do them nothing but good in their belated charge for a play-off berth.
"I hope we'll finish like an express train and manage to slide into the top six," said Racing centre Henry Chavancy, echoing memories of last season.
"It might be a bit like a burglary, but we don't care!"
Chavancy contended, however, that this season's run-in was different to Racing's last year, when he said the team "were practically condemned by mid-season".
"We then won nine matches on the trot," said Chavancy. "But this year, we've bounced between good and less good results, but we've never really got close to sixth place. We've never been as close as today."
- Crunch match -
Racing coach Laurent Labit maintained that the level of rugby in the top 14 has "never been as high", expressing his hopes that his expensively-assembled team can translate the league's best defensive record into something more attack-minded.
"We're still seventh, but we're one of a number of teams enjoying a very good dynamic," said Labit. "We've only lose one of our last six Top 14 games."
But Stade are also in form, and unbeaten at the Jean-Bouin this season.
"Given the standings of the two teams, we can almost call the match a quarter-final," said Chavancy. "I think it's the first time since Racing got back into the Top 14 (in 2009) that the derby has such an importance."
Stade lock Alexandre Flanquart concurred, saying: "Yet another crunch match, maybe the most important of the season because the result could lead to many things.
"We're preparing for that and we expect something full-on. It's a real derby, a match not to lose!"
Flanquart was a try-scorer as Stade were held to a thrilling 27-27 draw last weekend against Toulouse, the latter handed the tough task of following up on that with an away trip to Toulon.
Toulouse forwards coach William Servat acknowledged that there was an additional problem in the attritional world of professional rugby: an European Cup quarter-final against Munster the week after.
"The match against Toulon is delicate because it comes just before that against Munster," Servat said.
"Even if we'll seek a continuity in our gameplan, we will leave some players on the bench to prepare for the massive game that awaits us."
In other games, third-placed Montpellier host Bayonne, seeking a victory to lift them out of the clutches of Oyonnax, in 13th position, with Biarritz already guaranteed relegation to the ProD2 second division.
Oyonnax entertain 10th-placed Grenoble, for whom a bonus-point victory would lift them well into contention for a play-off spot.
Bordeaux-Begles play Perpignan at home, while Castres will look to consolidate their fourth place at under-performing Biarritz.
Fixtures (all times GMT)
Brive v Clermont (1355)
Stade Francais v Racing Metro, Biarritz v Castres, Bordeaux v Perpignan, Oyonnax v Grenoble, Montpellier v Bayonne (all 1730), Toulon v Toulouse (1945)