PARIS, FRANCE – The new season of French rugby’s Top 14 kicked off on August 22 – with September’s Rugby World Cup adding more potency to the usual heady mix of hope and fear that greets the start of the longest, richest and most competitive club rugby tournament in the world.
The Rugby World Cup means clubs have to fill the gaps left by star players on international duty – Toulon alone were without 19 regular squad members for the opening game against Racing 92 – while big-name signings such as Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Will Genia will not report to their new clubs for duty until after the tournament.
Newly promoted Pau and Agen have survival on their minds. Toulouse, Oyonnax and Castres – and, later in the campaign, Toulon – have new head coaches with new rugby philosophies. Montpellier and Grenoble are almost unrecognisable after a summer clear-out of players, while Bordeaux will count themselves lucky to be involved in Europe’s top club rugby tournament.
So, what do Top 14 fans have to look forward to this season? We take a look at each of the clubs and try to work out what’s in store before next June’s final at Barcelona’s Nou Camp.
2014/15 season: Promoted from ProD2
Agen returned to the Top 14 after a two-year absence in the most nailbiting, barely-able-to-watch manner. They were 16-10 up in the 78th minute of the ProD2 play-off final against Mont-de-Marsan. Then they conceded a try in the corner, to give the Montois’ Emmanuel Saubusse a difficult win-or-lose shot at goal.
He missed … but not by much.
Once the celebrations died down the result posed a problem. Agen had finally joined the Top 14 party late, and had little time to refocus their recruitment policy.
This – and, perhaps, the salutary lesson of Lyon’s immediate return to French rugby’s second tier despite spending big money on big-name players – has meant that Agen have been relatively cautious in the transfer market. They have tempted New Zealand sevens star George Tilsley and Cheetahs’ centre Johann Sadie to Stade Armandie, but survival is the aim of Agen’s game this season. By any means.
2014/15 season: 7th – won European Rugby Champions Cup play-off against Gloucester
Pierre Bernard’s winning drop goal against Gloucester in the dying moments of the European Champions Cup qualifying play-off in May saved a season that for so long promised so much, but faded as speculation about the future of coach Raphael Ibanez intensified.
As the media clamoured for the charismatic Ibanez to get the France job after the World Cup (he didn’t), Bordeaux’s season spluttered, stuttered and choked. But they were still within a last-minute penalty shot at reaching the Top 14 play-offs and booking an automatic place at European rugby’s top table.
It was, however, somehow appropriate that the Begles would do it the hard way. They played devastating white-hot-ballbearing-through-runny-butter rugby when the mood took them. When it didn’t, usually when they were on the road, they were the runny butter.
It will be interesting to see how former French star and now Bordeaux’s new backs coach Emile N’Tamack marshalls his backline. The defensive policy of heart-on-his-sleeve Vincent Etcheto – who is now at Bayonne after something of a fall from grace at Stade Chaban Delmas – relied solely on out-attacking and out-scoring opponents. The more muscular N’Tamack will be charged with closing the defensive holes that leaked almost as many points as Bordeaux – one of the most exciting attacking sides in the Top 14 – scored.
Fans will hope he doesn’t simultaneously stifle Bordeaux’s typically French and highly watchable attacking flair.
2014/15 season: 10th
Write off the dogged, fighting Brivistes at your peril. They may have had the smallest budget of any side in the Top 14 last season – a shade over 13m€, markedly less than than half of Toulouse’s 35m€-plus. They may not boast the star names of other clubs, and they may not play the most attractive rugby in the Top 14, but Stade Amedee Domenech is a fortress, and Brive are brutal – as their disciplinary record testifies.
Brive players’ apparent love of collecting cards aside, in kicking fullback Gaetan Germain they are the proud possessors of a dangerous points machine. He played 25 out of 26 Top 14 matches, and scored 278 of the club’s season total of 502, a statistic that says as much about his strength and fitness as his accuracy.
Just don’t make the mistake of calling Brive a one-man team. That will only make them angry. And you won’t like Brive when they’re angry. Especially not Arnaud Mela.
2014/15 season 12th
Castres suffered what can probably be most diplomatically described as a reality check last season. When the 2013 Top 14 champions and 2014 finalists weren’t rooted to the foot of the table, they spent their time hovering around it. In February, when Mauricio Reggiardo parachuted in on a short-term contract with a Mission Impossible brief to save the club, they seemed out of ideas and destined for the ProD2. But, he – and they – somehow ensured survival by the slimmest of margins.
And so, with Reggiardo now in charge at nearby ProD2 side Albi, a new era starts at Castres under Christophe Urios. Staying in the Top 14 meant other clubs hovering over what they thought were the remains of a doomed club drifted Bayonne and Lyon-wards, meaning that Castres held on to star players such as Rory Kockott, Remi Lamerat, Brice Mach and Remy Grosso. And – once the relegation threat was averted – they recruited heavily.
Urios believes that the Castres squad is now more balanced. And he has already laid claim to a top-six finish sooner rather than later. Lofty ambitions indeed, given the club’s dismal form last season and the strength of other Top 14 sides
2014/15 season: Losing Top 14 finalists / 2nd in regular season
The Top 14 is full of puzzles and mysteries. Why do Grenoble always fall away after Christmas? What happened to Castres last season? How could Lyon fail so spectacularly with so much money behind them? Referee Romain Poite.
But the biggest mystery of all is Clermont’s continued failure to win anything. They have a team to die for. They play glorious rugby. Their pack is a mighty unit of united mightiness. Their backs are scalpel sharp and faster than light. They have Nick Abendanonanonanon. They have Morgan Parra and Wesley Fofana – and, this season, they will be joined by Hosea Gear, Scott Spedding and David Strettle. It’s enough to give every other club in the Top 14 and Europe the vapours.
And yet … At the end of last season, club president Eric de Cromières was prompted to publish an open letter of apology to fans on the club’s website after the club once again finished trophyless, despite reaching two finals. It is an increasingly inconvenient conundrum in the volcanic heart of France’s Massif Central why a squad this talented misses out as often as Clermont.
The bad news is that, on top of their World Cup absentees, Clermont will be without Brock James for the opening set of Top 14 games. The Australian has a minor heart complaint that has ruled him out for two months.
Even so, it’s hardly back to the drawing board for Clermont – they have talent aplenty, and will be there or thereabouts once again. It is simply a matter of turning thereabouts into there. Nobody could begrudge this sickeningly talented squad a taste of glory this season? Could they? Mourad?
2014/15 season: 11th
In the battle for rugby supremacy in the Rhone-Alpes region of south-eastern France, it’s no contest. Grenoble are better than Lyon. But that’s only because Grenoble have managed to stay in the Top 14 since winning promotion in 2012, while Lyon have just as successfully twice managed to get themselves relegated a season after winning promotion since 2011.
Last Christmas, Grenoble were in the running for a European Champions Cup place, but their now near-traditional late-season slump plunged them into the relegation dogfight.
They needed one point from their final game of last season to ensure survival. With no small irony, that game was at already-relegated Lyon. With five minutes left on the clock, Lyon were five points ahead. Another score by the home side would have seen Grenoble relegated in Bayonne’s place. But the visitors held on. By the skin of their teeth.
It’s no surprise that another dramatic new year dip in form prompted a clear-out of players at Stade des Alpes. But all eyes once again really should be on someone who stayed – Jonathan Wisniewski. The talented fly-half with the cut-and-paste name is always near the top of the Top 14 points-scoring list, yet has so far managed to operate pretty much under the radar of the national coaches.
2014/15 season: 9th
La Rochelle made idiots of many a Top 14 pundit last season.
They were regarded as a relegation certainty, but turned Stade Marcel Deflandre into a fortress, en route to a more-than creditable ninth-place finish. That said, they could find life a little more difficult in their second season back in the top flight as they do not have the mega-resources of a Toulouse, Racing or Clermont to splash around.
But it’s not all bad news. Although they will miss the influential Loann Goujon, who has joined Atlantic neighbours Bordeaux, they have recruited cannily – ex-Springbok scrum-half Ricky Januarie joins from Lyon, along with lived-in hooker David Roumieu from Bayonne, while utility back Zack Holmes headed La Rochelle-wards from Australian Super Rugby side Western Force and full-back Benjamin Lapeyre has moved from the newly-renamed Racing 92.
2014/15 season 8th
Montpellier – or Durban-sur-Mer, as it probably should be called these days – has developed a distinct South African accent.
It is no real surprise. World Cup-winning coach Jake White could do little more than right a heavily-listing ship when he answered an emergency call from club owner Mohed Altrad in November, at the height of the convoluted Fabien Galthie departure saga.
White officially took over as head coach this summer – and immediately instigated an end-of-season firesale of players. No fewer than 20 were shown the door, as White – and his lieutenant Shaun Sowerby – raided South African Super Rugby franchises. Expect to see, at some point this season, Jannie du Plessis, his brother Bismarck, Pierre Spies, Frans Steyn and Schalk Van der Merwe in Montpellier blue. But it was François Trinh-Duc who the Herault side missed most last season. Now he has recovered from the broken leg that kept him out for a large part of last season and has been axed from the French World Cup squad, expect him to be as influential as ever.
2014/15 season Top 14 play-off quarter finalists / 6th in regular season
Two seasons ago, some pundits predicted that 2013 Top 14 champions Castres (population 44,000) would be the last one-horse-town club to reach the latter stages of the world’s most competitive domestic club rugby tournament.
All that money sloshing about the competition was about to turn the Top 14 into an annual big-city six-horse race, they said. It would be a procession, dominated by Toulon, Clermont, Racing 92, Stade Francais, Toulouse and Montpellier – until a big-spending upstart, probably Lyon, bought their way on to the top table, they said.
The remaining eight teams in the French top flight would battle for the honour of not being relegated, they said.
Oops. Oyonnax must have missed that particular memo.
The cheeky little side from the unfashionable and equally little town (population 23,000), with the second smallest budget in the Top 14, reached the end-of-season play-offs – and booked a place in this season’s European Champions Cup – in only their second season in the top flight. Then they had the temerity to give mighty Toulouse a serious scare at Stade Ernest Wallon.
But that success could prove a double-edged sword for new coach Olivier Azam.
He’s stepping up from his old role as forwards coach at Lyon to take on the challenge of replacing Christophe Urios, who – not unsurprisingly – is venerated as somewhere close to god in this corner of the world.
He’s inherited a side with great expectations and not a huge amount of money. He’s got to juggle the twin demands of the Top 14 and the European Champions Cup. But he’s set about making the side his own. Key players have left, notably Benjamin Urdapilleta and Antoine Tichit, but Gloucester old-boy Azam has exploited his English and Lyonnais connections to bring in some big-game players for feisty evergreen winger Silvere Tian to feed off.
2014/15 season: Promoted as ProD2 champions
Pau, or Section Paloise to give them their Sunday name, were crowned ProD2 champions a month before the end of the season, which has given them plenty of time to plan their assault on the Top 14. In fact, they started even earlier. In February, World Cup-winning All Black Conrad Smith announced he was joining the Aquitaine club, while – after a protracted game of bluff and bluster – Colin Slade signed a two-year deal in April.
To be fair to coach Simon Mannix, he hasn’t just raided his homeland for players. He also smash-and-grabbed Paddy Butler and Sean Dougall from old Irish haunt Munster, used his French connections to bring Julien Pierre and Thierry Lacrampe from Clermont, and talked never-on-a-Sunday prop Euan Murray to give up the Scotland cause.
It should all mean that Pau will be no pushovers – but the ghost of Lyon haunts any new big-spending arrivals in the French top flight. What matters now is how well Mannix is able to mould his clearly talented players into a Top 14 team.
2014/15 season Top 14 play-off quarter finalists / 5th in regular season
New season. New name. Same problem. Racing 92 dropped ‘Metro’ from its name on July 1 – and, after the World Cup, a certain Dan Carter will report for duty on the first day of his reported 1m€-plus-a-year deal. Meanwhile, coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers have signed long-term contract extensions that will keep them at the club until 2019.
So far, so rosy – but there’s something missing from the utopian rugby idyll of Racing’s moneybags president Jacky Lorenzetti. Silverware.
Racing’s trophy cabinet has been bare since they won the French championship in 1990.
Lorenzetti took the reins at Racing in 2006, the same year as arch-rival and Top 14 comicbook supervillain Mourad Boudjellal took over at Toulon. But, where Boudjellal can point to a three successive European titles, a Top 14 win and a ProD2 championship in his tenure, Lorenzetti has nothing to show for his investment.
Worse was to come last season when Stade Francais, of all rivals, lifted the Brennus. The question is, how long will Lorenzetti’s patience hold?
It can’t be that long. The marketing for Racing’s season tickets heralded “the promise of a new era”, but the level of creak in Lorenzetti’s reserves of patience remains to be heard. He’s certainly dipped into his, admittedly deep, pockets once more, bringing in Remi Tales, Yannick Nyanga, Martin Castrogiovanni, Chris Masoe and Uncle Joe Rokocoko as well as Carter – but he will surely demand some return on his investment sooner rather than later. He’ll expect their good start at Toulon to continue…
2014/15 season Top 14 champions / 4th in regular season
As little as three years ago, Stade were a bad Top 14 joke – a lily-liveried shadow of the side that had won the French championship 13 times previously.
That was then.
This is now. Stade start the new season as Top 14 champions.
Since Gonzalo Quesada took the reins in 2013 and the shackles of financial ruin were cast off, Stade have become one of the most exciting and watchable teams in France, led by a rejuvenated Captain Invincible Sergio Parisse and a core of young French stars, notably fly-half Jules Plisson.
It has not all been plain sailing under Quesada. Digby Ioane turned out to be a poor fit, and for the longest time, Morne Steyn looked to be the one of the worst deals in rugby history – the panic signing of an overseas fly-half that Stade didn’t need.
Steyn, at least, has been able to turn his Parisian fortunes around, making the most of his chance when Plisson was injured, to marshall the aristocratic side to overdue Top 14 glory.
The headlines out of Stade Jean Bouin have been dominated by the post-World Cup arrival of Australian scrum-half Will Genia and South African forward Willem Alberts.
But don’t be too surprised to see new signing Sekou Macalou praised to the heavens in Top 14 rugby reports as the season progresses. He was a star of the under-20 World Cup earlier this year. It won’t be long before he’s a star of the full national side – especially if he soaks up all the advice on offer from the likes of Parisse and Alberts.
2014/15 season Top 14 semi-finalists / 1st in regular season
It looks set to be an interesting season at reigning European champions Toulon. How do you cope with the departures of big-game forwards Ali Williams, Bakkies Botha, Carl Hayman, Chris Masoe and Martin Castrogiovanni? If you’re Toulon, you bring in Salesi Ma’afu, Paul O’Connell, Duane Vermeulen, Samu Manoa and Matt Stevens.
You also, with much less fanfare, pick up 22-year-old Charles Ollivon from relegated Bayonne. And, despite all the big name arrivals – who include Ma’a Nonu and the ageless Sireli Bobo, but not apparently, Quade Cooper (for now at least) – it’s the barnstorming number 8 Ollivon who is most likely to become a Toulon hero. Injuries permitting, this young man is destined for rugby greatness – and Toulon are rightly looking forward to the best of him.
The big unknown at Toulon will not take effect until January, when head coach Bernard Laporte is due to step down to pursue his dream of the presidency of the FFR.
His replacement, former Italy fly-half Diego Dominguez, has no coaching experience. He started his education under the wings of the man he is to replace at the start of the season – but by the time Toulon’s World Cup-tied players return to the fold, he has to be settled in. Then he’s just got to bring them up to Toulon speed…
2014/15 season Top 14 semi finals / 3rd in regular season
Forget replacing Philippe Saint-Andre and restoring pride in the French national side. Yes, that’s a tough gig, and it has been handed to Guy Noves. But the toughest job in Top 14, French – and maybe even world – rugby goes to Ugo Mola.
His job? Taking over from Noves at Toulouse. He is stepping into the shoes of the rugby gnome who – in 22 years at Stade Ernest Wallon – guided Toulouse to four European titles, 10 French championships and the last four of France’s domestic competition 21 times.
Mola is the new man in charge at the most successful rugby club in French rugby.
But he’s also taking the reins at a club seen to be in decline, despite again reaching the Top 14 semi-finals. The last three seasons have seen Toulon and Clermont, Stade and Racing overtake Toulouse as the powerhouses of French rugby. Trophies have been impossible to come by since 2012. And last season, the richest club in the world recorded a loss of 1m€.
Mola has had neither the time nor the funds to play much in the transfer market. Their big signings have been scrum-half David Mele, from Leicester, and prop Gert Muller, from Bayonne.
The Toulouse squad isn’t the issue. There’s more mercurial talent in Luke McAlister’s right leg – below the knee – than in many other teams combined. And it also boasts the likes of Thierry Dusautoir, Louis Picamoles, Maxime Medard, Florian Fritz, Census Johnson, Gillian Gallen.
The issue has been coaching sterility. It’s up to new head coach Mola, new rugby director Fabien Pelous and their in-place backroom team, William Servat and Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde, to inject new life and fresh ideas into the players.
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