This Sunday, June 7, the French Elite championship will kick off the Casque de Diamant playoffs of 2015. This year, the Argonautes of Aix-en-Provence welcome the Black Panthers of Thonon-les-Bains while the Flash de la Courneuve will challenge the Cougars de Saint-Ouen-L’Aumône.
Here is a breakdown of the matchups!
Sunday June 7, 2 PM (Parc des Sports de Saint-Ouen-L’Aumône)
Match broadcast live Sunday, April 7, 2 PM on Flash TV and Vox Stadium.fr
After an outstanding regular season, the Cougars completed 2015 on a roll. After starting the year with a tie against the Templiers, Saint Ouen won every game finishing with a near spotless 9-0-1 record. They beat their cross-town rivals in Paris, La Courneuve Flash, both times they played them – 31-21 and 21-13.
In both contests, the Cougars defense played a key role. The Flash did keep shooting themselves in the foot whether through multiple penalties or the mistakes of young players. La Courneuve had a mixed season with five wins against five defeats. Although we could expect more of the nine-time champions of France, do not forget that Patrick Cark’s team is rebuilding, especially on the offensive line. They struggled early to find an identity and ended up finding cohesion as the season progressed.
This is why it is difficult to make a certain prediction of the winner of this semifinal. Some might be tempted to think that the Flash’s experience in playoff games would give them an edge. They have appeared in a whopping 21 semi-finals and won 14 while claiming the French title nine times. In contrast, their opponents have never even played in a championship final and have only qualified for the semifinals three times (2001, 2006 and 2010). The Saint-Ouennais will be more motivated than ever to write a new page in the history of black and gold. Is this finally the year?
Match-ups to watch
Paul Durand (QB, Flash) vs. Tim Willman (DE, Cougars)
This will be a key to the game. Cougar quarterback Paul Durand has completed 58% of his passes this season and is the second most accurate quarterback in the French league, just behind the Argonaute’s Jimmie Russell. But on Sunday, he will have to deal with Tim Willman, who had 14 sacks this season, and who is simply the best player at his position this year. He makes quarterbacks nervous on every play so the La Courneuve offensive line will have their hands full all afternoon.
Mickaël Doukouré (WR, Flash) vs. Yohan Kaouane (DB, Cougars)
Flash wide receiver Mickaël Doukouré has been the recipient of many of Paul Durand’s passes and led the league in reception yardage with 706 while scoring eight touchdowns, making him a key to the black and yellow offense. He can be a nightmare for defenders … except perhaps for Yohan Kaouane. The Cougars defensive back is a true ball hawk and has recorded two interceptions and 10 knockdowns this season.
Sunday June 7, 2 PM (Stade George Carcassonne d’Aix-en-Provence)
Match broadcast live Sunday, April 7, 2 PM on Panthers TV
Who would have thought that the back to back champions in France would face the newly-promoted upstarts in the semifinals? With an extremely well-engineered regular season (8 wins, 2 losses), the Argonautes of Aix-en-Provence proved they have indeed earned their way back among the Elite.
As for the Black Panthers, 2015 was treacherous and it was not until the last day that the defending champions found themselves in the playoffs which the Nice Dauphins almost caused them to miss. But head coach Larry Legault’s team was able to find the resources to qualify for the semifinals, their fourth in a row since 2012. Will they be able to as much punch a ticket for the final in Charléty?
Based on their two clashes this season, which saw the Panthers dominate the Argonautes at home (41-13) but then drop a shoot out in the second, a 37-34 defeat, this one is hard to predict. And while the Argonautes had a better regular season, the counters will be reset to zero for the playoffs.
Nevertheless, the Argonautes have reason to be optimistic – they have a major advantage in that the semi-final will be played at the Stade George Carcassonne in Aix-en-Provence. They have only lost once at home this season and that was to the undefeated Cougars.
Another advantage in favor of Provence is their offense. Head coach Kenneth Suhl’s team averaged 36 points per game, tops in the French league in 2015.
However, the Black Panthers were not far behind scoring an average of 27 points per game, good for third in France. Also, this semi-final may come down to whose defense will play the best and who can handle the searing heat expected. The temperature could get as high as 34°C in Aix-en-Provence at kick off time (2p).
Match-ups to watch
Milton Knox Jr. & Stephen Yepmo (RBs Black Panthers) V. Jesse Kirstatter & Alexandre Gallo (LBs Argonauts)
At Aix-en-Provence, Milton Knox Jr. and Stephen Yepmo will have the difficult task of leading the ground attack of the Black Panthers. On paper, this duo should have an advantage as they combined for 1,650 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns in the regular season. But linebackers Jesse Kirstatter and Alexandre Gallo may well be the best linebacking tandem in the league. With 74 and 62 solo tackles respectively on the entire season, and Le Gallo and Kirstatter have dominated their positions in 2015. These two have excelled in the art of creating turnovers so the Black Panthers duo are fully warned.