PREVIEW: Top 14 aims to put sparkle back into club rugby
TOP 14, WEEK 22: A botched Parisian club merger, a strike, rape allegations against three Grenoble players and the federation at apparent war with Top 14 officials.
It is fair to say that it has not been the best couple of weeks for French club rugby.
Fans and players will attempt to put all that aside for the next round of matches this weekend with particular interest in key games for Racing 92 and Stade Francais.
A mooted merger between the two clubs, winners of the last two Top 14 titles, was promptly booted into touch. Their owners were forced into a swift backtrack after a deluge of criticism from players, fans, rugby officials and even the Paris city administration.
The proposed merger saw the body running professional rugby in France, the LNR, postpone both Racing and Stade Francais' matches last week, against Montpellier and Castres.
It was a decision that will no doubt cause a scheduling nightmare with just five weekends of the regular season remaining before play-offs start on May 20, and European action filling in the rest.
The French Rugby Federation (FFR), now headed by former France coach Bernard Laporte, waded into the row on Wednesday by symbolically cancelling the LNR decision.
The action highlighted wider rifts between the LNR and FFR over federal contracts - 11 of the Top 14 clubs have come out against Laporte's proposal to have a 40-player core on central contracts to try to improve the French national team's performance.
As it is, Racing and Stade have two mouthwatering games awaiting them, against Clermont (in Lille) and Toulon respectively.
"We're not going to hide it, it's been tough, complicated for everyone," said Racing's Argentine lock Manuel Carizza.
"But we knew how to separate the paddock from all the off-the-field stuff. Even last week we trained really well.
"That's great because it shows that even if we haven't had an outstanding season thus far, there remains a strong bond between the squad, like last season."
While Racing have had problems off the pitch, with All Black lock Ali Williams sacked after being caught in possession of cocaine and flagship signing Dan Carter caught drink driving, they pale into insignificance when compared to Grenoble.
With Irish coach Bernard Jackman shown the door last week after a string of poor results, three players - Irish prop Denis Coulson, Kiwi loose forward Rory Grice and French hooker Loick Jammes - remained in custody as of Thursday afternoon as French police investigate a rape allegation.
Three other players were released the same day after helping police with their enquiries, including twice-capped Wallaby lock Peter Kimlin.
Grenoble, who sit in 13th place three points ahead of rock-bottom Bayonne and 11 behind Stade Francais, responded to their off-field crises with an impressive last-gasp draw with Toulon last weekend.
That result maintained an unbeaten home run dating back to early December, although the club has racked up only five victories this season. They will look to extend that streak against Castres on Saturday.
Castres, Pau and Toulon are all battling to ensure themselves a spot in the top six places that go on to the end-of-season play-offs to decide the Top 14 champions.
Toulon will have to buck a worrying trend come their Sunday showdown with Stade Francais in Paris, not having won away in the Top 14 since September 11.
Outspoken Toulon President Mourad Boudjellal read the riot act to his expensively assembled squad of players after the draw against Grenoble, and on Monday announced that Fabien Galthie would take over from Mike Ford as coach next season.
Pau have suffered a blow to their hopes of finishing among the top six with the concussion-induced lay-off of All Black flyhalf Colin Slade until at least the play-offs.
They host leaders La Rochelle, now eight points clear of Clermont, with third-placed Montpellier travelling to Brive on Sunday.
Racing 92 v Clermont
Grenoble v Castres
Lyon v Bayonne
Pau v La Rochelle
Bordeaux-Begles v Toulouse
Brive v Montpellier
Stade Francais v Toulon
RugbyU: French Top 14 table:
French Top 14 table ahead of this weekend's matches (played, won, drawn, lost, points for, points against, bonus points, total points):
La Rochelle 21 14 3 4 577 384 9 71
Clermont 21 12 3 6 643 445 9 63
Montpellier 20 12 0 8 492 431 7 55
Pau 21 11 1 9 499 534 6 52
Toulon 21 10 2 9 549 432 10 53
Castres 20 11 1 8 505 398 5 51
Bordeaux 21 9 1 11 489 487 7 45
Racing92 20 10 1 9 467 451 3 45
Brive 21 10 1 10 444 507 2 44
Toulouse 20 9 0 11 406 408 7 43
Lyon 20 8 2 10 408 466 5 41
Stade Français 20 8 1 11 480 512 6 40
Grenoble 21 5 1 15 470 655 7 29
Bayonne 21 5 3 13 366 685 0 26
Note: Top six in play-offs; bottom two relegated