Paris - All Black legend Dan Carter is expected to return
from a turbulent six-week lay-off as reigning French champions Racing 92 host
surprise Top 14 leaders La Rochelle this weekend.
The 35-year-old has not played since the end of January due
to a groin injury and last month issued a grovelling apology after he was
caught drink-driving in Paris.
But Racing hope the two-time world champion can serve as the
springboard for the misfiring champions to revive their hopes of a top-six
finish and a place in the play-offs.
The Paris club are seventh at present, a point behind
Toulon, and could also welcome back Casey Laulala on Saturday alongside Henry
Chavancy at centre after two months out.
La Rochelle stunned struggling heavyweights Toulouse last
weekend to climb above Clermont at the summit and tied down New Zealand forward
Jason Eaton, the club captain, for a further season on Wednesday.
They will be without forwards Uini Atonio and Kevin Gourdon,
both on France duty against Italy in the Six Nations, while Racing pair Brice
Dulin and Bernard Le Roux are also in Rome.
Camille Lopez, Remi Lamerat, Noa Nakaitaci and Paul
Jedrasiak will be missing for title hopefuls Clermont at home to fourth-placed
Montpellier on Sunday.
The hosts lost 26-16 at Castres last time out but are a
formidable force at the Stade Marcel-Michelin, where they are a perfect nine
from nine this season.
While Montpellier remain on course for the play-offs, wing
Benjamin Fall acknowledged they must pick up points on their travels to avoid
falling out of contention.
"It could be a decisive match for the rest of the
season," Fall said. "More generally, this month of March is crucial.
We're on the road twice in the next three matches. We need to be able to pick
up wins away from home to stay in the top six.
"We let an opportunity pass us by at Lyon, but there
are still several more chances.
"As far as the top two (and a play-off bye), I think La
Rochelle and Clermont have such a lead that it will be difficult to catch
Three straight defeats have left Toulouse in serious
jeopardy of missing the play-offs for the first time in 41 years, with the
record 19-time champions toiling in eighth place.
"I don't think the club has found itself in this type
of situation for a really long time," said coach Ugo Mola, whose side have
lost 10 times in 19 outings this term.
"Right now we're going through a tough time but there
are seven matches left and to surrender is not how things are done here."
France coach Guy Noves, Toulouse's long-serving former boss,
has selected Gael Fickou, Cyril Baille and Yoann Maestri in his XV to play at
the Stadio Olimpico on Saturday, while Richie Gray will be in action for
Scotland away to England.
Sixth-placed Toulon will fancy their chances of rolling over
rock-bottom Bayonne at home, while Castres visit Pau in a potential dress
rehearsal for the end-of-season play-offs.