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Harrington column: Handre Pollard a doubt for Lions tour after ACL horror

Montpellier fly-half Handre Pollard

Europe and then the extended Autumn International period are looming on rugby’s horizon. France’s Top 14 heads into a three-week European rugby break after this second round of matches.

Whatever happens with the six French sides still involved in the Champions and Challenge Cup competitions, all the attention in France will be on which players have caught the eyes of international coaches when domestic competition returns at the beginning of October.

Some decisions are easy – Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Virimi Vakatawa, Damien Penaud, and Matthieu Jalibert will be early names on Fabien Galthie’s wishlist, for example.

Jalibert played like he had a point to prove as Bordeaux finally kicked off their season at home to Brive.

He was the spark that fired lightning-quick assault after lightning-quick assault on the visitors’ line in the first half. But Brive refused to go away, and raised the tension all the way to the final whistle, with full-back Thomas Laranjeira punishing Bordeaux indescretions. It ended, rather closer than it should, at 25-20.

Penaud, another near-certainty on Galthie’s early training squad list, also had a bee in his bonnet. But his efforts – including a hack-and-chase try that briefly pushed Clermont into the lead at Bayonne – were in vain. The Basque Country side were not about to give up the ghost on home turf, and mauled their way from 19-7 down to 21-19 winners.

On balance, Bayonne just about deserved to shade it, but it was a poor game in conditions that should have allowed something much better.

Finn Russell, having apparently settled his Six Nations differences with Gregor Townsend, is – barring injury disaster between now and then – surely a shoo-in for Scotland. He’s played some glorious rugby in the short season so far and did it again on Friday, as Racing 92 hosted Montpellier.

He pulled all the strings as Racing cruised to a 41-17 bonus-point victory – the first attacking bonus of the Top 14 season – as the very early woes mount for the visitors.

The switch from Bok bosh to French panache is proving more difficult to achieve than head coach Xavier Garbajosa and director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre had probably imagined.

The club no longer relies quite as heavily on their South African contingent as it once did. But, they were already a long way second to Racing when playmaker Handre Pollard went down injured early in the second half. He was taken to hospital and was later confirmed to have ruptured knee ligaments.

French media reported the World Cup-winning fly-half could be out of action for several months, after he fell awkwardly attempting to tackle Baptiste Chouzenoux.

Montpellier lost what remained of their way as soon as he left the pitch. Arthur Vincent was always lively, and Anthony Bouthier occasionally threatened from full-back, but Garbajosa’s side looked shorn of ideas as they hobbled to their second defeat in as many games.

But it’s not all bad news for Rassie Erasmus and South Africa rugby fans leading up to the rescheduled Rugby Championship. Cheslin Kolbe scored a first-half double as Toulouse beat La Rochelle in an empty-looking Stade Ernest Wallon.

The same stadium will host Toulouse’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster next weekend. The club had hoped to switch to the larger Stadium Toulouse for the match, but local health restrictions limit the size of the crowd to 5,000.

South African lock stocks, however, are depleted. Eben Etzebeth is a notable absentee on Toulon’s teamsheet which includes eight changes, for the visit of Lyon to Stade Mayol on Sunday night.

Baptiste Serin switches to 10 in the absence of the injured Belleau and Louis Carbonel. It’s not his favoured position, and not one he’ll be keen to impress Galthie at – but it does play into the France coach’s polyvalent player model. Antoine Dupont, too, can put in useful performances at 10 if required, while Ntamack had played more at inside centre than fly-half before the last World Cup.

Speaking of fly-halves, Pau’s young 10 Antoine Hastoy is doing his best to attract France coach Galthie’s attention ahead of the Autumn Nations Cup internationals. After scoring 14 and making the opening try in last week’s win at Montpellier, he doubled down this week to score 18 of his side’s points and run the show as they beat Agen 33-23.

France’s international coaches have to be looking his way, with Anthony Belleau out of action for several months after picking up an ACL injury in last weekend’s loss to La Rochelle – although it’s likely he’ll be behind Toulouse’s Ntamack, Bordeaux’s Jalibert, and Toulon’s Carbonel assuming he recovers in time – in the early pecking order.

Despite refreshing their squad in the summer, there was something very familiar about Castres’ workmanlike win at Agen last Saturday.

 The 2018 champions have stuck with the tried and tested for their home season debut on Sunday against Stade Francais, who named an all-international pack, with new-boy Marcos Kremer starting at 7 in a good-looking side for the club’s coronavirus-delayed season kick-off.

Their only problem for the Parisian side is that they head into this match cold, after their entire preseason friendly schedule was wiped out by the virus.

Maybe don’t expect too much from them this weekend, but on paper at least, Stade look very much like they’re back.

JAMES HARRINGTON

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