Clermont coach issues call to arms
TOP14, ROUND FOUR: Clermont coach Franck Azema has called on his battered and bruised Top 14 champions to show their true colours as flyhalf Morgan Parra returns for Saturday's derby clash with Brive.
Clermont's start to their title defence has been anything but smooth.
An opening shock defeat at Bordeaux-Begles was followed by victory over Toulon, before last week's 51-20 humbling by La Rochelle.
"Disjointed, naive and indisciplined" was Azema's damning verdict on a performance that left Clermont on a meagre four points, one off the foot of a table propped up by their Saturday visitors and Massif Central neighbours, Brive.
"We haven't become a mediocre team in two months," says Azema.
"There was a non-match, that's obvious, but I'm not ashamed of my team. We are simply in difficulty.
"And it's now that we're going to see if we are great rugby players. And great men, capable of picking ourselves up after a crushing fall,"
Azema will be relieved at the return of Morgan Parra, who kicked 17 points in Clermont's 22-16 title win over Toulon in June but who had been sidelined with a pre-season knee injury.
Victory over Clermont pushed La Rochelle, last season's regular-season table-toppers, into third ahead of their trip to an Agen side rocked by the forecast six-month absence of hooker Loick Jammes.
The 22-year-old came on as a 49th-minute replacement in last weekend's narrow defeat at Oyonnax only to be injured two minutes later.
Level on five points with newly-promoted Agen are Stade Francais, who are away to Toulouse and, like Clermont, also eager to turn the page after a 30-10 wipe-out by Bordeaux-Begles last time out.
Stade's French international fly-half Jules Plisson reflected on last season's Challenge Cup winners' tricky start to the new campaign under new management and the loss of several key players.
"We're all aware that it's going to be a transitional, complicated season," said Plisson, out of contract at the end of the season.
"So we've got to stop saying that we're going to win every game. Of course we want to win every match, but the season's going to be hard."
Sunday's double-header sees leaders Montpellier host Toulon and Oyonnax at second-placed Racing 92.
Montpellier have shot out of the blocks, reeling off three wins from three to top the fledgling table on 14 points.
Their most recent 22-17 victory at Castres came at a cost to centre Alexandre Dumoulin, who picked up a left knee injury and is unlikely to be fit.
Racing meanwhile are hoping their All Black legend Dan Carter, out of contract like Plisson at the end of the current campaign, will extend his stay by another season.
"For sure we want Dan to continue, that's obvious," forwards coach Laurent Travers said.
Toulouse v Stade Français
Lyon v Bordeaux-Begles
Pau v Castres
Agen v La Rochelle
Clermont v Brive
Racing 92 v Oyonnax
Montpellier v Toulon