PREVIEW: Crisis-hit Toulon tackle Toulouse
TOP 14, WEEK 23: Richard Cockerill faces a stiff test as he oversees his first match in charge of crisis-hit Toulon against Top 14 arch-rivals Toulouse on Sunday just days after Mike Ford quit as head coach.
Englishman Ford's departure by mutual consent on Tuesday came just six months into the job and after Toulon were beaten by Clermont in the European Champions Cup quarterfinals.
Former France international scrumhalf Fabien Galthie has already been announced as Toulon's new coach for next season.
But Ford's assistant Cockerill - who guided Leicester to three English titles in five years from 2009 to 2013 - has four matches to seal the Top 14 play-offs and qualify for next year's Champions Cup.
Toulon are fourth on 53 points - 22 off leaders La Rochelle (75) with Clermont (64) second and Montpellier (56) third. Castres and Pau occupy the final two play-off spots just one point behind Toulon.
Under Ford, Toulon were incapable of winning away but Cockerill will not have that worry with three home games slated against direct rivals Toulouse, Castres and Pau.
Toulouse have had a nightmare season.
Also eliminated from the Champions Cup at the weekend by Munster they are tenth in the Top 14 and look set to miss the play-offs for the first time in four decades.
After playing Toulon in Marseille the record 19-time French champions have two home games to come against champions Racing 92 and Bayonne.
Leaders La Rochelle are practically assured of a top two finish to qualify directly for the semifinals.
But the unheralded westerners face a psychological test as they host Bordeaux who inflicted their last defeat - a 26-0 whipping in November.
Since then La Rochelle are unbeaten in ten straight Top 14 matches, and 13 altogether including the European Challenge Cup where they beat Edinburgh to reach the semifinals.
"To say that we haven't thought about the away match this week would be to lie," said scrumhalf Alexis Bales.
But manager Patrick Collazo played down its importance as they chase a maiden Top 14 title.
"What this match [November] changed? Absolutely nothing," said Collazo. "We were on a series of quite interesting results before going to Bordeaux."
Bordeaux are still in the running. but need an exploit in one of their three away games against La Rochelle, Brive and Racing 92, and assure a home win against Toulon.
Clermont are also well positioned as they host midtable Brive, with Montpellier holding a comfortable margin before their home game against minnows Grenoble.
Stade Français, meanwhile, qualified for the European Challenge Cup semifinals at the weekend, to set up a scheduling headache for their postponed match against Castres after a players strike.
The Parisians travel to Bayonne with Castres hoping to gain maximum points at home against Lyon.
Pau are most under threat of the top six and travel to Racing 92 on Sunday, who have three points less.
Simon Mannix's Pyrenean outfit will be without their two New Zealand World Cup winners Colin Slade and Conrad Smith.
Racing 92 can still defend their title despite sitting eighth with 49 points after a season overshadowed by off the pitch scandals.
They have the home advantage against Pau but will have to win away either at Toulouse or Stade Français, where sparks should fly after the now-shelved controversial planned merger between the Paris clubs.
La Rochelle v Bordeaux Begles
Bayonne v Stade Francais
Castres v Lyon
Montpellier v Grenoble
Clermont v Brive
Racing 92 v Pau
Toulon v Toulouse