PREVIEW: Pressure on Ford as Toulon battle for top six
TOP 14, WEEK 18: Time is running out for Englishman Mike Ford at three-time European champions Toulon ahead of this weekend's Top 14 matches.
Toulon, French champions in 2014, are stuck in a fierce battle to make the end of season play-offs.
Ford was brought in to replace Diego Dominguez in October after the club had endured a poor start to the season.
But despite winning his opening match 42-12 against Grenoble, things have not improved under Ford - his league record is four wins from nine matches, while Dominguez managed four wins from eight.
Last time out, they lost 20-23 at home to surprise leaders La Rochelle, leading to furious club President Mourad Boudjellal trying to cancel the players' winter holiday, before eventually relenting.
Ford's position is all the more precarious with rumours that former Stade Francais and Montpellier coach Fabian Galthie is being lined up to take over next season.
Toulon are fifth in the league, inside the top six play-off spots, but with third placed Montpellier only seven points ahead of Bordeaux-Begles in ninth, the battle is fierce.
Such is Toulon's desperation that they signed controversial Australian Rugby League star Ben Barba last week despite the 27-year-old having recently had problems with cocaine use.
Barba is unlikely to feature on Saturday against Lyon as he has not played since being released by the Cronulla Sharks in November, but Boudjellal is sure the fullback will bring some quality to Toulon.
"He is phenomenally talented, there aren't many like this in world rugby. Genius doesn't need much time to adapt," Boudjellal said when unveiling Barba.
Toulon will be missing some important players including France captain Guilhem Guirado and Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny for the game.
But they do welcome back from injury Australian international Drew Mitchell, set to start at fullback, and France international loose forward Charles Ollivon, while they were boosted by the announcement on Thursday that All Black legend Ma'a Nonu has signed a one-year contract extension keeping him at Toulon next season.
They are level on 42 points with Pau, on a five-match winning run, and Toulouse, with champions Racing 92 only a single point further back.
One saving grace for Ford's team, though, is that visitors Lyon have lost eight and drawn one of their nine away matches this season and will likely have limited ambition.
But Racing 92, Pau and Bordeaux-Begles (39 points) are also playing at home, although Castres (on 43 points) and Toulouse face trips to Bordeaux and Montpellier respectively.
At the top La Rochelle and Clermont should at least maintain their gap over the rest as they host Stade Francais and Bayonne respectively - two teams to have lost every away match this season.
Clermont trail La Rochelle by a point, but are seven clear of third-placed Montpellier.
While those two look certainties to make the top six play-offs, champions Racing are in eighth.
Last week's nine-try demolition of rock-bottom Bayonne has at least kept them in the chase.
Another home game against Brive on Saturday could see them climb into the top six with a win during what has otherwise been a torrid defence of their crown.
Last week there was the bonus of seeing France international wing Teddy Thomas return to form with a brace of tries, and having been cleared by the league's disciplinary commission for a dangerous tackle on Fiji's Napolioni Nalaga three weeks ago, he is set to face Brive.
Elsewhere, South African international brothers Jannie and Bismarck Du Plessis will miss Montpellier's clash with Toulouse as they have returned home for their father Francois's funeral.
La Rochelle v Stade Francais
Clermont v Bayonne
Pau v Grenoble
Racing 92 v Brive
Toulon v Lyon
Bordeaux-Begles v Castres
Montpellier v Toulouse