Toulouse flanker Gregory Lamboley (R) and scrum-half Gert Muller (C) drive against Ulster lock Alan O'Connor (hidden) and flanker Robbie Diack during their European Rugby Union Champions Cup match, on December 20, 2015 at the Ernest Wallon StadiumToulouse flanker Gregory Lamboley (R) and scrum-half Gert Muller (C) drive against Ulster lock Alan O'Connor (hidden) and flanker Robbie Diack during their European Rugby Union Champions Cup match, on December 20, 2015 at the Ernest Wallon Stadium (AFP Photo/Pascal Pavani)
Paris (AFP) - French heavyweights Toulouse and Toulon lock horns as the Top 14 returns on Sunday, while leaders Clermont will bid to keep hold of top spot when they host Racing 92.
Home-and-away wins over fellow three-time champions Leinster revived Toulon's quest to land a fourth successive European crown, but Toulouse's Champions Cup hopes were shattered by a pair of defeats to Ulster.
With just domestic honours to play for, third-placed Toulouse are hoping to arrest their slide against a second-placed Toulon outfit that appears to have turned the corner after a sluggish start to the campaign.
Toulouse coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde said his side's upcoming fixtures, which also include a January 3 trip to struggling champions Stade Francais, would be crucial but not necessarily decisive.
"We suspected once we saw the calendar that it was going to be a turning point in the season," said Elissalde. "But it's not the only one because even if we lose things won't become irreversible.
"We experienced a run of defeats last season. But the players knew how to react and got themselves to within a few points of the (Top 14) final. It's up to the players to decide their future."
Both Toulouse and Toulon, who dealt Clermont a rare home loss last month, are just a point off the pace and will be out to profit on any potential slip up when the leaders host Racing 92.
Racing enter the 11th round of fixtures unbeaten in five matches, including Friday's 9-9 European Champions Cup draw at Northampton which left them top of Pool 3, and just three points adrift of Clermont.
Centre Henry Chavancy stressed the importance of maintaining their recent levels of performance, especially given that a poor result at Clermont could knock Racing out of the top six.
"In a league where everything is so tight and competitive, no one can afford to relax," said Chavancy, who has been tipped for a first France call-up ahead of the Six Nations.
"The Michelin is an almost impregnable stadium, how many defeats have there been in the past four or five seasons?
"In any case, I know that Racing have never won there. We know wherever we step foot that we'll be met, it's up to us to battle with the weapons we have."
Clermont avenged an earlier defeat to Exeter with a crushing 42-10 victory over the English side at the weekend to reignite their European hopes.
Stade Francais have won just four of 10 domestic matches this term but the Paris-based side will look to build on resounding wins over Italians Treviso when they make the trip to bottom side Oyonnax.
Bordeaux, who resisted a late fightback to beat Welsh side Ospreys on Saturday, have a third straight Top 14 win in their sights when they take on Grenoble.
Fifth-placed Brive, who go to Castres, were in action in the Challenge Cup where they routed Russian debutants Enisei 33-3, making amends for a shock defeats to the same opposition a week earlier.
Pau are at home to La Rochelle, while Agen visit a Montpellier side aiming to break into the play-off places.
Fixtures (kick-off times 1500 GMT unless stated):
Oyonnax v Stade Francais (1300 GMT), Pau v La Rochelle, Montpellier v Agen, Castres v Brive, Bordeaux-Begles v Grenoble, Clermont v Racing 92 (1700 GMT), Toulouse v Toulon (2000 GMT)