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French Rugby Column January 11 || By: Howard Johnson

April 24, 2020 2 min read

French Champions Perpignan will arrive in England to do Heineken Cup
battle with Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens next Sunday
knowing that if it’s hard to get to the top, then it’s far, far harder to
stay there. The famous Catalan club won the French Top 14
championship last season for the first time in over 50 years, provoking
wild scenes of celebration in the south coast town that will stay forever
in the minds of those who witnessed them. “It was ridiculous,” said
USAP’s adopted English son, the prop Perry Freshwater. “The party
that went on the day we came back from Paris with the title was just
incredible.”

This season, however, all that partying seems like a long, long time
ago. As I write Perpignan lie fourth in the domestic table after finally
putting an end to a run of four consecutive defeats last Friday when
they beat Racing Metro 92 by 31 points to 12. “It’s definitely harder
this season,” explains Freshwater. “Everybody wants to knock you off
your perch.”

So far Perpignan’s attempt to go for European glory in the Heineken
Cup hasn’t exactly been plain sailing either. After their first four games
in Pool One USAP lie in third place behind both Munster and
Northampton, with just one victory to their name and three defeats,
including a totally unexpected loss away to the Italian minnows of
Treviso. How can this be? Can it really be true that the Champions of
France aren’t really that good after all?

To be honest that’s not the whole story. Perpignan is a side that’s full
of quality, a match for any of the Guinness Premiership’s elite on their
day. The problem is that as Freshwater himself admits, “The Heineken
Cup really isn’t the Number One priority for most French clubs. It’s still
the Top 14 that’s considered The Big One.”

Does that mean Saints will have an easy time of it on Sunday, then?
That depends very much on who Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel
decides to play. If the likes of Gavin Hume, Farid Sid and Jérome
Porical feature, then we could be in for an entertaining afternoon.
Sadly for all fans of great rugby though, the club’s magnificent
international centre Maxime Marmoz is definitely out with a shoulder
injury. Surely only Saints coaches Jim Mallinder and Dorian West will
be happy about that. But French teams are not traditionally great
travellers and given their current precarious position in the Pool One
table my suspicion is that Perpignan might have one eye elsewhere on
Sunday. Will the real Perpignan stand up and be counted in Frozen
Britain? I for one have my doubts.

On the home front the Top 14 is proving to be more and more
competitive and an increasingly exciting competition. After Round 18
of this year’s tournament the country’s two recent powerhouses,
Toulouse and Stade Francais, find themselves languishing well behind
Clermont and this season’s surprise package Castres. The Sunday
night thriller in Toulouse between the home side and Clermont, where
the visitors dug deep to snatch a terrific 16-15 victory, showed
everything that’s good and everything that’s exciting about the French
domestic game right now. And if we get a match that’s half as thrilling
as that one at Franklin’s Gardens this Sunday, then we’re all in for a
real treat!