PREVIEW: La Rochelle eye trophies not records

Fri, 14 Apr 2017 12:53
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TOP 14, WEEK 24: Already assured of a play-off spot, La Rochelle can sew up a bye straight into the French Top 14 semifinals against Lyon this weekend.

A draw is all they need for that and if they avoid defeat they will also set a new outright 12-match unbeaten record in the top flight, moving clear of the 11-game mark they currently share with giants Toulouse.

Already for the unheralded club from the Atlantic west coast of France it has been a remarkable season, but it could get even better with a European Challenge Cup semifinal to come next week against Gloucester as well.

Records look good on paper but it is the hope of filling shelves with silverware that is the main motivation for the players.

"Runs like that, you can put them in record books, but we don't care. What matters are trophies," said lock Damien Lagrange.

La Rochelle have been somewhat swimming against the tide in a turbulent season for French rugby, not just on the field.

While many of their rivals have been beset by all manner of problems - Racing 92 alone have had players suspected of doping, buying drugs and drink-driving - La Rochelle have been a beacon of stability off the field and an example of consistency on it.

In a league where away victories are often hard to come by, the Corsaires have been beaten only four times - half as many as second-placed Clermont.

They have a bigger lead at this stage of the season than any club in Top 14 history has ever had.

And this from a club that was only promoted to the top flight three seasons ago, and two seasons ago finished just two points clear of relegation.

Qualifying for the semi-finals would be history making in itself as La Rochelle have never before reached the last four - and their three quarter-final appearances date back to the 1960s.

Lifting silverware would also be historic as the only major competition La Rochelle have ever won is the now defunct French Cup, which they won back-to-back in 2002 and 2003.

They may be flying high at the top of the league but Lagrange says the players' feet are still firmly on the ground: "We're not favourites, we're outsiders."

La Rochelle's current plight may have surprised most in French rugby, but head coach Patrice Collazo suggested that the belief was always there within the club.

"Who says we haven't had ambitions since June (the off season) when we took to the athletics track and when we were lifting weights?"

Saturday's trip to Lyon will by no means be easy as last season's second division champions not only secured their top flight survival with last week's win at Castres but also gave themselves a faint hope of reaching the play-offs.

For others, Castres included, it's been a tumultuous time, not least due to the now aborted fusion between Parisians Stade Francais and Racing.

Their fixtures from a month ago were postponed amid a player strike and a French court on Wednesday settled a dispute between the French League and French Federation deeming those matches must now go ahead.

Castres, hanging on by their fingernails to a top six place after three straight defeats, face a tough trip to Toulon - themselves in disarray and led by a fourth coach in nine months - on Saturday before a rare midweek match against Stade Francais - to honour their postponed fixture - and the visit of Toulouse the following Saturday.

All four of those teams are still battling for a play-off berth, although Toulouse's hopes are slim at best - the record 19-time champions are currently one place above the relegation spots.

Grenoble could be sent down to join Bayonne in the second division next season if they either fail to beat Clermont or Toulouse avoid defeat to Racing on Sunday.

Fixtures:

Saturday:

Toulon v Castres
Brive v Bordeaux-Begles
Grenoble v Clermont
Stade Francais v Pau
Lyon v La Rochelle

Sunday:

Montpellier v Bayonne
Toulouse v Racing 92

Agence France-Presse