PARIS, FRANCE – Welcome to Gay Paris! I am told that Toulouse, in Southwestern France, is the heart of French Rugby – not The City Of Lights. But this is one of the world’s most fun cities and I just love how the French so effortlessly pronounce my name – Junoir. But enough about me… Nous sommes ici to preview the French Top 14 Rugby Preview:
Teams are grouped in their projected places in the final standings. Please note that the French season is so absurd that it starts in early August to complete all the action by… early June. Who needs an off-season?! Another weird thing is there are 6 playoff spots, with #1 & #2 getting a bye-week. Smells of the NFL… My picks are consistent with this system.
EYES ON THE PRIZE:
Clermont: They were knocked-out of both the Top 14 and Heineken Cup Semi-Finals last season. To see the mountaintop but fall short will do nothing but motivate these boys to win it all. Heard. It. Here. First. Clermont will be the 2012/2013 Champions.
Toulon: They got a taste of Finals Rugby last season, losing to Toulouse. They will be back, fit and firing this season. Despite the charges of doping on T14 Player of the Season Steffon Armitage, he and his English ex-pats (including Sir Jonny Wilkinson) will make it back to the Final again… but only to once again be bridesmaids.
Toulouse: They are the most decorated team in French Rugby with 19 Titles and 4 Titles in the Heineken Cup. Hard to bet against them not winning it all. They have the French Captain Thierry Dusautoir and the coaching demagogue Guy Noves leading them. But this is a season where they don’t fire on all cylinders. They will be 3rd but lose in the Semi-final.
Racing Metro: New Coach in Gonzalo Quesada, plus loads of new imports including National Team hooker Dimitri Szarzewski. This injection of experienced campaigners will give resolve to a side that is quality and will see them achieve a lot more than most would expect… and secure a home playoff spot.
Castres: They have made the playoffs for 3 straight seasons. They have, however, struggled to build on these finishes and push on to the next level. They keep the team relatively unchanged from last season hoping that consistency in the squad will lead to great achievement. But it will be much of the same for them, with a playoff game the best they can achieve.
Stade Français: The men in pink and the fancy calendar are still rebuilding. However, I think this is the year the begin the climb back to competing for the French title. Owner Max Guazzini has stepped down as president – you can thank max for the pink colors and flowers and calendar. On the field they are lead by all world 8-man Sergio Parisse and have American Scott LaValla on their books. Stade will make that leap from also-ran to playoff team.
MIDDLE OF THE PACK:
Perpignan: Coming off their worst season in years and desperate to compete, they have made some big signings. They will be better than last season, I have no doubt of that. Unfortunately so will the opposition. They will do well but come up just short.
Biarritz: The boys from Basque Country – who not only represent a club but a people – are still trying to reach the heights of a semi-final like they did 3 years ago. However, their squad is not as deep or as big as the top clubs. French International and Club captain Imanol Harinordoquy will lead the boys, but I just don’t think it will be enough.
Bordeaux-Begles: They had a strong start to the season last year but really came crashing down towards the end of the season. They will be much better prepared for the slug-fest that is the French regular season. They way have some big wins but that is about it.
Bayonne: Last season was a big disappointment. After so many big name signings, they failed to perform. I think they will do better this season but yet again they are far from a finished product.
Agen: They like Bordeaux, had overachieved with their finish last season. They will come crashing to earth this season, though.
Grenoble: One of the two newly promoted clubs, they promise to play attractive football but they will focus on winning ugly. But it won’t be enough.
Mont-de Marsan: The other newly promoted side, they just managed to pull-off promotion but won’t manage to escape demotion.
That is it for me for now. Please feel free to comment below, look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @RugbyWrapUp, @JunoirBlaber, @Declan Yeats and @Mathew Drew Turner, respectively.
And as always, stay low and keep pumping those legs.