CASTRES, FRANCE – The new Top 14 season begins on August 15 and 16, 2014 – but, in Toulon, it should perhaps be more correctly known as the first two days of the first year AJ (After Jonny).
The new-look, Jonny-less Top 14 champions, who have a pretty decent kicking replacement in Wales & British Lions fullback Leigh Halfpenny, begin the defence of their title at Bayonne.
The question is: How – and maybe even where – will Halfpenny, who’s still recovering from the dislocated shoulder he suffered in the Six Nations‘ clash against England in March, will slot into the side? It won’t be easy to rip the 15 shirt off the back of former England fullback Delon Armitage, who made it his own last season with some scintillating performances in both the Top 14 and the Heineken Cup. Armitage is no mean placekicker, either – and what’s the betting he’s been practising hard over recent weeks?
It’s a fair bet that early season opponents will look at Toulon’s nine-10 axis with added interest. Freddie Michalak is as mercurial as they come, and the Var side have no ready stand-in. Eric Escande, who has joined the club from Montpellier, is a more natural scrumhalf, as are current number 9s Sebastian Tillous-Borde and Michael Claassens.
The club’s owner Mourad Boudjellal may want to retire the 10 shirt in honour of His Supreme Imperial High and Mightyness Lord Sir Jonny of Wilkinson, but even he can’t leave a big hole on the pitch where a number 10 should be. It will be interesting to see how Toulon solve that particular problem as the season progresses.
The match of the opening weekend of the Top 14 season, however, is at Montpellier, where Fabien Galthie’s side entertain the other team that fell at the play-off semi-final stage last season, Racing Metro.
After a ropey start to last season, Racing’s expensively assembled side – which had been extensively poached from the Pro12, first clicked and then began to purr. They were close to unstoppable in the second half of last season, finishing fourth and then ending Toulouse’s ambitions in the first round of the play-offs before coming unstuck against Toulon in the first of the semi-finals in Lille.
Racing have again recruited heavily. They have brought in nine new players – including Bok-Coq Antonie Claassen, fullback Brice Dulin and prop-monster Anton Peikrishvili from Castres. As well as raiding their former club, Racing’s coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers have sifted through the rubble of relegated sides Biarritz and Perpignan and picked up Luke Charteris and Teddy Thomas.
New Top 14 arrivals Lyon and La Rochelle are both on the road for the first weekend of the season. Lyon head to Bordeaux, and La Rochelle head to relative near-neighbours Brive
Clermont, who – with Vern Cotter now working out what a tough job he’s inherited as Scotland boss- start their new life under head coach Franck Azema, aided and abetted by former Leinster forwards coach Jono Gibbes, at home to Grenoble. And it really is a new beginning. Castres shattered their four-year, 77-match winning streak at Stade Marcel Michelin in last season’s play-offs, so they start all over again at nought.
Last season’s losing Top 14 finalists Castres, meanwhile, kick off their season at their partially redeveloped home to Stade Francais.
A key stand at Stade Pierre Antoine is being completely rebuilt and will not be open for the first four home games of the season.
Toulouse, who do their big-spending rather more quietly than the likes of Toulon or Racing Metro, open their account at home to Oyonnax. The side from the shadow of the Jura mountains avoided relegation by the skin of the skin of their teeth, with a successful penalty kick a few minutes from time giving them the points difference they needed to condemn Perpignan.
The pressure will be Toulouse coach Guy Noves, however. The trophy cupboard has been bare since 2012, and the rouge et noir are no longer that all-conquering force they once were. He – and Toulouse – need a good start and a strong season. At least they’re at home for the opening two matches of the season…
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@ :RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.