La Rochelle aiming to continue French Top 14 great escape bid

Chesterman

Paris (AFP) - La Rochelle can take a significant step towards Top 14 survival if they extend a five-match unbeaten run in the league by beating Stade Francais at home on Friday night.

At the start of the season, La Rochelle were odds-on for a quick return to the second division having earnt promotion through the play-offs.

They have spent much of the season languishing in the relegation places but four wins and a draw from their last five matches has got Patrice Collazo's team thinking of more than simple survival.

Their 22-21 victory at Bordeaux-Begles two weeks ago, before the break for the European quarter-finals, lifted La Rochelle six points clear of the relegation zone and up to 10th in the table -- they are actually a point closer to the top six and a play-off spot than they are to the drop zone.

Having lost their first nine away games, they drew 15-15 with Montpellier before winnging at Bordeaux, results that have dented both those sides' play-off hopes.

Now, La Rochelle will be hoping to put a spanner in the works of Stade's hopes to secure a top two finish and a bye straight into the end-of-season semi-finals.

The difference in the La Rochelle camp since their early season struggles is greater application of Collazo's ideas, according to back-row forward Kevin Gourdon.

"Today we are seeing the difference from the previous matches where we deviated from the coaching team's format," said Gourdon.

La Rochelle's home form is second only to Clermont's this season as even champions Toulon have lost more games in their own stadium.

Stade, though, will be spurred on by the failure of last season to reach the play-offs despite topping the table in January 2014.

They were boosted on Tuesday by the news that flying Fiji wing Waisea Nayacalevu, who has nine tries this season, has signed a contract extension until 2019.

The capital outfit can also boast the joint best away record in the league with four wins from 10 matches.

- European distraction -

They will be hoping, too, that Clermont and Toulon will be distracted by their upcoming European semi-finals, against Saracens and Leinster respectively, to sneak back into the top two.

Stade are two points behind the heavyweight pair with five matches left.

Clermont host Oyonnax, who are surprisingly holding onto the final play-off berth on the back of a recent run of five wins from six matches, including a 15-13 success away to Stade Francais.

Toulon face a trip to Grenoble, who have dropped to eighth after a recent blip, combined with a surge from both Oyonnax and Toulouse.

Toulouse stunned Toulon at their Stade Mayol fortress last time out, fighting back from an 18-0 deficit five minutes from half-time to win 34-24.

They have recovered from a disastrous start to the season and are now five points ahead of seventh-placed Montpellier ahead of Saturday's visit of strugglers Bayonne.

It's down at the bottom where the battle is really raging, although Lyon face an uphill task to stay up.

They are six points from safety having lost every away match this season -- the only side to suffer such an indignity -- but they do have three home matches remaining, although they travel to Brive on Saturday.

Brive are the team just above the relegation zone and should they beat Lyon, that would virtually condemn last season's second division champions to relegation.

Castres, the 2013 Top 14 champions, can consolidate their win at Grenoble two weeks ago if they beat Bordeaux at home.

They are second bottom but with Bayonne only three points above and facing a tough trip to Toulouse, Castres could escape the bottom two with victory.

The other game sees Racing-Metro host Montpellier looking to bounce back from their European Rugby Champions Cup elimination last weekend.

Fixtures (all times GMT):

Friday:

La Rochelle v Stade Francais (1845)

Saturday:

Brive v Lyon (1300), Castres v Bordeaux (1845), Clermont v Oyonnax (1300), Grenoble v Toulon (1435), Racing-Metro v Montpellier (1235), Toulouse v Bayonne (1300)