Preview: Top 14, Round 13
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: For those who think money talks loudest in 21st Century sport, take a look at the French Top 14 rugby table, where little La Rochelle are punching above their weight.
The club from the picturesque medieval coastal town on the Atlantic coast may not have the cachet of the likes of Toulon, Toulouse or titleholders Racing 92, having never won a major title.
Indeed, they only returned to the big time two years ago after a 2011 relegation and have since placed ninth in both of the last two seasons.
They host Racing on Saturday looking to chase down a six-point deficit on leaders Clermont, whose season budget of 31 million euros ($32 million) comes in well ahead of 18 million for La Rochelle, whose own spending power is lower than all but two top-flight rivals.
A capacity crowd of 15,000 will be backing Patrice Collazo's black and yellow "Maritimes" for the visit of a Racing side sitting four points behind them.
"Our sporting progress, economic and structural progress are reinforcing each other," explained La Rochelle director general Pierre Venayre in lauding a four-year development plan to make the outfit one of the strongest in Top 14 by 2020.
"We are like a small or medium-sized enterprise but one with a very high growth rate. We have doubled our budget over five years."
Vincent Merling, the long-serving club president, is also a former player who "could have bought the club out 200 times" according to Venayre.
"Instead, he has only a 10 percent share along with five other commercial partners while the club is the main shareholder with a 30 percent stake," Venayre said.
Venayre says the club are bent on drawing out the "incredible potential" of a fan catchment area of 1.6 million people including Nantes, the eight-time French soccer champions who have fallen on hard times.
A new state of the art training centre and a budget set to rise some 5 million euros next year will bolster such ambitions.
"But we are not looking to chase a star system. Rather, our dream is to have a team comprising home-grown youngsters alongside a few internationals," indicated Venayre.
For "our biggest test of the season" so far, Collazo welcomes back Aussie pair Brock James and Zack Holmes but is waiting on Fijian centre Levani Botia, who suffered a facial injury against Japan.
As two of the title contenders go head to head, the clubs snapping at their heels, Bordeaux-Begles and Montpellier, both travel to press their own claims. Clermont set the action rolling in Saturday's early game at third-bottom Pau.
Bordeaux are in action Sunday at last year's runners-up Toulon, who themselves will be out to notch a win that could vault them into second. Montpellier, who meet bottom side Grenoble, welcome back four stars from injury and five teammates from Test duty.
The returnees from injury are wing Benjamin Fall, South African back Henri Immelman, back row forward Pierre Spies and centre Vincent Martin. South African coach Jake White also welcomes back Fijian internationals Nemani Nadolo and Akapusi Qera and Georgian trio Misha Nariashvili, David Kubriashvili and Kostantin Mikautadze.
But South African back row forward Wiaan Liebenberg is doubtful with a thigh strain and Irish scrumhalf Tomas O'Leary and hooker Bismarck Du Plessis could also miss out.
Sunday sees 19-times champions Toulouse, six losses on their account already to place a modest eighth, host Brive, a place below them.
All the weekend's fixtures:
Saturday, December 3
(all times are local, GMT plus one)
13.45: Pau v Clermont
17.30 Grenoble v Montpellier
17.30: Lyon v Castres
17.30: Stade Francais v Bayonne
17.30: La Rochelle v Racing 92
Sunday, December 4
11.30: Toulouse v Brive
15.15: Toulon v Bordeaux-Begles