Gerry Thornley: High-class French sides loom into view ahead of Champions Cup

Stuart Lancaster is already having a big impact at Racing 92, with a game against Ulster coming up this month

They’re not going away. Just six weeks after Le Mondial 2023, the French loom back into view, with three Top 14 sides facing Irish opposition in next weekend’s opening round of the Champions Cup.

The pick of the first weekend is undoubtedly the clash between La Rochelle and Leinster at a sold-out Stade Marcel-Deflandre which is a repeat of the last two finals and also the semi-final three seasons ago. La Rochelle, of course, won all three in establishing themselves as Leinster’s bêtes noires.

The game has been slightly overshadowed by Ronan O’Gara having to face another LNR disciplinary hearing next Tuesday following the report of referee Adrien Descottes and his officials after Racing 92′s 32-10 win in last Sunday night’s game in the La Defense indoor arena in Paris.

The match was notable for it being the first Top 14 meeting between O’Gara and his Racing counterpart Stuart Lancaster, as well as a debut for the Parisian club by dual World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi.


It was effectively decided in a five-minute period from the 25th minute, beginning with a red card for former Racing winger Teddy Thomas for a swinging arm tackle around the neck on exciting 21-year-old home scrumhalf Nolann le Garrec.

A penalty try from the ensuing lineout maul, a yellow card for La Rochelle hooker Pierre Bourgarit and a walk-in try by Racing outhalf Antoine Gibert in the 30th minute made it 24-3 and effectively ended the contest.

O’Gara has already incurred suspensions totalling 20 weeks in the Top 14, and his staff were reportedly angered by other issues, notably Racing winger Juan Imhoff appearing to play the ball illegally in preventing Judicael Cancoriet from scoring.

O’Gara’s dark mood has not been helped by a fifth defeat in eight games this season, which has left them 11th in the table. However, this is perhaps a little distorted after a shock 27-24 defeat at home by Castres in round four.

La Rochelle were in a not dissimilar position after eight rounds last season following a home defeat by Pau. They will be strongly fancied to take out their wrath on Perpignan at home tomorrow and as back-to-back Champions Cup winners, they’re liable to be a different beasts next Sunday against Leinster.

Ulster travel to Johann van Graan’s Bath next week before hosting Racing the following Saturday in a mouth-watering match at the Kingspan Stadium, with that victory last Sunday over La Rochelle cementing the Parisians’ place atop the Top 14 in a very bright start under Lancaster.

Next weekend, Connacht host the apparent pick of the ties on Irish soil in round one when entertaining a star-studded Bordeaux/Begles next Friday at the Sportsground.

Under a new head coach in Yannick Bru, Bordeaux sit seventh with a classic French form guide so far of four home wins and four away defeats. However, they bounced vibrantly into life last weekend thanks to a stunning home debut by main summer signing Damian Penaud against Perpignan.

The right-winger marked the occasion by scoring four first-half tries, the first time he has scored a quartet of tries in a single game in his career. After a decade at Clermont, and six tries at the World Cup in four games, he now has 49 Top 14 tries in total.

Two finished off flowing moves which were orchestrated by French World Cup outhalf Matthieu Jalibert, with another French team-mate winger Louis Bielle-Biarray providing the first assist. French centre Yoann Moefana scored another to establish a 29-0 lead by the half-hour mark in a 46-22 win.

Munster host Bayonne next Saturday in the latter’s debut in the competition. The Basques club almost became the first newly promoted club to reach the French Championship play-offs last season in an unexpectedly strong showing, with Camille Lopez enjoying an Indian summer to his career at his home club.

They sit 12th after last week’s 42-29 defeat away to Lyon, who were again inspired by Paddy Jackson in his prolific start to life with his new club. By the by, ex-Ulster, Munster and Irish centre Chris Farrell scored the decisive try in a first win at Montpellier for the newly promoted Oyonnax.

That was Bayonne’s 11th defeat in 11 away Top 14 matches in this calendar year, and they hardly fired a shot in losing four matches against Benetton and the Scarlets last season, losing with neat symmetry by scorelines of 7-20, 7-26, 7-45 and 7-39.

However, some Bayonne fans began planning their first ever trip to Limerick and Thomond Park, and this has uncanny echoes of Montauban almost beating Munster in their competition debut back in 2008 when the then champions won 19-17 thanks to a late penalty by some bloke called O’Gara.