2024 Section Paloise vs Stade Rochelais

Top 14 Round 12 Match Of The Week: Pau Vs. La Rochelle

Top 14 Round 12 Match Of The Week: Pau Vs. La Rochelle

La Rochelle, looking to finally bounce back in form for good, will seek to become the first Top 14 team to beat Pau at the Stade du Hameau this season.

Jan 5, 2024 by Briar Napier
Top 14 Round 12 Match Of The Week: Pau Vs. La Rochelle

After thrilling action and a banner year in French rugby throughout 2023, 2024 already is shaping up to be a barnstormer of a year, too.

Well-known and well-respected as the Top 14’s surprise package thus far this season, Section Paloise has turned its home base in the Pyrenees in the southwest of France into a rugby hotbed, thanks to strong play - especially in front of home support.

Meanwhile, the usually powerful Stade Rochelais — known across European rugby for playing for, and scooping up, titles left and right over the past few seasons — is in danger of seeing its 2023-2024 campaign turn into a lost season, if play doesn’t pick up inside and outside of France.

There’s a lot on the line for each side this weekend as they square off in their first club matches of 2024, a weekend before continental play in both the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup continues. 

Will the new year start with a bang or a whimper for these teams? Will those results be indicative of what’s to come for each club for the months ahead?

Here’s a look at the match to watch in Round 12 of the Top 14 season this weekend, as Pau hosts La Rochelle on Saturday:

Fortress In The Pyrenees

Pau’s surprising surge to the top half of the Top 14 table in the first half of the season has been discussed at length many times already, but a key reason behind the club’s early-season success has been the fact that it has turned its home ground — the near 15,000-capacity Stade du Hameau — into an impenetrable castle, an ironic feat, considering that the venue at one time was a French military stadium. 

Pau, fourth in the standings entering this weekend after leading the Top 14 for the first time in club history earlier in the campaign, is unbeaten in six Top 14 matches this season at its home venue, toppling powerhouse sides such as Racing 92, Toulouse and Bordeaux-Begles. 

Though that form has not traveled - Pau is 1-4 in matches on the road - when in familiar surroundings, there's arguably been no stronger side in the competition to date.

Pau will try to make La Rochelle the next victim this weekend in an increasingly long line of those who have felt the wrath of Les Sectionnistes in front of home support this season, and Pau could use a bounce-back performance while it’s at it, too. 

A poor performance at newly promoted Oyonnax in Round 11 - losing 34-13 after being outscored 19-3 in the second half - saw Pau miss out on a chance to at least share the Top 14 lead on points with leader Racing, which dropped its own match last weekend against Bayonne and flung the door open for Pau to take advantage, though it failed to do just that. 

A highly anticipated club debut for Sam Whitelock - the legendary New Zealand lock and all-time All Blacks caps leader who signed with Pau to play with brother Luke - against the Oyomen was spoiled as a result, but in front of home support for the first time, the two-time Rugby World Cup winner will look to help his new side and its enchanting story get back on track.

English fly-half Joe Simmonds, the Top 14’s top point-scorer in his first season in France after leaving the Premiership's Exeter Chiefs, should play a major role in any Pau victory, as well, as one of the breakthrough players of the season thus far in France’s top flight of rugby.

La Rochelle’s Long Road

Has La Rochelle finally reached a turning point forward in what largely has been a disastrous start to the 2023-2024 season for the two-time defending Champions Cup winners? 

Supporters of the Top 14, now used to Les Maritimes being one of the main gatekeepers to any domestic and continental trophies they play for, have been waiting for the surge from coach Ronan O’Gara’s men. 

After a 29-8 bonus-point victory over fellow giant Toulouse over the weekend in a rematch of the Top 14 playoff final, that surge have finally may arrived for the seaside club. 

Though Toulouse’s starting XV was heavily rotated for its final match of 2023 (being without the likes of France internationals and stars Antoine Dupont and Thomas Ramos, among others), La Rochelle most certainly had no problem taking the points, while bouncing back from a Round 10 loss to Stade Francais and trying to restore some form and good vibes. 

Each would help for the rest of the domestic season and the fast-approaching remainder of the Champions Cup pool stages later this month, where La Rochelle is staring possible elimination - or relegation to the Challenge Cup - in the face after a pair of losses in Pool D. 

Les Bleus back rower Gregory Aldritt, forced to be pulled back into the squad early from his post-World Cup break due to injuries at the club, returned to the La Rochelle lineup against Toulouse to see a win, but a red card from lock Thomas Lavault in the same match will leave him unable to be selected for the fixture against Pau and maybe for his team’s remaining Champions Cup pool stage games, too, complicating O’Gara’s tactics for the weeks ahead.

Regardless of squad depth and health, just five wins from 11 matches is not good enough for La Rochelle if it wants to return to being in the Top 14 title fight, and it must get the wheels turning soon. 

Being the first club to slay Pau in the Pyrenees this season most certainly would make a statement to the rest of the league that Les Maritimes are to be feared for the rest of the season.