Paris (AFP) – Toulon will need to solve their fly-half conundrum if they are to challenge for a second Top 14 crown in three years this season.
Ahead of Saturday’s trip to Pau, last season’s second-division champions but who are safely 23 points above the drop zone this term, Toulon manager Bernard Laporte has a fly-half selection dilemma.
Australian Matt Giteau returned to the role last weekend for the first time since December after recovering from a groin operation but hobbled off the field just beyond the hour mark to be replaced by New Zealander Tom Taylor.
Giteau would appear to be Laporte’s preferred option but has played only five matches this season due to injuries. Last season he managed only 15.
French international Frederic Michalak is no less injury-plagued having averaged 13.5 matches per season since his arrival at the club in 2012.
He is due to leave Toulon at the end of the current campaign and is unlikely to be Laporte’s preferred choice.
Another Wallaby in Quade Cooper appeared to have been bought to fill the vacuum left by Jonny Wilkinson’s retirement a year previously, but the unpredictable former Queensland Red back seems to be fourth choice for Laporte this season.
Cooper’s unique brand of individualism and genius doesn’t appear to have seduced Laporte, who did not even pick him for the bench in last weekend’s 19-16 European Champions Cup defeat at Racing 92.
Instead Taylor, a New Zealand international, has emerged as the low-key primary foil for Giteau, but like the Australian, has also suffered from injuries.
The Top 14 crown is all Toulon have to play for this season after Racing ended their three-year reign as European champions.
And club president Mourad Boudjellal is adamant they will regroup and refocus on that objective.
“If I had been told when I took over this club that I’d be disappointed we didn’t mange to win a fourth straight European Cup, I’d have signed for that straight away,” he said following the Racing defeat.
“Now I want to make us even stronger and bigger. This boosts your appetite. Now we want to win the Top 14.”
But they have slipped to fourth in the table after losing at home to Clermont last time out and could be forced to play a quarter-final during the play-offs rather than earning a bye straight into the semi-finals, which is the reward for finishing in the top two during the regular season.
Leaders Clermont host rock-bottom Agen feeling confident enough to rest scrum-half Morgan Parra, who took a knock to the head two weeks ago against Toulon.
English full-back Nick Abendanon and former France fly-half Camille Lopez are both back in the squad following injury, though.
Racing are another side resting a star player as New Zealand legend Dan Carter looks set to be given the weekend off ahead of Sunday’s trip to Toulouse.
With three teams locked in a tight battle to finish second, Racing face on paper the toughest task of the weekend.
They and Montpellier are just two points above Toulon with six regular season matches remaining.
In-form Montpellier, boosted by their South African contingent, travel to champions Stade Francais, who remain just one place above the relegation places.
Fixtures (all times GMT):
Grenoble v Castres (1845)
Pau v Toulon (1245), Brive v Oyonnax, Clermont v Agen (both 1630), La Rochelle v Bordeaux-Begles (1845)
Stade Francais v Montpellier (1230), Toulouse v Racing 92 (1415)