French Top 14 Semi-Finals: La Rochelle v Toulon Preview


Our in-house rugby scribe previews Friday’s Top 14 semi-final between La Rochelle and Toulon.

It’s everyone’s favourite French underdog versus mega spenders Toulon in the first of this weekend’s Top 14 semi-finals. The visitors will be the weary of the two sides this weekend as they were involved in an almighty scrap with Castres last Friday. The hosts, on the other hand, had the week off due to them topping the Top 14 log at the close of the regular season.

La Rochelle v Toulon | Friday 26 May | Stade Velodrome | 21:00

To Win (80 Mins)
La Rochelle 6/10 | Draw 18/1 | Toulon 27/20 

La Rochelle
Sports fans have enjoyed a multitude of fairy tale-esque storylines over the past 24 months. And while any future underdog will never replace Leicester City FC in the hearts of sports romantics, La Rochelle’s topping of the French Top 14 log will have warmed many a rugby fans hearts. The hosts for Saturday’s fixture were only promoted back into the French top tier in 2014 and the proceeding seasons saw them become perennial mid-table finishers.

So, to achieve what they have this term, on a shoestring budget is quite remarkable. That’s not to say they don’t have some quality players on their books. Far from it in fact, as the likes of former All Black Jason Eaton, the talented Brok James and former Sharks man Paul Jordaan all playing their trade in southwestern France. The ‘yellow and blacks’ aren’t solely reliant on their big guns though, and their magnificent run has only been possible due to a big team effort.

Their team mentality could come in rather handy against a Toulon side who has been heavily reliant on their foreign import. A cohesive La Rochelle set piece and some solid defence could really frustrate the Toulon heavies, who will no doubt look to dominate the contact and use their forwards to achieve gain line supremacy.

While the La Rochelle pack is in for an arduous test against this heavyweight Toulon pack, the men who are likely to have the highest tackle counts come the final whistle are La Rochelle’s centre duo of Paul Jordaan and Pierre Aguillon. Both players are rather lightweight, with both weighing in at under 95 kilograms, which is a huge worry for the hosts as these two midfield whippets will square off against midfield behemoths, Mathieu Bastareaud and Ma’a Nonu.

Mike Ford’s side really encapsulated their season with an iffy showing against Castres last week; they got the win but they were horrendous for large patches of the game. And while credit must go to Castres, Toulon were their own worst enemies at times butchering several promising try scoring opportunities. If they don’t take their chances this Friday evening, then they are more than likely to end up on the wrong side of the scoreline.

In last week’s play-off preview, I mentioned that Welsh full-back Leigh Halfpenny would have a big role to play against Castres, and the diminutive Lions tourist certainly put his hand up slotting three penalties and two conversions. He will once again need to be on song with the boot if his side are to advance to the Grand Final.

As I alluded to in the La Rochelle segment of this piece, Toulon will try dominate contact both at the set piece and in general play. Their loose trio of Duane Vermeulen, Liam Gill and Juan Smith will be key in this regard as all three are known for their physical approach to the game. There is a downside fielding two heavyweights in the form of Vermeulen and Smith, however, with Toulon unlikely to be as quick to the breakdown as their counterparts.

Verdict: La Rochelle 6/10
It’s going to be a nail-biter, but I think La Rochelle will just edge it at the death. Their players are hungrier and more passionate than their opponents.

Written by Darry Worthington for

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