PREVIEW: Clermont look to build on European form
TOP 14, ROUND EIGHT: Reigning champions Clermont host Stade Francais on Saturday, looking to get their Top 14 title defence back on track after rediscovering their best form in the European Champions Cup.
Franck Azema's side notched up back-to-back victories over Ospreys and Northampton to put themselves in a strong position to qualify from Pool Two in Europe, but remain six points off the top six domestically.
Clermont have lost all four of their Top 14 away games this campaign.
They will also have to make do without Camille Lopez for five months, after the French international flyhalf broke his ankle against Northampton.
"The injury for Camille is very bad for us because he is very important," said hooker Benjamin Kayser after the 24-7 win against Northampton last weekend.
"This has been two good weekends in a row. This was only one match though as the European Cup and the Top 14 are very different things.
"They are not refereed in the same way."
Last year's Champions Cup runners-up collected their first away win of the season in Wales a fortnight ago, and failure to win on Saturday would be a massive blow ahead of a tricky trip to high-flying Montpellier next week.
Head coach Azema said on Thursday that the club will not be able to keep France fullback Scott Spedding and former England wing David Strettle after the end of the season because of the league's salary cap.
French international wing Noa Nakaitaci is also set to leave the club, having struggled with the knee injury that ended his campaign early last term.
Stade Francais, who are level on points with Clermont, will be hoping to prove that their terrible start in Europe has not derailed a recent domestic revival.
The capital club were handed a seven-try thrashing at home by London Irish last week, having suffered a humiliating start to their defence of the Challenge Cup with a 34-29 loss to Siberian debutants Krasny Yar in Russia.
Surprise leaders Lyon will be expecting to strengthen their grip on top spot when they take on struggling Oyonnax at the Stade de Gerland.
Lyon, who were only promoted to the top flight in 2016, are three points clear of second-placed Montpellier after a three-match winning run.
The success of Vern Cotter's side is not as much of a shock, after the arrivals of France No.8 Louis Picamoles, former New Zealand flyhalf Aaron Cruden and South Africa stalwart Ruan Pienaar.
Cotter's impact should not be downplayed either, although his team's European hopes are already hanging by a thread after a damaging home defeat by Exeter followed an opening loss at Leinster, ahead of Saturday's trip to in-form Pau.
"It's a disappointment, there was an improvement in our game but it's frustrating not to put it on the scoreboard," said the former Scotland boss after the Exeter game.
"But we will use this frustration to start again. There is character in this group."
The big match on Sunday sees third-placed Toulouse visit last season's regular-season table-toppers La Rochelle, who are defending a 15-match unbeaten home run in the league dating back to May 2016.
Top 14 fixtures:
Toulon v Brive
Lyon v Oyonnax
Racing 92 v Bordeaux-Begles
Pau v Montpellier
Clermont v Stade Francais
Castres v Agen
La Rochelle v Toulouse