Crumbling Clermont braced for Toulouse in Top 14

All eyes will be on Clermont on New Year's Day as they welcome Toulouse to the Stade Marcel Michelin at a time when the home side appear to be on the cusp of a freefall.

Just five years ago Clermont were French champions and reached their third European Champions final in the space of five years. They were not just a powerhouse in France, they were one of Europe's top dogs.

The news this week that international wing Damian Penaud would be leaving for Bordeaux-Begles at the end of the season was the latest indication that a once-great club is hanging by its fingertips.

Penaud's departure follows those of totemic scrum-half Morgan Parra and international fly-half Camille Lopez at the end of last season and the announcement that captain Arthur Iturria will also be heading for the exit to join Bayonne next season.

"This departure is part of a period of reconstruction of our project and several ways are being studied to strengthen the workforce," said Clermont president Jean-Michel Guillon.

As rugby newspaper Midi-Olympique put it, however, "The truth is that Clermont is no longer in transition - it is in decline."

Where once Clermont was a club that the great players beat down the doors to join, it is now one where they are looking to leave.

Quite how the Clermont fans will react to the news is anyone's guess. Penaud, who had played over 250 games for the club, is braced for the backlash.

"I am aware that my choice will not be accepted by all," he told sports daily L'Equipe. "I can understand that some are disappointed."

Currently tenth in the Top 14 after losing four of their last five games, Jono Gibbes' Clermont host a Toulouse side that came through an ugly win over Castres last time out to secure a seven-point lead at the head of the table going into the second half of the season.

Toulouse will be without a number of their stars with internationals Romain Ntamack, Matthis Lebel and Peato Mauvaka all on holiday but they are taking nothing for granted.

"Playing in Clermont is never easy," said full-back Melvyn Jaminet who returned to action last week after two months on the sidelines with an injured ankle.

"It's been 20 years since Toulouse won at the Michelin (in the league). We know what to expect".

With Ntamack away and Thomas Ramos suspended for five weeks, Toulouse may turn to scrum-half Antoine Dupont to conduct operations from number 10.

- 'Huge challenge' -

Round 14 of the league gets underway on Friday when Bordeaux, boosted by news of Penaud's arrival, host champions Montpellier.

On Saturday, Racing 92, who were humiliated at home in the Paris derby on Christmas Eve, face the unenviable task of heading down to Castres.

Pierre-Henry Broncan's side may be loitering down in twelfth at the moment but they picked up a hard-scrapped bonus point at Toulouse last week and have yet to lose at home this season.

Second-placed Stade Francais are at home to Pau while European champions La Rochelle travel to Perpignan. Surprise team of the season Bayonne, who are currently sixth, face Toulon who are just two places and one point behind them.

Friday

Bordeaux-Begles v Montpellier (2000 GMT)

Saturday (1600 GMT unless stated)

Bayonne v Toulon (1400), Castres v Racing92, Lyon v Brive, Perpignan v La Rochelle, Stade Francais v Pau

Sunday

Clermont v Toulouse (2000)

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