Updated: Saturday, 04 January 2014 10:37 | By Agence France-Presse

Toulouse face ultimate test of title mettle

Toulouse will be hoping their impregnable home form holds up when they host Top 14 leaders and title favourites Clermont at the Stade Ernest-Wallon on Sunday.


Toulouse face ultimate test of title mettle

Montpellier's Yohan Audrin (C) runs with the ball during their French Top 14 rugby union match against Biarritz, at Yves du Manoir stadium in Montpellier, on December 29, 2013

The record four-time European champions and 19-time French champions have endured a frustrating season of contrasts.

Although sitting fifth in the league, and only three points behind second-placed Stade Francais, they have failed to even manage a draw away from home.

Seven defeats in seven away matches have at least been offset by eight wins in as many home encounters.

Plus, their eight bonus points have been bettered only by Montpellier, meaning that Toulouse are nonetheless well-placed to finish in the top six at the end of the regular season and ensure a place in the deciding play-offs.

But there can be no doubt that their away form has been worrying.

They have already been beaten by four of the bottom six on their travels and last weekend failed to even pick up a losing bonus point at Bayonne, who moved out of the relegation zone thanks to their 21-13 success.

It is hardly the best time to come up against a Clermont team that romped to a 38-19 victory when the sides met at the Stade Marcel-Michelin at the end of August, and who have five wins and a draw (away to champions Castres) since losing 25-19 at Toulon in early October.

In fact, despite an inconsistent early part of the season, Clermont seem to have hit their straps and rediscovered the form that took them to the European Cup final last season and top spot at the end of the regular domestic campaign, before losing to Castres in the Top 14 semi-finals.

Although they lost at Racing in their opening European Cup pool match this season, they followed that up with a victory over Harlequins and home-and-away successes against Scarlets.

In the league, they have lost only once in their last eight matches following a crushing 43-3 defeat by Montpellier in September.

Since then, their Toulon reverse has been the only blip either at home or abroad, a record no other side in France comes close to matching.

Although Toulouse have been their usual strong selves at home in the league, they were stunned 16-14 by Irish province Connacht in the Heineken Cup last month for their first home defeat in Europe since 2009.

Clermont are guaranteed to maintain top spot in the league before the back-to-back Heineken Cup matches that complete the pool stages in the next two weeks but for Toulouse, it is vital they come away with something or risk dropping out of the top six, with Montpellier, Grenoble, Racing-Metro and even Bordeaux-Begles within striking distance.

Grenoble face a tricky test away to Toulon and are unlikely to expect to pick up anything but Racing and Montpellier play away to newly-promoted pair Oyonnax and Brive respectively.

Racing's fans will certainly be keen to see how their side fares in this match in a season of remarkable contrasts.

Having beaten Clermont 13-9 in the European Cup they upset Toulon 14-3 at home in the league last weekend.

Yet that apart, it has been a poor season for the expensively-assembled Parisians. They had four defeats in five games from late September to late November and despite two wins and a draw since then, they are still outside the play-off berths.

Rock-bottom Biarritz, who are 13 points from safety, travel to Stade Francais, and Catalans Perpignan, on a five-match losing run, host Basques Bayonne.

In the only fixtured played Friday, Castres closed to three points off leaders Clermont after an uninspiring 15-9 win over struggling Bordeaux-Begles.

Ahead of the weekend games, the champions overtook Stade Francais to go second but they did little on this evidence to suggest they might retain their title in May.

Fixtures:

Saturday

Toulon v Grenoble (1355 GMT), Biarritz v Stade Francais, Oyonnax v Racing-Metro, Perpignan v Bayonne (all 1730 GMT), Brive v Montpellier (1935 GMT)

Sunday

Toulouse v Clermont (1945 GMT)

Latest Photo Galleries on xinmsn