Depleted Montpellier bid to retain lead
FRENCH Top 14 leaders Montpellier will have their title credentials seriously tested when they travel to Stade Francais today without the injured Aaron Cruden and Jannie du Plessis.
Vern Cotter’s side have made a stunning start to the campaign and hold a two-point lead over surprise challengers Lyon at the summit.
But former New Zealand flyhalf Cruden picked up a rib injury in last weekend’s 54-10 thrashing of Brive and joins South African prop Du Plessis, as well as backs Joe Tomane and Timoci Nagusa, on the sidelines.
Montpellier will also be facing their former winger Marvin O’Connor for the first time since the Frenchman joined Stade Francais at the start of the season.
The 26-year-old of Australian descent was shown the door by Montpellier after seeing his 2016-17 season cut short in November last year by a dislocated knee.
“From then on, it was the beginning of a descent into hell,” he said.
“The new staff had to make a choice. They brought in star players and had to make cuts for the salary cap. I had hardly played that season, and I paid the price.”
Stade’s miseries have continued this year as, after seeing a proposed merger with Racing 92 fall through, they have lost four of their opening six matches, including two at home.
The only real bright spot of the season so far was a 35-24 victory over La Rochelle at the Stade Jean Bouin, when O’Connor dived over for the fifth and final try.
Now the capital club will be hoping to prove that wasn’t a false dawn, having picked up their second win at Pau last time out.
Despite their injury troubles Montpellier are still a formidable outfit, with South African international Francois Steyn set to take Cruden’s place at flyhalf.
Struggling champions Clermont travel to third-placed Toulouse tomorrow, as they continue their search for a first away victory of the season after a 29-23 loss at Castres.
They are already five points adrift of the top six and have shipped 112 points in only three games on the road.
“We had big deficiencies there and it’s starting to annoy me,” coach Franck Azema said after their latest defeat last Sunday. “We have to find solutions together and soon go back to the drawing board.”
Azema will welcome back French international centre Damian Penaud this weekend, but Fijian wing Alivereti Raka is out with a heel injury.
Lyon will be looking for a fourth straight win today when they visit lowly Agen.
The other heavyweight clash sees last season’s regular-season table-toppers La Rochelle face Racing tomorrow. – AFP