Toulon won’t let Top 14 become an obession

Toulon missed out on the French Top 14 title in a shock defeat to Castres in last season’s final but the club refuse to let their domestic quest turn into an obsession ahead of the new campaign.

Bernard Laporte’s team have not won the title since 1992 and, just two weeks after upsetting favourites Clermont to claim a maiden Heineken Cup, Toulon were themselves the applecart that was knocked onto its side when plucky Castres claimed a fourth Bouclier de Brennus in June.

Toulon start the new season with a trip to Montpellier, but Laporte insists theirs is not a quest for the Holy Grail.

“The Bouclier de Brennus is not our prime objective because our priority is to win everything,” said the former France coach.

“I would sign straight away for another European Cup title but we want to win the Top 14 as well.”

That may just be a slightly harder task this season after two successive final defeats, having gone down to Toulouse in 2012.

Last season’s success and a recruitment campaign that has seen the likes of Bryan Habana, Drew Mitchell, Ali Williams and Martin Castrogiovanni join the club means they will likely start as favourites and the team most others want to beat.

But they are not the only team to have cast their net wide in the off season and caught some big fish, although Montpellier’s own prize capture will not take to the field on Friday night.

New Zealand centre Rene Ranger is not due to join up with his teammates until the end of the National Provincial Championship in his homeland, meaning he will only arrive in Europe at the end of October.

They will, however, be able to call on France prop Nicolas Mas, signed from Perpignan, and Scotland lock Jim Hamilton, giving more meat to a pack that will have its work cut out containing Toulon.

The rest of the weekend’s matches take place on Saturday when powerhouses Clermont, Toulouse and Racing Metro will all be on the road.

In Racing’s case it is entirely due to economics. They are scheduled to play newly-promoted Brive at home but, with much of Paris on holiday at this time of year, the club have decided to displace that match to La Rochelle, to tap into a rugby market desperate for Top 14 action but unable to provide a local side that offers such fare.

Racing have probably completed the most impressive off season recruitment programme, bringing in three British and Irish lions in Welsh pair Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts, as well as Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton.

Having finished the regular season in sixth last time out, Racing are expected to make the biggest leap in this campaign and truly challenge the traditional giants.

Toulouse, the most successful team in French and European rugby, will as ever count themselves amongst the front-runners and start their campaign at Bordeaux-Begles.

Clermont, who will have had a long and painful summer after their crushing European Cup final defeat to Toulon, have been fairly inactive in the transfer market, but will maintain the faith in an-already strong squad.

What remains to be seen, as they begin with a trip to Biarritz, is whether they have got over their disappointment and refocused ahead of the new season, New Zealand coach Vern Cotter’s last in charge.

The great chokers will once again look to deliver on their undoubted potential and finally land a first ever European Cup — their main priority — although a second Top 14 crown would at least help paper over the cracks.

Fixtures (kick-offs 1630 GMT unless stated)

Friday Montpellier v Toulon (1845GMT)


Biarritz v Clermont (1300GMT),
Racing Metro v Brive,
Grenoble v Stade Francais,
Bordeaux-Begles v Toulouse,
Bayonne v Oyonnax,
Perpignan v Castres (1835GMT)

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