The Top 14 kicks off this weekend – and, for the first time, British rugby fans will be able to see what all the fuss is about, courtesy of BT Sport.
Here, France-based journalist and die-hard rugby fan James Harrington examines the teams and… probably foolishly… makes a few predictions. Just don’t gamble the mortgage money on them
Home Ground: Stade Jean-Dauger
Last season: 8th
This season’s prediction: 11th
Three to watch: Gert Muller / Lisiate Fa’aoso / Mathieu Bélie
It will come as no surprise to anyone that Bayonne are keen to improve on last season’s eighth-place finish. A top-six position would see them reach the end-of-season play-offs, any established Top 14 side’s meanest ambition.
But, to get there, they’ll have to challenge the French top-flight’s new bourgeoisie Toulon and Racing Metro, while old-money sides Toulouse and a rejuvenated Stade are sure to be there or thereabouts. That leaves just two spots – and it’s hard to see either defending champions Castres or Montpellier giving up those berths without a fight.
That said, Bayonne have worked to give their scrum a hard new edge, signing combative prop Gert Muller, monster lock Lisiate Fa’aoso, and flanker Opeti Fonua – but it’s the half-back partnership of Jean Monribot and the much-travelled Mathieu Bélie that will be key to the club’s ambitions. If it works, they may be in with a shout at the business end of the season. But that’s a big if.
Home Ground: Parc des Sports d’Aguilera
Last Season: 9th
This season’s prediction: 9th
Three to Watch: Dimitri Yachvilli / Damien Traille / Iain Balshaw
The season opener could hardly be tougher for Biarritz, as they face Clermont Auvergne at home.
And it says something that their three to watch are established players rather than any new signings. Even more telling, one of them, the 34-year-old Damien Traille, has said that, after 10 years with the club, this will be his last season.
Traille, along with perennial point-scorer Dimitri Yachvilli, and evergreen players like Iain Balshaw and Imanol Harinordiquy will hide the worst of the Basque side’s deficiencies, and the usual grand noises about a new start are issuing from Parc des Sports d’Aguilera, but it’s hard to see how Serge Blanco’s club will be anything other than Top 14 also-rans again.
Home Ground: Stade André Moga / Jacques Chaban-Delmas
Last Season: 12th
This season’s prediction: 13th
Three to Watch: Bruce Reihana / Pierre Bernard / Matthew Clarkin
Bordeaux found their second season in the Top 14 somewhat more difficult than their first, when they finished a more than respectable eighth.
There was no doubting the club’s passion and ambition last season – what they lacked, despite the mercurial presence of Bruce Reihana, was a creative edge.
Signing Pierre Barnard from Castres is a potentially interesting solution to that problem. He was very much a Marmite player for the champions, who could – when the fancy took him – turn a match in the most outrageous fashion.
He once masterminded a remarkable comeback from 25-3 down half-time against Toulon to draw a thrilling match, even nearly winning it with a last-gasp drop goal attempt from the wrong side of the half-way line. But he can also frustrate to the point of apoplexy with his decision making and sometimes wayward kicking.
It may be that his rugby brain is so far ahead of everyone else that he sees space before it opens up. But he needs to make sure that at least one other person knows what he’s thinking.
That person could be Reihana… but two mercurial players in one starting fifteen could well turn out to be one too many for Bordeaux.
Home Ground: Stade Parc Municipal des Sports
Last Season: Promoted from Pro D2
This season’s prediction: 11th
Three to Watch: Thomas Sanchou / Arnaud Méla / Kieran Murphy
Brive managed the near-impossible last year by bouncing back from relegation in 2011 to win promotion back into the Top 14 at the first time of asking.
It’s a feat that seems even more remarkable given the fact that the side from Limousin were languishing in ninth place in the Pro D2 after six matches.
With 13 new players on the books this season, it’s clear that they are not planning to give up their quickly rediscovered top-flight status easily.
Home Ground: Stade Pierre Antoine
Last Season: Top 14 Champions
This season’s prediction: Anything less than a top-six finish will be a disappointment
Three to Watch: Richie Gray / Rory Kockott / Antonie Claassen
The unfashionable big club from the little town in the Tarn region of south-west France surprised many a pundit by finishing fourth in the regular season, before outplaying Heineken Cup runners-up Clermont in the semi-finals of the Top 14 play-offs, then repeating the trick in some style against Heineken Cup champions Toulon in the showpiece match at Stade de France.
Despite losing the likes of Joe Tekori and Marc Andreu, captain-turned-manager Matthias Rolland has managed to hold on to the backbone of a team that has reached the play-offs in each of the last four seasons – and lifted the Brennus in June.
Keeping scrum-half Rory Kockott will have been a major boost, while Scottish star Richie Gray will strengthen an already powerful pack. His battle for bonkers hair supremacy with clubmate and France’s South African-born international Antonie Claassen will be a fun little sideshow, too…
Home Ground: Stade Marcel Michelin
Last season: Play-off semi-finalists / Heineken Cup finalists
This season’s prediction: Play-off final
Three to watch: Wesley Forfana / Morgan Parra / Sitiveni Sivivatu
Scotland’s next coach Vern Cotter will have one aim in mind as he takes charge of Clermont for one final campaign – to erase the disappointment of last season.
The jaune et bleu were, for the longest time, the side to watch in the Top 14. They played some astonishing rugby, and could cut opponents open from just about anywhere on the pitch. But the trophy cabinet remained resolutely bare as they outplayed but could not outscore Toulon in the Heineken Cup final and, just a week later, were mugged by a determined Castres in the Top 14 play-off semi-final.
It’s no surprise, though, to see Forfana and Sivivatu as two of the club’s three to watch this season. Containing these three-quarter flyers will be a key battle plan for every team. How well anyone can actually manage it remains to be seen.
Home Ground: Stade Lesdiguières
Last Season: 11th
This season’s prediction: 7th
Three to Watch: Andrew Farley / Shaun Sowerby / Blair Stewart
A six-match losing streak towards the end of the last campaign took the gloss of what until then looked certain to be a remarkably successful return to the Top 14 for Grenoble after seven seasons away.
Until they ran out of puff in the final quarter, the Isère were the big surprise of the French top flight, and were pushing for a place in the all-important top six for much of the time.
Former Leinster hooker Bernard Jackman has made sure the pack can hold its own against the best in the business, and with New Zealander Blair Stewart blinding opponents with his shiny pate as he pulls the strings among the back line, there’s no reason to suppose they won’t be doing it all over again this time around.
It will, however, be a surprise if they manage to push their way into the play-offs… this season, at least.
Home Ground: Stade du Manoir
Last Season: 6th
This season’s prediction: Top six again
Three to Watch: Francois Trinh-Duc / Nicholas Mas / Hamish Gard
For the past three seasons, Montpellier have faced Castres in the first round of the end-of-season play-offs. Only once have they progressed to the semi finals – in 2011, when they made it to the showpiece match.
That is one of those depressing rugby stats that coach Fabien Galthie will be keen to consign to history in this campaign.
The former international ended speculation about his future at the club by extending his contract to 2017, and will be keen to make sure that his players perform more consistently this time around.
Last season’s push was marred by the death of Eric Bechu, Galthie’s coaching mentor and a driving force behind the success of the team from the Herault. It would be a fitting tribute to him that they make it four play-offs in four seasons.
Will they face Castres again, then, that is the question…
Home Ground: Stade Mathon
Last Season: Promoted from Pro D2
This season’s prediction: Will do well to avoid relegation
Three to Watch: Florian Denos / Chad Slade / Scott Newlands
Last season’s Pro D2 champions have reached the top flight for the first time in their 100-year existence.
Rather like Mont-de-Marsan – who were promoted in 2012 and went straight back down again after winning only two out of their 26 games – many expect Oyonnax to find life at the elite end of French rugby somewhere between difficult and impossible.
They open their account at Bayonne in a match that is likely to set the marker for the season. It’s old-school rugby, but it is up to their forwards to quickly get a handle on things and give their backs something to work with, something the Mont-de-Marsan eight singularly failed to do all last season.
Home Ground: Stade Aime Giral
Last Season: 7th
This season’s prediction: 8th
Three to Watch: Alasdair Strokosch / Dewald Duvenage / Camille Lopez
Seventh in the Top 14 and knocked out of the Amlin Cup at the semi-final stage… it was another of those ‘so near yet so far’ seasons for Perpignan.
This time around, Marc Delpoux and his side have to deliver – and the coach has promised an exciting brand of attacking rugby.
That is sure to please fans and armchair viewers, but it doesn’t necessarily equal success. The Catalan side need to perform better away from home if they are to make their mark on the league this season.
They have two problems. Their new-look, Nicholas Mas-free front row has been hit by injury already, and they have relied too heavily on the kicking talent of James Hook for too long. If their pack can hold up and they can find new ways to score points they may exceed expectations.
Home Ground: Stade Jean Bouin
Last Season: 10th
This season’s prediction: A top-six finish is a must
Three to Watch: Digby Ioane / Morne Steyn / Pascal Pape
Since their last appearance in the Top 14 play-offs in 2009, Stade’s lily-liveried kits have been the best things on the pitch as far as the club’s long-suffering fans are concerned.
That could be about to change. Sick of their fall from rugby grace, the club have raided the southern seas for new talent. Australians Digby Ioane and Richard Kingi, and South Africans Heinke van de Merwe, Meyer Bosman and Morne Steyn, are among nine new signings set to join the likes of Sergio Parissi and Pascal Pape at their new home. The Italian number eight has been one of the rare successes of the past few seasons, while the French international will want a decent run after a six-month absence with injury.
This player buying spree has also meant there has been less money to spend on a new kit, which this season looks like it has been designed by a club intern with a decent eye, rather than a leading Parisian designer with a limitless budget and a vague brief.
The result – this time round – is stylish understatement, which the club will hope will allow their players to shine.
Home Ground: Stade Yves du Manoir
Last season: 6th
This season’s prediction: Play off semi finals
Three to Watch: Jonny Sexton / Dan Lydiate / Marc Andreu
The ghost of Sebastian Chabal past really should – finally – have been laid to rest by the time Racing head to La Rochelle to face Brive for their opening match of the season. Even though the hairy one left the ‘Ciel et Blanc’ amid much acrimony at the end of the 2010/11 season, his spectre has haunted the club ever since.
But it is now under new management. Brennus-winning coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers have joined Racing from Castres Olympique, and has spent money like Croesus, raiding the RaboDirect Pro12, bringing in Jonny Sexton, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate to the playing staff and Ronan O’Gara into the coaching set up, while Marc Andreu, a feisty winger in the twinkle-toed mould of Shane Williams, followed the coaches from Castres.
There can be only one conclusion. This could be the beginning of a beautiful championship-winning era for the club. They just have to be patient for one more season.
Home Ground: Stade Mayol
Last Season: Play-off finalists / Heineken Cup champions
This season’s prediction: Top 14 champions
Three to Watch: Bryan Habana / Ali Williams / Jonny Wilkinson
Speaking of spending money like Croesus… Toulon’s platinum card-holding owner Mourad Boudjellal is the Top 14’s variation on a theme of Roman Abramovich.
Unlike the Chelsea owner, however, he is still learning just how long it can take to build a team, and he still has a tendency to dash out to buy shiny new players when things don’t quite go to his all-conquering scheme straight away.
Former France coach Bernard Laporte has the unenviable task of keeping his tantrum-prone boss happy, while also moulding a club that boasts more ageing stars than many a medium-sized galaxy into a functioning unit.
His pragmatic approach is starting to work, too. Toulon won the Heineken Cup and reached the Top 14 final last season, only to lose to an inspired Castres Olympique. His pragmatic approach to the game may be at odds with the exhibition rugby many may expect for such a talented side, but Toulon are sure to be in the mix at the business end of all competitions this time around.
This season, Bryan Habana and Ali Williams have signed-up for Toulon’s generous retirement plan – not that fans will see much of them early on. The winger has been named in the South African squad for the Four Nations, while the New Zealand lock is locked into a contract with Auckland Blues until October.
Home Ground: Stade Ernest-Wallon
Last Season: Play-off semi-finalists
This season’s prediction: Top six finish
Three to Watch: Joe Tekori / Luke McAlister / Yoann Huget
For years, Toulouse coach Guy Noves looked set to enjoy an Alex Ferguson-style legacy. Like Fergie, he has racked up 1,000 matches as manager. Like Fergie, his side won everything in sight and in style. Unlike Fergie, he hasn’t retired while the going is good and is now presiding over a club that is facing a new Top 14 reality.
Toulouse have rested on their trophy-winning laurels for too long, and have been overtaken by the likes of Toulon and Clermont in the French rugby pecking order. Now Racing and Stade are spending their way to the play-offs, too, leaving the rouge et noir wondering what on earth has happened.
Sure, they’ll be in the mix at the end of this season, and possibly for a few more to come, but rather than enjoying a Manchester United legacy, they risk enduring a decade of Liverpool-style glory famine after all that feast.
Three words: adapt or die.