Racing, Toulon eye final after topsy-turvy season
TOP 14 PREVIEW: Drink-driving, drugs investigations, a botched merger, a star player sacked, another on walkabout, and a raft of coaching changes.
It is safe to say that last year's Top 14 finalists - Racing 92 and Toulon - have enjoyed seasons packed with off-field drama.
Importantly, neither has really shone on the pitch, although each has come together at the vital time to ensure play-off action and a possible Final re-run.
Toulon are away to surprise regular-season table-toppers La Rochelle on Friday, with beaten European Champions Cup finalists Clermont hosting Racing on Saturday.
Racing finished in the sixth and final play-off place, but last week soundly saw off the challenge of Montpellier, something that didn't surprise Castres coach Christophe Urios.
"I wasn't surprised by that, for several reasons," he told Midi Olympique newspaper.
"Firstly the Parisians have had a crappy season and secondly I know all too well that teams who have experienced players always turn up."
Toulon beat Urios' Castres for their semifinal berth, All Black Ma'a Nonu putting in a quality performance rarely seen on a regular basis throughout the season, and Wales fullback Leigh Halfpenny was finally back to form when scoring 21 of the points in the 26-22 victory.
"Toulon are a big team with some big players," said the club's Australian flank Liam Gill.
"Now that we're into the knock-out stages, we feel that each one of has become better. And we have real leaders."
Toulon's current coach is former England hooker Richard Cockerill, who took over with four games of the regular Top14 season to play.
The Leicester icon, who replaced Mike Ford, promptly guided the team to four victories, a fifth coming against Castres.
Cockerill's transition to his fireman's role has no doubt been aided by Matt Giteau, the 34-year-old Australian who was instrumental in helping Toulon to win three European Cups but whose season has been decimated by injuries.
The Leicester man refused to leave Giteau alone to rehab his injuries before he moves on to Suntory in Japan at season's end. He instead threw him a whistle and co-opted him into the coaching set-up.
"I don't like being a coach, it's too stressful," said Giteau. "I'd prefer to be on the pitch, but that's life!"
Cockerill told AFP that Giteau "certainly has the skills and knowledge. He knows the game".
"He's played in more than 100 Test matches, he's won the European Cup and French championship. He knows how to play and knows how to coach - he just hasn't done the latter before.
"He just needs a little bit of encouragement. If you're a good person, good with people and you've played a bit of rugby, you won't go far wrong."
Aborted merger to one side, Racing have been hit this season by Dan Carter being caught drink-driving, ex-All Black teammate Ali Williams arrested for possession of cocaine, Springbok utility back Johan Goosen departing unannounced and a trio of players including Carter still in the radar of France's anti-doping agency after testing positive for corticosteroids following last season's Top14 final.
But the 35-year-old Carter, partnered by veteran former All Black teammates Chris Masoe (38), Casey Laulala (35) and Joe Rokocoko (33), has steered Racing into a position where they can dream of defending their league title.
"I don't know the recipe for this success," Racing centre Henry Chavancy said after their 22-13 win over Montpellier.
"It's a dynamic that has just clicked in. We found it last year on the home stretch, so why not this season?
"There's been a lot going on in the club this season, so much so that we couldn't go through a week quietly.
"Despite all that, we've managed to sneak into the play-offs and we knew full well that from then a new championship started - a three-match championship where we have to win everything."
Friday, May 26:
La Rochelle v Toulon
(Marseille - Kick-off: 20.00; 19.00 GMT)
Saturday, May 27:
Clermont v Racing 92
(Marseille - Kick-off: 17.00; 16.00 GMT)