Here’s my preview of the opening weekend of the Top 14 season for Rugby Wrap Up.
CASTRES, FRANCE – LESS than three months – 76 days, if you want to be accurate about it – after Toulon lift the Top 14’s Bouclier de Brennus, they will kick off the new season atBayonne.
Almost under the radar, the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR) has introduced a number of rule changes for this season: defensive bonus points will only be awarded to teams that finish within five points of their opponents; a player will receive an automatic suspension once he has accumulated three yellow cards; there will be a one-minute time limit on any place-kick at goal; and only a team captain may approach the referee on the field of play. Any other player who tries to influence the referee by speech or gesture will concede a penalty. The club, meanwhile, could be fined up to €50,000 if a member of the coaching staff publicly criticises a refereeing decision from the sidelines.
We’ll have to wait and see how these rules impact on the game. In the meantime, here’s a rundown of the opening clashes of the new season.
Bayonne v Toulon
Stade Jean Dauger
Bayonne’s young side face a team of Toulon megastars shorn of their retired talisman, His High Imperial Majesty Lord Sir Jonny of Wilkinson, and without the British Lion the club has hired to fill his mighty boots, Leigh Halfpenny, who reportedly will be out of action for another couple of weeks. Another new signing, Mamuka Gorgodzilla, is out, too, recovering from a knee injury picked up during a pre-season friendly against Racing Metro.
Not that it matters much. Chris Masoe has returned from the injury that cut short his season, to join Gerhard Vosloo andSteffon Armitage in a terrifyingly talented back row, while the three-quarters are a typical mix of bash-and-bosh and slice-and-dice. As ever, Mathieu Bastareaud supplies most of the bash, with David Smith providing admirable bosh support, while the slice and dice is divided between Delon Armitage,Rudi Wulf, Maxime Mermoz and Matt Giteau.
There is a sense of change in the air at Bayonne under new coach Patricio Noriega and new president Manu Merin. That said, opening night could still turn into a long one for Bayonne’s young guns – even at home.
Clermont v Grenoble
Stade Marcel Michelin
The Franck Azema-era at Clermont begins where the Vern Cotter-era ended – the stadium formerly known as Fortress Marcel Michelin.
It’s hard to see this season as anything other than a transitional one for the Jaunards. A new-look coaching set-up is matched by a new-look side, with Gerhard Vosloo, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Lee Byrne, Nathan Hines, Regan King and Elvis Vermuelen all gone.
New signings Camille Lopez, Seb Vahaamahina, Jonathan Davies, and Nick Abendanon will all have to slot in pretty quickly to turn this season into a genuine hunt for silverware.
It’s a similar situation at Grenoble. Combative ex-Ireland and Leinster hooker Bernard Jackman has taken over coaching duties, and promptly put his side on a plane to Argentina for a game or two against the Pumas.
Expect the Isere side to be brutal upfront and in defence this season – starting on Saturday afternoon at Clermont. They may not win, but don’t expect the home side to run away with it.
Bordeaux v Lyon
Stade Andre Moga
Bordeaux scored tries for fun last season – 58 of them – withMetuisela Talebula leading the way. He will be out of action for the opening few matches of the season, which is probably good news for Top 14 new boys Lyon.
But the visitors are no slouches when it comes to crossing the whitewash themselves. They managed it no fewer than 112 times in 30 matches as they marched to the ProD2 title.
While Bordeaux, who harbour serious ambitions of making the end-of-season play-offs, will be much tougher opposition than sides in the second flight, this could turn into something of a try-fest.
Brive v La Rochelle
Stade Amedee Domenech
It promises, if that’s the right word, to be a Top 14 baptism of dour for La Rochelle against a Briveside that did not lose at home all season, and who have held on to much of the side that, generally, bored opponents to death.
Everything points to a home win, and it also promises to be the damp squib start to a long and difficult season for the visitors, who are very strong favourites for the drop, even among Top 14 coaches.
Castres v Stade Francais
Stade de la Mediterranee
With redevelopment work well under way at Stade Pierre Antoine, last season’s losing Top 14 finalists kick off their campaign over the mountains and relatively far away in the Mediterranean town of Beziers. It’s a place that was once known in France for its long history and coastal splendour, but is now best-loved in l’Hexagone for its… ahem… eccentric mayor, who has banned hanging washing outside to dry in parts of the town and is too right wing even for the far-right Front National.
The “home” side will be without marquee signing Sivivatu, who has a shoulder injury that looks set to keep him out for three-and-a-half months.
But their faithful fans have done the Tarn side proud. They will travel in their thousands for two hours to turn the Stade de la Mediterranee into a sea of bleu et blanc for this season opener.
Castres haven’t lost this fixture since 2009 – but this is not Pierre Antoine. There could be a few tense moments under the Beziers sky against a Stade side that could well feature CO old boy Julien Thomas.
Toulouse v Oyonnax
Stade Ernest Wallon
At the time of writing, the team was not formally confirmed, but Toby Flood, shaved head and all, is reportedly set to make his Toulouse debut on Saturday against Rugby Wrap Up favourites Oyonnax at Stade Ernest Wallon.
As with La Rochelle, this could be the beginning of a long season for the visitors. They will rely heavily on new arrivalsPedrie Wannenburg, who couldn’t get a regular starting berth at Castres, and Soane Tonga’uiha, who struggled atRacing. But this is close to the worst possible opening fixture for the side from the Jura mountains, even against a Toulouse side that is a shadow of its former self.
Montpellier v Racing Metro
Stade Yves du Manoir
The match of the opening weekend is also the final match of the opening weekend. Both Montpellier and Racing reached the play-off semi-finals last season, and it will be a brave punter who calls this game, which marketing types would love you to call the Altrad Stadium, but will remain Yves du Manoir to anyone with a soul – especially on Saturday night, as Racing also play at Yves du Manoir…
So, here goes. The hosts scored more points than any other side last season and – in Rene Ranger and Benjamin Fall – have arguably two of the best finishers in the league. They were a joy to watch at home last season – and that’s unlikely to change this campaign.
But, on paper at least, Racing are the one side with the firepower to give Toulon a run for their money. Brice Dulin, Antonie Claassen, Luke Charteris, and Johann Goosen would walk in to just about any side. They just happen to be Racing players now.
Last season’s Racing’s defence – after a few stutters – saw them through to the play-offs. This season, they have the attack to go with it. This looks set to be a perfect and high-scoring end to the opening weekend.