PREVIEW: Rougerie's farewell overshadows tense final round

Fri, 04 May 2018 06:21
Large aurelien rougerie clermont 800

TOP 14 SPOTLIGHT: First and last have been settled, but there is plenty at stake in the last Top 14 league round, particularly for the Paris clubs, one chasing glory the other flirting with disaster.

Yet perhaps the most emotional moment will be for a team with nothing to play for. Clermont, who started the season as the reigning champions and end it in mid-table mediocrity, are bidding farewell to Aurelien Rougerie after a remarkable one-club career.

In the table, Montpellier are sure to top the standings and earn a bye to the play-off semifinals. Brive are doomed to drop to the second division.

Three clubs who have already secured a playoff spot, with Racing 92, Toulouse and Toulon scrapping for the second bye.

Racing have a slight edge in the standings and the greater need. With the exception of Pau, all the other contenders will enjoy a weekend off before the play-offs start, while Racing play Leinster in the European Champions Cup final in Bilbao.

On Saturday, Racing welcome Agen to their U Arena fortress knowing that with a bonus-point win they could stop worrying about the Top 14 until the weekend of May 25.

Four teams are competing for the last two play-off spots. 

Lyon and Castres are best placed but La Rochelle and Pau could sneak through.

On the face of it Lyon, who host the leaders, face the toughest task. But Montpellier's only worry will be injuries.

Pau take on Toulon who have hopes of finishing second but are sure of a playoff place.

The toughest tasks could face La Rochelle, who take on Stade Francais, and Castres, who face Oyonnax. 

Normally teams in the bottom three would be attractive opponents but these are fighting for their lives.

Oyonnax, who seemed doomed for much of the season, have won their last two to climb off the bottom and into 13th, which gives a chance of survival with a relegation play-off. Another win could propel them past Stade Francais and to complete safety.

"Oyonnax are capable of going and winning at Castres and we are capable of going and winning at La Rochelle," said Stade flyhalf Jules Plisson.

At Clermont, the encounter with old enemy Toulouse, who are chasing second place, will be overshadowed by the end of Rougerie's 19th and final season with the home club.

"There will of course be emotion, I think, for me, those close to me and some fans," said the 37-year-old back who has played 417 matches, second only to the club's former flyhalf Eric Nicol, and scored 134 tries, a club record.

"I thought I would stop at 33," he said, adding that his longevity will be hard to equal. "With the intensity of the game today, it's possible that players will break down a little sooner."

He thought of leaving the Auvergne a couple of times, in 2005, when the club was struggling, and in 2013 when he got a lucrative offer from Japan but then was put off by meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

"I did not want to return with lots of money and an illness," he said.

Rougerie's father Jaques played for the club and for France, as a front-row forward. His mother Christine Dulac-Rougerie, played basketball for the club and for France.  

Aurelien joined as a child and made his debut in August 1999 just before his 19th birthday. He started as a hulking wing. He stands 1.93m and weighed 95kg, though he has switched to centre and now weighs 103kg. 

He played for France at 21 and quickly showed he belonged, going on to win 76 caps and score 23 tries appearing in two Grand Slams and the 2011 World Cup Final, an 7-8 loss to the All Blacks in New Zealand.

The nine final losses at Clermont, a club with a long history of losing finals, were equally "heartbreaking". But when the club won their first French title in 2010, Rougerie hoisted the trophy as captain.

Fixtures

Saturday (all matches 19.00 GMT):
Brive v Bordeaux
Castres v Oyonnax
Lyon v Montpellier
La Rochelle v Stade Francais
Pau v Toulon
Racing 92 v Agen
Clermont v Toulouse

Agence France-Presse