With the cold snap across France waning, the 18th round of the Top 14 sees a full complement of fixtures as the battle for the play-offs and relegation heats up. Perpignan will play host to fellow strugglers Biarritz in the clash of the weekend on Friday night, whilst Bayonne will hope to make it two home upsets in a row with the visit of Clermont Auvergne.
Perpignan v Biarritz 19:45
Few would have predicted that 17 matches into the 2011/12 season the clash between these two giants of French rugby could be a potential relegation decider. There may still be nine matches remaining, and three other “ arguably weaker “ teams around them, but the psychological impact that defeat would have on either side this weekend could be irreparable.
Perpignan have recent history on their side, with Biarritz not having won at the Stade AimÃ© Giral since 2007, but with just a solitary win in their last 12 Top 14 matches, that may well prove to be irrelevant.
Biarritz have spent much of the season in and out of the relegation places, and while they have been hurt by the loss of key players through the World Cup and injuries, much better is expected of a side of such pedigree.
Both sides have struggled to find the try-line this season with Biarritz scoring the least with just 12, and Perpignan not much better on 16. With both teams also missing their regular kickers, and with so much at stake, a low scoring game is likely.
In spite of their poor form, Perpignan have taken a win and a draw from their last two home games, and Biarritz have managed just two wins away from home this season so Perpignan should be favourites, but given what has happened this season, anything is possible. Perpignan by 5.
Toulouse v Agen 13:15
After picking up a full five points last weekend against a spirited Biarritz, Toulouse will expect to make it a maximum 10 from 10 in their last two games against an out-of-form Agen on Saturday.
The champions have taken 9 wins from 9 at home, and hold almost every attacking record this season; even without their internationals they have such a wealth of talent that Agen don't stand a chance.
The visitors last won in Toulouse back in 1997, and with only one win in the Top 14 since the start of December, it will be no more than a case of damage control for Agen. Toulouse by more than 10.
Bayonne v Clermont Auvergne 13:15
Bayonne face an uphill struggle if they are to record back-to-back victories for just the second time this season as they welcome Clermont Auvergne to the Stade Jean-Dauger on Saturday.
Their hugely important 26-20 victory against Stade last week was their first in seven games, and saw the Basque side move off the bottom of the table and up to 11th, but Stade have struggled on the road this season, and Clermont should prove to be a much tougher challenge.
Clermont are undefeated in six games, and after a wobble at the start of 2012 they have looked every bit the championship challengers, even without their internationals. They will be buoyed by the news that Morgan Parra is one of several French players to be released to play for their club this weekend, and as ever with their impressive record for not conceding penalties, they will be a difficult side to break down.
Despite their big spending, Bayonne look like one of the sides most likely for the drop, despite their impressive victory last weekend. With the two sides directly below them going head-to-head, a win would ease the pressure of the home side. But with the most points conceded in the league, and coming up against one of the most consistent sides in the league, the odds are firmly against Bayonne. Clermont by 10.
Lyon v Racing Metro 13:15
With Bayonne's victory and Biarritz's losing bonus point last weekend, the postponement of Lyon's match last weekend saw them drop back to the foot of the table.
Racing may have hoped that last weekend's visit to Clermont had been called off too, suffering a heavy defeat which has seen a side in disarray off the field being to lose their grip on the play-off places. A solitary win in six matches has seen last season's semi-finalists drop 7 points behind 6th placed Stade FranÃ§ais.
Lyon will look to take advantage of a Racing side lacking in form and harmony, but with the lowest number of points scored this season, they will have to nullify the Racing forwards and hope to edge Racing in what should be a tight game. Lyon by 3.
Bordeaux-BÃ¨gles v Montpellier 13:15
Bordeaux have racked up an impressive eight wins in their maiden Top 14 season, and while they have failed to find consistency and put together two wins in a row, they have done more than enough to ensure that they will be playing in the top flight next season.
Their opponents this Saturday are second only to leaders Toulouse in recent form, with 7 wins from their last 8 matches. Stand-off FranÃ§ois Trinh-Duc may be away with the France team, but the Montpellier powerhouse forwards and their host of Argentinian backs including goal-kicker Martin Bustos Moyano remain, and have been vital in Montpellier's recent form.
Bordeaux have been magnificent at home, conceding just three tries at home this season. Montpellier however have the best try-scoring form away from home in the Top 14 this campaign, so Saturday's match will be a real test of Bordeaux's defence and Montpellier's attack. Bordeaux by 5.
Brive v Castres 13:15
Both Brive and Castres head into their clash on Saturday looking for a good run of form. Brive's victory over fellow relegation strugglers Perpignan last weekend was a first in eight games, whilst Castres have managed only one more win than Brive in the same period.
The visitors to the Stade AmÃ©dÃ©e-Domenech still look good for a play-off spot come the end of the season, but only thanks to the equally wayward form of the two capital clubs beneath them.
Brive's defence has been solid this season, conceding just 10 tries “ less than anybody else. However their downfall has been their discipline. No side has conceded more penalties than the home side, and with Castres fullback Romain Teulet on excellent form with the boot this season, Castres will look to punish Brive at any opportunity.
Brive's defence, combined with their lack of ability to cross the try-line themselves this season has led to many a close game “ as reflected in their eight losing bonus points this season “ and Saturday's game is likely to be no different. With the hosts desperate for a win to edge them away from relegation, and the visitors looking to secure their place in the play-offs a hard fought, tense encounter can be expected. Castres by 5.
Stade FranÃ§ais v Toulon 15:15
With the season entering the final third, Toulon are looking fairly comfortable in third place, 10 points ahead of sixth placed Stade. However the Parisians will be looking to dramatically slash that gap as they go in search of not only confirming their place in the play-offs, but also securing a home quarter-final.
Defeat last time out was hardly a surprise for Stade “ they have the second worst record away from home in the league, reflected in their loss to a side that had failed to win their previous seven games.
This will be of little concern in the imminent future “ Saturday's fixture takes place in the familiar confines of the Stade CharlÃ©ty where they have been in fine form this season.
Toulon have put on almost a ton of points in their last two games, but as with their hosts, they have been much stronger at home than on their travels. The Mediterranean club have managed just three tries on their travels this season, relying heavily on the boot of Johnny Wilkinson when away from the Stade Mayol.
Saturday could be an opportunity for Toulon to add to their tries on the road “ as well as scoring the second most tries, Stade have conceded more than anybody else this season. The visitors have one of the best defences in the league, and will need to neutralise the Stade attack if they are to cement their place in the top three. Stade by 5.