RUGBY NEWS - The new Top 14 season begins this weekend as Japan's "phenomenal" Kotaro Matsushima makes his competitive Clermont debut by hosting Rugby World Cup winner Cheslin Kolbe's Toulouse.
Full-back Matsushima, who starred at last year's event by scoring five tries, has signed a two-year deal at Stade Marcel-Michelin and is set to directly face South Africa's Kolbe on Sunday in the opening round's blockbuster tie.
"He'll be phenomenal throughout the Top 14 season because he has that X-factor that he can bring to the team. He can make something out of nothing," Kolbe said on Monday.
The pair played against each other at Currie Cup level and during the Springboks' World Cup quarter-final victory over the Brave Blossoms last October.
"To defend Cheslin Kolbe... he's just so quick. If you get a mis-match during a phase he has vision and is a good decision maker and if you give him a lot of space you're in a lot of trouble," Matsushima said earlier this week.
Last season was declared over in April due to the coronavirus pandemic without a champion named and the French league (LNR) has announced Covid-19 protocols which include testing three days before each match and if more than two cases are recorded at one outfit then their next game will be postponed.
Friday's scheduled campaign opener between Stade Francais and Bordeaux-Begles in the French capital was moved to a later date earlier this week as the Parisians asked the LNR to delay the fixture due to a lack of healthy front-rowers who have contracted the illness.
Most games will be played in front of a maximum capacity of 5,000 people due to French government guidelines but Matsushima's side were handed a local exception to allow up to 10,000 spectators for the re-run of last year's final.
"I know it's a good battle when we play against each other. Just remembering the final in 2019, I've never seen such big hits as was in that first 20 minutes. Throughout the 2019 season it was a massive battle," Kolbe said.
'Inexplicable French Flair'
Along with Matsushima, Australia's Kurtley Beale with Racing and Kolbe's fellow World Cup winner Cobus Reinach at Montpellier are expected to make their Top 14 bows.
"I expect a lot of big boys coming. Every team has their gamebreakers and you're not going to find a team where you can look at and say 'we're definitely going to take five or four points'," scrum-half Reinach told AFP last month.
"It's quick, it's emotional and there's that French Flair, I don't know how to explain it. Where in a moment it will win a game," he added.
Reinach's outfit open the season by hosting Pau on Friday and said the ambition is to lift the Bouclier de Brennus next June in Paris.
"I don't think if winning wasn't a goal we wouldn't be training as hard as we are. Going on pre-season camp we were training to win," he said.
"I don't think there is a team that sits back and says 'we don't have a chance'. That is our goal and it has to be our goal otherwise we’re never going to get a chance."
Fixtures (All times GMT)
Montpellier v Pau (1845)
La Rochelle v Toulon (1315), Agen v Castres, Lyon v Racing 92 (both 1600)
Brive v Bayonne (1845), Clermont v Toulouse (1900)
- Stade Francais v Bordeaux-Begles postponed