CASTRES, FRANCE – If you thought that the last Top 14 season was impossible to call, feel for the poor pundit who has to try to predict this one… which promises to be tougher still.
For the second season in a row, France-based journalist and die-hard rugby fan James Harrington examines the teams for the benefit of rugby fans (and Sky Sports viewers in the UK). Then, probably foolishly, he even makes a few predictions. Just don’t gamble the mortgage money on them.
Home Ground: Stade Jean-Dauger
Last season: 10th
This season’s prediction: 10th
Bayonne host the opening match of the new season on Friday, against Toulon. Chances are, it’s not the kick off Bayonne fans would have hoped for at the end of last season’s nailbiting campaign, when they only made sure of Top 14 survival with a final-day victory over eventual finalists Castres Olympique.
But, in such fires, iron is forged. Smart signings, including Blair Stewart and 19-year-old Aussie wunderkind Lalakai Foketi make up a relatively youthful squad – ‘godfather’ Joe Rokocoko and lived-in hooker David Roumieu apart – that have been there, done that.
They will hope to repeat the recent success of Castres, who followed a close encounter of the relegation kind with four play-off seasons, including two finals – and one title.
That said, this is the toughest-looking Top 14 line-up for years. They’ll do well to move much above their 10th-placed finish.
Home Ground: Stade André Moga / Jacques Chaban-Delmas
Last Season: 8th
This season’s prediction: 5th
Spellchecker nightmare Metuisela Talebula was the Top 14’s leading try-scorer last season, with 14 tries in 22 matches, taking his tally for the club to 22 in 44. Which is impressive. But Perpignan’s Sofiane Guitoune touched down nine times in 13 matches last season before a ruptured achilles ended his season at the turn of the year – and probably ended any hopes the Catalan side had of survival.
This season, they’re playing for the same team… And they’ll be alongside Felix Le Bourhis and the man voted most likely to take Simon Geoghegan’s “mad tsetse fly” epithet, Blair Connor, who are both no slouches when it comes to finding the tryline.
The flying wings are joined on the Bordeaux roster by – among others – Toulouse misfit Lionel Beauxis, Biarritz duo Yann Lesgourgues and Francisco Gomez-Kodela, and Brive’s Julien Le Devedec.
And with Pierre Bernard knocking over the kicks like they were going out of fashion, well… Look upon Bordeaux’s attacking flair, Top 14 and European opponents, and despair.
Home Ground: Stade Parc Municipal des Sports
Last Season: 9th
This season’s prediction: 12th
Boring, boring Brive need try scorers. Badly. Which is why they have gone a bit Viking and raided Fiji like it was defenceless Britain in the ninth century.
Not only are they opening an academy there, but they have also picked up sevens star Benito Masilevu and fellow islanders Dominiko Waqaniburotu, Malakai Radikadike, Venione Voretamaya and Sisaro Koyamaibole.
Expect them to make a pretty decent start, as they have five home games in the first seven rounds – but then they have a run that includes Racing Metro, Grenoble, Montpellier and Stade Francais on the road. After that, we’ll all have a better idea of where they’ll finish up.
Home Ground: Stade Pierre Antoine
Last Season: Top 14 finalists (6th regular season)
This season’s prediction: 6th
Unfashionable Castres have, depending on your point of view, punched waaaaaay above their weight for the past five seasons; or have been grossly underestimated by the rest of the Top 14, the partisan rugby media, and the entire world – rugby or otherwise.
Those in the latter camp point to the stats. Finalists in 2014, champions in 2013, semi-finalists in 2012, quarter-finalists in 2011 and 2010. It’s no mean record.
And it’s one they will – obviously – want to maintain. They have managed to hold on to scrum half Rory Kockott, despite the fact he had signed a pre-contract with Toulon, and they pinched former Clermont star Sitiveni Sivivatu from under the noses of almost everyone before they realised he was there.
But they have lost Brice Dulin, Antonie Claassen and Anton Peikrishvili, who have all headed north to moneybags Racing Metro, following a well-worn path first trod by former coaches Laurent Labit, Laurent Travers and winger Mark Andreu.
Chances are they’ll be underestimated all over again, which proves one thing. French rugby takes ages to learn.
Home Ground: Stade Marcel Michelin
Last season: Play-off quarter-finalists (3rd regular season)
This season’s prediction: 7th
The Vern Cotter era at Clermont ended with a club-record Heineken Cup 40-point defeat at Saracens and their 77-match unbeaten home streak shattered by Castres in the Top 14 play-offs.
It dismal end to what has to go down as, the 2010 Top 14 title apart, as a pretty disappointing run.
Ironically, having to rebuild fortress Marcel Michelin will probably work in new coach Franck Azema’s favour. He’s already made a statement of intent by signing Leinster’s Jonno Gibbs as forwards coach. The Clermont scrum was tough before. Expect it to be brutal now.
That said, they have lost a hefty chunk of experience. Lee Byrne is back in Wales, Nathan Hines has finally called it a day, Gerhard Vosloo has taken the Toulon euro, Sivivatu’s moved to Castres…
Clermont need a good season. They need silverware. This isn’t the time to be losing players. Which means they’re not probably going to win anything again. In fact, they may struggle to make the play-offs.
They have at least picked up Camille Lopez from relegated Perpignan. He will make Brock James sit up and take notice. And Nick Abendanon and Sébastien Vahaamahina are also excellent players to have on the books.
But whether Crusaders’ hothead Zac Guilford is a good signing remains to be seen. His radar is tuned to the tryline, but he’s a risk; while Georgian flanker Viktor Kolelishvili’s return could also be interesting. He collects cards like a philatelist collects stamps.
A friendly start to the season will make them look good, but an unfriendly finish could be their undoing.
Home Ground: Stade Lesdiguières
Last Season: 11th
This season’s prediction: 9th
Grenoble did the double over Toulon last season, and also beat Racing Metro on the road – but seven matches without a win at the end of the season will have had more nervous fans looking for a handy paper bag to breathe into, as they were reminded of the previous season, which saw them lose nine out of 11 in the run-in and come perilously close to dropping down to the ProD2.
But, if coach Bernard Jackman is anything, he’s shrewd. He’s lost a number of long-serving players, but has replaced them with players he hopes to mould into his image. Ireland under-20 star Denis Coulson and another man from the Emerald Isle Chris Farrell, in particular, should be worth watching. And they will find a warm welcome from fellow Irishman James Hart
They have a tough start, against Clermont and Montpellier away, but then are at home for four of the next five. That should give them a decent boost – which they will, hopefully, be able to maintain.
Home Ground: Stade Marcel-Deflandre
Last Season: Promoted from ProD2
This season’s prediction: 14th
Tighthead Uini Atonio is a big unit, but even he isn’t big enough to keep La Rochelle from bouncing straight back down to the ProD2. Probably.
They’ll need the likes of winger Alofa Alofa, locks Jason Eaton and Jone Qovu, and fly-half Peter Grant to hit the ground not so much running as flying if they are to survive.
A good early run would give them heart – but will it be enough?
Home Ground: Matmut Stadium
Last Season: ProD2 champions
This season’s prediction: 11th
The 2013 ProD2 champions open their Top 14 account at Bordeaux – and without the hirsute Sebastian Chabal, who decided to hang up his greying beard at the end of last season after guiding the ambitious club to the French top flight.
Not that they will lack big-match experience. The club has signed no fewer than 16 players for their assault on the big league. They are – deep breath – Hoani Tui, Emmanuel Felsina, Deon Fourie, Karim Ghezal, Mickaël De Marco, George Smith (yes, that one), Julien Puricelli, Chabal-wannabe Pierrick Gunther, Charles Malet, Masi Matadigo, Mathieu Lorée, Stephen Brett, Fabrice Estebanez, Paul Bonnefond, Vincent Martin and Jérôme Porical.
As Toulon and Racing Metro would attest, it takes time to build a team – but with foundations like that, they would expect to survive… and in some style. And, in a league in which just eight points separated fourth from ninth last season, survival is some result. Survival with style will be something to build on in campaigns to come.
Home Ground: The Altrad Stadium, aka Stade du Manoir
Last Season: Play-off semi-finalists (2nd regular season)
This season’s prediction: 4th
Gorgodzilla has gone Toulon-wards. For many teams, losing a wrecking ball like the Georgian would spell disaster. But Fabien Galthie has been able to sign Antoine Battut, Akapusi Qera and Ben Mowen. On balance, he’s probably up on the deal as far as the pack is concerned.
His problem is just behind the pack. The influential Francois Trinh-Duc is in France’s elite squad this year, which will limit his club appearances. Enzo Selponi is a decent player and all that, but he’s no FTD.
Meanwhile, Olympic eligibility regulations could play merry hell with their plans for other players – notably international retirees Alex Tulou, Sitaleki Timani and Anthony Tuitavake.
Try-machine and IRB sevens player of the year Samisoni Viriviri will be one of two men to watch. How he fits in with the team will be crucial to Montpellier’s hopes. The other will be Rene Ranger…
Home Ground: Stade Charles Mathon
Last Season: 12th
This season’s prediction: 13th
Sorry to say, but Rugby Wrap Up’s beloved Oyonnax look likely favourites for the drop this season. Their all-hell-and-no-notion approach to the game undid many a visitor to Stade Charles Mathon, in the shadow of the Jura mountains last season. Only Montpellier and Stade Francais bested them at home, and they only conceded eight tries.
But they escaped relegation by the outer cells of the skins of their teeth last season – and it’s hard to see them surviving this season, despite the experience of new arrivals like Soane Tonga’uiha, Pedrie Wannenburg, and Riaan Smit; and the kicking accuracy of Benjamin Urdipilleta.
Home Ground: Stade Yves du Manoir
Last season: Play-off semi-finals (4th regular season)
This season’s prediction: Finalists
The club with the money to rival Toulon have signed wisely as they look to boost their bonus-point tally. They only actually managed one try-scoring bonus last season. All the other sides in the Top 14 managed at least five.
The more-slippery-than-a-greased-eel Brice Dulin has arrived from Castres, while the lightning strike that is Teddy Thomas has signed from Biarritz. They bring a new attacking threat to a side that last season thought a try was something that other sides scored.
But, what they didn’t do, however, was concede much. They were tough to beat, and will be just as tough this season. The difference, this time, is that they are more likely to score a few.
Home Ground: Stade Jean Bouin
Last Season: 7th
This season’s prediction: 3rd
Stade have to make the play-offs. They have to.
After winning 12 of 17, they then lost seven of the last nine to miss out on the play-offs by a single point. It was not good enough – even though they lost several key players to the Six Nations.
Worse, big-money signings Morne Steyn and Digby Ioane flattered to deceive. The former Reds winger arrived late in November and by February stories appeared in both the Australian and French media suggesting he was seeking an early release. Steyn, meanwhile, did a fine rabbit-in-the-headlights impression from day one. It’s no wonder he only started nine Top 14 matches.
But they have a problem.
Their backline has been ruined by injuries in the run-up to the season. They will find the going tough early on. It’s how they get going that matters.
Home Ground: Stade Mayol
Last Season: Top 14 champions / Heineken Cup champions
This season’s prediction: Top 14 champions
Most season previews would start by mentioning the absence of Jonny Wilkinson – and quite right too. But then they’d spoil it all by diving straight in to the kicking/fly-half problem by mentioning Leigh Halfpenny and Freddie Michalak. But that would be missing something very important.
And it’s this…
Bakkies Botha and Mamuka Gorgodze in the same team? Run and hide, opposing forwards. Run. And. Hide.
Of course, some will argue that this is a post-Jonny, ageing, side in transition. Their argument is helped by the fact that Mourad Boudjellal has already hinted that he hopes to sign four “fantastiques” for the 2015 season.
But Toulon are not just any side. They are Test-ready side. And they, unlike Racing Metro, have blended as a team. They are no longer a side of mercenaries. They are a team of mercenaries. It makes all the difference.
Home Ground: Stade Ernest-Wallon
Last Season: Play-off quarter-finalists (5th regular season)
This season’s prediction: 8th
What? Toulouse, eighth? The same Toulouse that has won the Top 14 nine times and the old Heineken Cup four times under the gnomic Guy Noves and only conceded 118 points in the French top flight last season? Eighth? Really?
There has been a sea-change in the Top 14 in recent years – and it’s not just money. If it was, Toulouse would still be at the head of the pile. Their budget was bigger than even Toulon’s last season.
Toulouse’s monstrous pack has been beefed up with Neemia Tialata, Imanol Harinordoquy and Corey Flynn joining the roster, but the set-piece wobbled last season and that meant the feared Toulouse swagger vanished faster than a Big Mac in front of Census Johnston.
They suffered, too, for the lack of a consistent goalkicker – especially after Luke McAlister’s injury – and because they lost a large portion of their squad to the Six Nations.
The newly clean-shaven Toby Flood will add to their attacking threat. How he links up with McAlister and inside centre Gael Fickou will be crucial to Toulouse’s hopes.
But they remain a side in transition and in very serious danger of becoming the Top 14 equivalent of English Premier League football side Liverpool – all history and, for many years, no future.
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.