2024 Aviron Bayonnais vs RC Toulonnais

Top 14 Round 20 Preview: A Big Weekend For Relegation-Threatened Sides

Top 14 Round 20 Preview: A Big Weekend For Relegation-Threatened Sides

Five of a possible seven matches in Round 19 were decided by three points or less. Don’t expect that intensity and parity to change much in Round 20.

Mar 29, 2024 by Briar Napier
Top 14 Round 20 Preview: A Big Weekend For Relegation-Threatened Sides

Seven weeks remain in the Top 14’s regular season.

The league’s clubs can’t blink now, or else their goals and aspirations may vanish in the span of a single round.

With plenty of tantalizing clashes to come in the competition’s final two months before the playoffs, no weekend can be wasted for those in France’s top flight, with postseason slots still very much hanging in the balance.

Five of a possible seven matches in Round 19 were decided by three points or less, further showing how much of a grind the Top 14 is week after week. Don’t expect that intensity and parity to change much in Round 20.

Here’s a look at what to watch out for in the Top 14 this weekend:

Who’ll Make A Great Escape?

Those who’ve followed sports leagues that practice promotion and relegation for a while now know that the battle to avoid the drop can sometimes be more exciting than the race for the top spot, and such a situation may be developing in the Top 14 right now, as Stade Francais and Toulouse are well clear of others at the top of the league table in a two-horse race. 

In France’s top flight, the team that places in the bottom of the league automatically is relegated to the country’s second-tier rugby competition, Pro D2, whereas the second-to-last team at the end of the regular season is drawn into a relegation playoff against Pro D2’s runner-up, with the winning getting promoted/staying up and the loser going down/staying in the second division. 

As the table stands entering Round 20, last-place Oyonnax — last season’s Pro D2 champion — appears bound to go straight back down, barring a remarkable late-season surge, sitting 13 points from guaranteed safety with seven matches remaining. Les Oyomen have not won a league match since December. 

Where the race to avoid relegation really gets spicy, however, is in terms of the relegation playoff place right above Oyonnax. 

Perpignan (11th place, 39 points), Lyon (12th, 38) and Montpellier (13th, 37) are the closest to danger at the moment, with Les Cistes — who have been strong lately, going on a four-match winning run, before losing last weekend to Toulon — scrambling to try and avoid playing for their top-flight survival only two years removed from winning the league entirely. 

None of the three main relegation playoff candidates have easy matches in Round 20 (Montpellier plays Stade Francais, Lyon plays Bordeaux-Bègles, and Perpignan plays Castres), but points in any form this week may prove vital down the line if it helps guarantee a club safety in the Top 14 for another season.

Is Dupont’s Return Enough For Toulouse?

Whenever and wherever Antoine Dupont suits up on a rugby pitch, good things tend to happen.

With that in mind, the superstar’s return to club rugby for Toulouse for the first time since Round 14 last weekend was long-awaited, especially considering that his parent club’s push for yet another Top 14 title is heating up as the regular season winds down. 

But while Dupont (who came back from play with France’s sevens team, where he led them to a win at Los Angeles SVNS earlier this month for the country’s first sevens title in 19 years as he prepares for sevens at the Paris Olympics this summer) played 77 minutes after coming off of the bench against Bordeaux, it didn’t result in victory, as the club lost its second straight match, losing ground in the process to Stade Francais for the Top 14’s top spot in the standings. 

It was Toulouse’s first defeat in all competitions with Dupont playing since Round 9 in early December, but a bounceback performance against Pau this weekend would be little surprise as Dupont continues to get back in the flow of things club-wise — or, at least, it looks that way on paper. It was Pau that actually won the first meeting of the season in a 13-9 slugfest back in November, with Toulouse being held scoreless in the second half. 

Dupont didn’t play that day, as he was on about a month-long break following France’s quarterfinal elimination in the Rugby World Cup, but his presence Saturday in Toulouse’s rematch with Pau could put the latter club in a world of trouble. The difference-making X-factor Dupont brings, being one of the few players in the world truly capable of winning a game all on his own, is downright unstoppable sometimes.

Match Of The Round: Bayonne Vs. Toulon

With Round 20’s slate lacking in terms of many table equals squaring off, we’ve opted to recommend a match that quickly could turn into a tense track meet. 

Toulon, which got some added good news this week when it was announced that England duo Lewis Ludlam and Kyle Sinckler would be joining the club next season, had the most dominant performance in what was a tight Round 19 across the league. Toulon roared past Montpellier in a 54-7 win, scoring eight tries in the process

Inconsistency has plagued the Top 14’s current fifth-place club from making a true push at the top of the table — seeing Toulon lose four of its past six matches, for instance — but when Les Rouge et Noir is on, it’s on, scoring 44 and 54 points in their past two victories. 

Elsewhere, Bayonne (ninth in the table on 43 points) is in a bit of a unique spot in its season, holding highlight wins over the likes of Stade Francais, Toulouse and (just last round) La Rochelle, among others, but also failing to win consecutive matches all season. 

L’Aviron can get to the top-6 playoff and Champions Cup places but also can just as easily slip down into the relegation playoff scrap, if they aren’t careful, too, only being six points clear of 13th place. 

Bayonne can win consecutive games for the first time this year with a victory over Toulon, and considering that it scored 39 and 40 points in the two matches prior to its 13-12 grinder over La Rochelle in Round 19, the quality is there in the attack for Bayonne to keep up. But then again, exactly which version of Bayonne will show up?

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