Big Top 14 guns under fire
Big Top 14 guns under fireSHARE
Top 14 giants Racing-Metro and Perpignan find themselves under pressure as the second half of the season gets under way this weekend.
Both Racing and Perpignan came into this season with heady ambitions both at home and on the European front.
But home and away defeats over the last two weeks in the European Cup means both must now realistically accept that a domestic play-off berth should be the extent of their ambition.
Racing's forwards coach Laurent Travers says his team must find consistency.
"We realise that we can have 10 or 15 excellent minutes and we say 'that's it, we're found our rhythm', but then we have 15 wasteful minutes where we fail," he said.
"We have good moments but they're a lot less important than the bad ones. We'd like to be more consistent."
Racing had gone into their double-header with Harlequins top of Pool Four and with their opponents bottom after two defeats out of two.
But a pair of reverses against the 2012 English champions means Racing's hopes of progress in Europe are as good as dead in the water.
Instead they must now refocus on a possible Top 6 finish in their domestic league – no small task given they currently sit two places and three points off the pace.
Perpignan are another point and place further back but likewise having lost home and away against Munster has left them bottom of Pool Six with one win and three defeats.
Both Racing and Perpignan face tough away matches this weekend at Brive and champions Castres respectively.
Perpignan's task looks particularly tough as they have lost first choice flyhalf Camille Lopez for the rest of the season.
Their treatment room is full to breaking point and they have lost their last five matches in a row.
"We're struggling," admitted manager Marc Delpoux with more than a hint of understatement.
The only modicum of good news is that at least they are well served at flyhalf with Wales international James Hook – who has mostly played fullback this season – and new Italy No.10 Tommaso Allan on their books.
But neither they nor Racing can really afford to lose this weekend and potentially drop further off the pace, particularly in such a balanced championship in which second-placed Toulouse have won only one more match than second-from-bottom Oyonnax.
That they are separated by 11 points is because Toulouse have a league-leading eight bonus points from 13 games while Oyonnax have managed just one, the worst return in the championship.
Such has been the close nature of the Top 14 this season that there have been precious few away wins and rock-bottom Biarritz apart, everyone has appeared capable of at least holding their own against anyone else at home.
But with leaders Clermont hosting Biarritz on Saturday, there is a rare match where the outcome would appear to be a forgone conclusion, not least as Clermont won in the Basque Country on the opening day of the season.
Elsewhere European champions Toulon host Montpellier, who are hanging onto that crucial sixth spot at the moment.
Toulouse host Bordeaux-Begles and will be aiming to make up for their last home match when they lost against Irish province Connacht in their European Cup pool.
Bordeaux backs coach Vincent Etcheto admitted they will rest some players for the match, preferring to focus on next weekend's clash with Brive.
"It's not a priority for us," said Etcheto.
Down at the bottom, Oyonnax host Bayonne in a vital relegation clash.
The two sides are level on 25 points but Bayonne currently sit above their rivals due to head-to-head record having beaten the second division champions 39-11 with an attacking bonus point on the opening day of the season.
Top 14 Fixtures
Friday, December 20
Stade Francais v Grenoble (19.45 GMT)
Saturday, December 21
Toulon v Montpellier (13.55 GMT)
Brive v Racing-Metro (17.30 GMT)
Castres v Perpignan (17.30 GMT)
Clermont v Biarritz (17.30 GMT)
Oyonnax v Bayonne (17.30 GMT)
Toulouse v Bordeaux-Begles (19.35 GMT)