French Top 14 Rugby Preview

Top 14 Rugby

French Top 14 Rugby Preview

The French Top 14 is back this weekend with European champions Toulon kicking
off the campaign on Friday evening against Racing 92 at the Stade Mayol.

STADE FRANCAIS

Gonzalo Quesada’s side stunned French rugby last season by claiming a 14th
title. Heinke Van der Merwe, Remi Bonfils and Rabah Slimani will again form
a formidable front row, while South Africa’s Willem Alberts and Australia’s
Will Genia are two key arrivals. The Parisians’ resources will be tested to
the limit with 12 players missing the start of the season due to World Cup duty,
but expect a play-off place.

TOULON

Dethroned in the semi-finals by Stade last season, the European champions will
want their title back. Bernard Laporte vacates the head coach position in January
for his successor Diego Dominguez, while Kiwi centre Ma’a Nonu, Ireland captain
Paul O’Connell and Springbok No.8 Duane Vermeulen are the marquee arrivals.
Toulon have 18 players on World Cup duty, but they remain title favourites.

CLERMONT

The Augverne side continue to play below their potential. Last season’s gut-wrenching
12-6 loss to Stade was their 11th in a Top 14 final, and came after defeat to
Toulon in the European showpiece. Club stalwarts Julien Pierre, Julien Bonnaire
and Napolioni Nalaga have all left, but Hosea Gear and Scott Spedding bolster
an already potent backline. Like Stade, 12 players are on World Cup duty, but
Clermont have the squad to cope.

TOULOUSE

They will be hard to fathom in the post-Guy Noves era. The soon-to-be France
coach leaves behind an ageing squad which has fallen short in recent seasons.
With few signings and a host of French internationals missing at the start of
the season, new head coach Ugo Mola may turn to youth with the likes of Yacouba
Camara and Arthur Bonneval. Toulouse could be vulnerable in a new era.

RACING METRO

Dan Carter’s arrival in the Paris suburbs grabs the headlines as Racing Metro
take a name change to become Racing 92. The all-time top Test points scorer
will be pivotal at fly-half while Kiwi compatriot Chris Masoe, Italy prop Martin
Castrogiovanni and French flanker Yannick Nyanga add grunt to the pack. Racing
should be title contenders.

OYONNAX

Did tremendously well to make the play-offs last season where they lost in
heartbreaking fashion to Toulouse (20-19) in the quarter-finals. Formidable
at home — 11 wins and just two defeats (to Clermont and Toulon) — but a change
to a synthetic surface and the loss of coach Christophe Urios and fly-half Benjamin
Urdapilleta to Castres could destabilise the Top 14’s smallest club.

BORDEAUX-BEGLES

Clearly a team on the rise. A late play-off victory over Gloucester secured
European Champions Cup qualification, with head coach Raphael Ibanez transforming
them into a swashbuckling spectacle — only Toulon (81) scored more tries than
Bordeaux’s 66 last term. Australia international Adam Ashley-Cooper is the star
signing, but juggling a European campaign and domestic rigours will be a test.

MONTPELLIER

Disappointed with an eight place finish last season but expect much bigger
things at the Altrad Stadium. South Africa’s 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake
White begins his first full campaign in charge and has recruited plenty of his
countrymen. Forwards Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, CJ van der Linde and Pierre
Spies are among the South African imports. In the backs, Australia’s Jesse Mogg
arrives with a glowing reputation.

LA ROCHELLE

Survived their first season back in the top flight thanks to outstanding home
form — Bordeaux-Begles were the only team to win at the Stade Marcel Deflandre
— but they can expect another tough campaign. With French international back
row Loann Goujon moving to Bordeaux, coach Patrice Collazo has lost considerable
breakdown presence.

BRIVE

Needed a 27-0 victory over champions Stade to avoid relegation on the final
day. Only Oyonnax (37 tries) threatened the whitewash on fewer occasions than
Brive (40 tries) and after limited changes to the squad, the same problems could
resurface. Their cause could be helped with just two players on World Cup duty.

GRENOBLE

Lost five of their last six matches to finish perilously close to the relegation
zone, but the recruitment drive gives hope with Tongan pair Paea Fa’anunu and
Soma Taumalolo set to add muscle to the pack. Lucas Dupont, Walter Desmaison
and Fabrice Estebanez should add guile to the backs.

CASTRES

The 2014 champions almost suffered the ignominy of relegation as defending
champions, but strong end of season form saw them survive on the head-to-head
record ahead of Bayonne. Christophe Urios arrives as new head coach with Urdapilleta
replacing Remi Tales at fly-half. Ex-Toulon wing David Smith — last season’s
top try scorer with 13 — adds a threat out wide.

PAU

The southwest club cantered to the Pro D2 title to seal a return to the top
flight after a nine-year absence. Head coach Simon Mannix has captured All Black
pair Conrad Smith and Colin Slade – a real statement of intent by the three-time
champions. Veteran former Clermont lock Julien Pierre will also add line-out
presence.

AGEN

Secured promotion after a two-year hiatus thanks to a 16-15 victory over Mont
de Marsan. Dangerous on the wings with Canadian international Taylor Paris and
powerful up front with Samoa prop Viliamu Afatia. They have five players on
World Cup duty and are likely to struggle.

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