La Rochelle boss wary of Montpellier with top spot in sight

Barnaby CHESTERMAN
La Rochelle head coach Patrice Collazo says for the side to win the French league they will have to perform better than they did in the European Challenge Cup

La Rochelle head coach Patrice Collazo said his team will need to be on top form against Montpellier if they are to sew up first place in the French league regular season.

The Top 14 leaders need only a losing bonus point on Sunday to guarantee first place while denying Montpellier an attacking bonus would be enough to ensure a top two finish and bye straight into the play-off semi-finals.

But that is easier said than done against a team that has scored an incredible 169 points in their last three matches.

"I've seen that Montpellier have made this match at La Rochelle a priority so we'll try to raise our game to the level of the challenge," said Collazo.

While the unfashionable league leaders have had a remarkable season, and sit nine points clear, they come into the match on the back of disappointment, having lost their last two games, including being dumped out of the European Challenge Cup by Gloucester last weekend with a final spot up for grabs.

"We're lucky, we were involved in two competitions. We have to admit that in that one (the Challenge Cup) we were lacking something, I hope we won't be missing that in the Top 14," added Collazo.

With two games to go, there is much to play for in the Top 14, with all but already relegated pair Grenoble and Bayonne targeting a play-off spot.

While the top three are fighting for the two automatic semi-final berths, the next nine sides are all still in with a shout of making the play-offs -- even though in the case of Toulouse it is only mathematical and would require the most remarkable series of results.

Toulouse are one of the sides that know their hopes could be dashed by the end of the weekend -- in their case even a bonus point victory at Castres could prove insufficient depending on other results.

Pau host Brive knowing that realistically, whoever loses is out of the running.

Lyon, who host Clermont, and Bordeaux-Begles, entertaining Toulon, also know that anything other than victory will likely end their hopes.

Toulon are safe in the knowledge that a win will secure their place but even if they lost their two remaining matches they may still qualify.

Racing 92 are most at risk of those currently in the top six as they travel to Parisian rivals Stade Francais on Sunday in what promises to be a feisty affair.

Victory for Stade could see them replace Racing in the top six but given the sides came close to merging last month before a player strike and fan protests convinced the club owners to call off the project, the atmosphere should be red hot.

Champions over the last two seasons as well as local rivals, only one is likely to reach the play-offs.

Stade at least have a Challenge Cup final, against Gloucester, to look forward to but reigning champions Racing's season rests on making the play-offs -- and thus also qualifying for next season's European Champions Cup.

"We all know the context with the aborted merger," said Racing scrum-half Maxime Machenaud.

"The fact that there's been a lot to say over the past few derbies also adds a bit of spice to this match -- thankfully."

Fixtures (all times GMT):

Saturday

Castres v Toulouse (1245), Pau v Brive, Bayonne v Grenoble, Lyon v Clermont (all 1630), Bordeaux-Begles v Toulon (1845)

Sunday

La Rochelle v Montpellier (1030), Stade Francais v Racing 92 (1500)