Club-by-Club Preview of the French Top 14

top 14 captainsAfter a season in which French clubs dominated the European club rugby scene the men from the clubs from the Top 14 have seen yet another rise in their domestic wage cap allowing the league to capture talents such as Jamie Roberts, Johnny Sexton, Bryan Habana and Dan Lydiate. Whilst the bulk of this spending power is concentrated in a handful of clubs in the Top 14, a number of teams have recruited strongly and look set to compete in the upper echelons of both their domestic league and the Heineken Cup once again this season. This is great for neutral supporters as whilst there will always be pre-tournament favourites it is an incredibly difficult task to pick the eventual winner of the Top 14 this year.

As Castres proved last year in their triumphant, if unexpected victorious Top 14 season, the eventual winner could be any of a number of clubs. Whilst the usual suspects such as Cleremont, Toulon and Toulouse will all be there or there about’s come the end of the season, other slightly less fancied teams such as Montpellier have built strongly and look set to compete. Racing Metro have also flexed their considerable financial muscle power this summer and if the new signings integrate quickly, could be a real threat.

This is how things finished up last season with Toulon and Castres contesting the final whilst Agen and Mont-de-Mason dropped out of the Top 14. It’s hard to imagine the table looking significantly different this season although it’s fair to imagine Racing should be expecting a top 4 finish and Stade Français will be hoping to build on what they must consider to have been an extremely disappointing season.

Rugby Union - Top 14 Orange 2012-13 - Points table - ESPN Scrum

Here we take a look at each club individually and how we think they might perform this season

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Aviron Bayonnais

Last season – 8th

Star Signing – Stephen Brett

Last season the only teams to score less points in the Top 14 were relegated Monte-de-Mason and Agen, a total of just 32 tries was key behind this failing. A disappointing start to the campaign resulted in just 1 victory in their opening six games, however an up-turn in form later in the season saw the club manage 5 victories in their last six games resulting in a respectable 8th placed finish.

The signing of Kiwi fly half Stephen Brett should help add more tries for Bayonne this season with his attacking instincts likely to flourish off the back of Mike Phillips distribution at 9. Some extra bulk in the forwards including 135kg Opeti Fonua (famous for a huge hit on Jonny Wilkinson) should also add some power to the teams go forward. The addition of Argentine wing  Martín Bustos Moyano could also be a major coup if he can manage to stay fit.

Whilst Bayonne looked in impressive form towards the end of last season and have recruited well this summer, the way teams around them have built in the off-season means that although they should score more points they are unlikely to be able to improve on last seasons efforts.

Prediction – 8th

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Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque

Last season – 9th

Star Signing – Joe Pietersen

A fantastic start resulted in 4 straight victories at the beginning of last year, however a turn in form saw six straight defeats follow, resulting in the sacking of coach Serge Blanco. Despite an up-turn in form Biarritz failed to qualify for the Heineken Cup for the first time since the turn of the century.

Joe Pietersen should help add some more attacking flair to Biarritz’s play and score a few tries in the process. Italian lock Josh Furno looks a real prospect and could help strengthen the Biarritz pack which is likely to come up against some tough opposition up front this season. In addition Samoa sevens star Paul Perez could be a real asset if he can find his feet in the full 15-a-side game.

Unfortunately for Biarritz they no longer have the finances to compete with the likes of Toulon and Racing Metro resulting in a relatively low key summer. Their inability to compete financially with other top teams in the league is likely to see them fall further behind again this season. It could be a while now before we see Biarritz qualify for the Heineken Cup through the Top 14.

Prediction – 10th

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Union Bordeaux Bègles

Last season – 12th

Star Signing – Pierre Bernard

French rugby legend Raphaël Ibañez had the difficult task of replacing departing coach Marc Delpouxbut still managed to steer his clear 16 points of the relegation zone. Their expansive running rugby style of play has won them many fans in the Top 14 and saw them come fifth in the try scoring stakes last season. Nine losing bonus points helped keep them out of the relegation battle but a points difference of just -23 shows how many games were lost by small margins. Despite being extremely ambitious, Bordeaux Bègles are also realistic in their expectaions and are self aware enough to realise they are going to struggle to compete with the leagues top teams at this stage.

New fly-half Pierre Bernard will be looking to recapture the kind of form he showed for Castres a couple of seasons ago whilst 37 times capped France prop Jean-Baptiste Poux will add power and experience at the front of the scrum. French centre Thibault Lacroix could also prove key if he can break into the team this season.

Despite their ambition and smart recruitment it is hard to see Bordeaux being able to compete with the more established teams in the Top 14 who have much deeper pockets. It looks like the bottom of the league will be just as tight as the top but it is hard to see the club staying out of the relegation battle come the end of the season.

Prediction – 13th

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Club Athlétique Brive Corrèze Limousin

Last season – *Promoted

Star Signing – Alfie Mafi

Despite finishing as runners up in the Pro D2 last year Brive won the leagues play-offs with relative ease allowing them to once again return to the Top 14. Despite their relegation the previous season Brive not only managed to retain most of their top talent but also recruit a number of quality players ready to mount a challenge on the Pro D2. A watertight defence was key to their success last season, although their try scoring record left a little to be desired for.

The loss of several key players including the retirement of Jamie Noon will be a big blow for head coach Nicolas Godignon although he will hope the addition of talented wing Alfie Mafi might help to offset some key departures. Mafi’s scintilating try scoring form for the Force last season could help to add potency to a slightly limp Brive attack this season. The addition of Sisa Koyamaibole adds some further size to the pack although both he and Mafi come with disciplinary issues attached.

Despite the loss of a number of key players Brive’s previous experience in the Top 14 and tight defence should be well suited to the demands of the league that isn’t well known for its open expansive rugby. Although they are likely to be involved in a relegation scrap  if the likes of Mafi & Koyamaibole can maintain their discipline then Brive should be okay this season.

Prediction – 12th

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Castres Olympique

Last season – 4th *eventual winners

Star Signing – Richie Gray

Despite finishing 4th in the regular season, too many peoples surprise Castres eventually won the Top 14 beating big spending Toulon in the final. The clubs first title in 20 years was secured on the back of a powerful pack who provided plenty of go forward ball that allowed the combo of Rory Kockott and Rémi Talès to lead their team to victory. Possibly not the most entertaining team in the league, Castres secured the title through their solid defensive work and the boot of Kockott. Their home form in particular has been exceptional losing just three games in four years in the competition.

If Richie Gray can rediscover the form of two seasons ago when he was one of the hottest properties in European rugby then he could add a real element of athleticism and running rugby into a solid if unspectacular Castes pack. A few other fringe players have joined the squad over the summer but for the most part Castres will be looking to retain the Top 14 title with largely the same group of players that won it for them last year.

The consistency in playing staff at the club should help them get off to a strong start whilst players at other teams take time to settle in. Despite this their failure to recruit as strongly as a number of the other top teams in the league is likely to see them struggle to compete longer term.

Prediction – 6th

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Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne

Last Season – 1st

Star Signing – none

Despite finishing 1st in the Top 14 and reaching the final of the Heineken Cup perennial underachievers Clermont Auvergne failed to finish the season with any silverware. In the regular season Clermont scored more and conceded less tries than any other team in the competition, and despite being favourites for the league title they fell in the semi-finals to eventual winners Castres.

The club have failed to add any major new faces to the squad over the summer despite shipping out a number of fringe players. This will be of no great concern to Clermont fans as the team is already so formidable although seeing teams such as Toulon recruiting so many star names may be a slight concern.

Whilst Clermont have retained their key stars over the summer and look set to compete strongly next season, the failure to build on what they had last season whilst those around them are steaming ahead could see them slip behind slightly. The loss of Alex King as attach coach is a huge blow and the knowledge that Vern Cotter has already agreed to join Scotland as Head Coach could prove to be a disruptive influence on the team. Whilst it’s impossible not to see Cleremont there or there abouts come the end of the season there is certainly the potential for them to fail to reach the heights of last season.

Prediction – 3rd

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Football Club Grenoble Rugby

Last Season – 11th

Star Signing – Olly Barkley

The beginning of the season saw Grenoble topple the likes of Stade Francais, Racing Metro, USAP and Toulouse before seven losses in eight games at the end of the season saw them plummet down the table. Despite some disappointment at finishing 11th after their start to the season, last year must be considered a success for Grenoble as they were able to retain their top flight status.

The signing of Olly Barkley represents a major coup for Grenoble as despite his disappointing form at Racing Metro he is still an extremely talented playmaker at 10 or 12. Peter Kimlin and Dan Palmer have also joined from the Brumbies and will add extra strength to the pack this season.

It looks set to be another tough season for Grenoble in the Top 14 but some smart signings and a strong platform to work off from last season should see them remain relatively comfortable just above the drop zone.

Prediction – 11th

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Montpellier Hérault Rugby

Last Season – 5th

Star Signing – Rene Ranger

Montpellier finished 5th last season, narrowly missing out on 4th to Racing Metro based on their head-to-head record resulting in a difficult away trip to Castres. Ill discipline from a number of players in the team saw them fall to a 25 – 12 loss despite looking close contenders for much of the game. Fabien Galthié’s side were considered one of the most entertaining in the league last year playing an expansive style of rugby willing to run the ball from deep.

The signing of Rene Ranger has flown largely under the radar for many but could prove to be one of the shrewdest moves of the year. The All Black flyer is more than capable of playing on the wing or at centre where he is a constant threat ball in hand whilst being defensively sound. The additions of Nicolas Mas and Jim Hamilton provide extra bulk to the pack as well as sound set piece options both of whom are very adept at interrupting the oppositions ball. Wynand Olivier and Robert Ebersohn look like excellent signings of centre and should help create a solid platform for the backs to play off.

Key to this season will be Montpellier’s ability to keep fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc fit as he is key to much of his teams play. Strong additions in both the forwards and backs make Montpellier look an even stronger proposition than they were last year and if Ranger can find his feet quickly in the Top 14 we could easily see Fabien Galthié’s men challenging for silverware at the end of the season.

Prediction – 2nd

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Union Sportive Oyonnax Rugby

Last Season – *promoted

Star Signing – Guillaume Boussès

Little fancied Oyonnax stormed to the Pro D2 title last season finishing 17 points clear of second placed Brive after some clever recruitment over the preceding summer. 86 tries in 30 games helps to indicate how lethal Oyonnax were in attack last season scoring considerably more tries than any other team in the league.

16 new players have joined the team over the summer with 11 departing ahead of the start of the season. The experience of new recruit Guillaume Boussès in the centres could be key to helping some of the more inexperienced players in the team find their feet in the Top 14.

Despite the heavy recruitment drive over the summer and their attacking flair it is hard to see Oyonnax being defensively sound enough to compete in the Top 14 next season. Whilst they may cause a few upsets throughout the season it is difficult to see them steering clear of the ensuing relegation dog fight.

Prediction – 14th

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Union Sportive Arlequins Perpignanais

Last season – 7th

Star Signing – Camille Lopez

A seventh placed finished showed a marked improvement on the previous seasons 11th and also gives the club Heineken Cup rugby this season. Shocking away form resulted in just two victories away from home all season although a focus on the teams attacking play yielded results with Perpignan record the fifth highest number of points in the league.

The signing of Camille Lopez represents a significant coup for Perpignan although may result in James Hook being pushed to full back for next season. Both men however finished in the top 5 points scorers in the league last season and will hope to replicate that form once again this year. Italian international Tommaso Benvenuti will also add more flair into the backs and will hope to be able to play off the distribution from Lopez and Hook. Giorgi Jgenti and Paulica Ion meanwhile face the huge task or replacing the departed Nicolas Mas at tighthead.

A couple of strong additions in the backs means we are likely to see Perpignan scoring plenty of points again this season however questions marks must still remain about their defensive strength. The loss of Nicolas Mas could also see their scrum struggle and make it difficult for the team to create a platform that the backs can play off. With other teams recruiting strongly I expect Perpignan will be finishing in a comfortable mid-table position entertaining plenty of neutrals along the way.

Prediction – 9th

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Racing Métro 92

Last season – 6th

Star Signing – Johhny Sexton

A difficult start to the season was followed by an up-turn in form that saw the Parisians eventually finish in sixth to reach the play-offs. A difficult game away to Toulouse saw Racing fall at the first hurdle in the knock-outs. A serious struggle scoring tries was a concern for much of the season although this looks to have been addressed over the summer.

Alongside Toulon, Racing Metro must be considered the biggest spenders this summer recruiting a number of British & Irish Lions to add to their squad. The acquisition of Johnny Sexton will help aid their attacking play with his distribution hopefully allowing the backs outside him to get over the try line a few more times this year. Jamie Roberts in the centre provides a powerful running option which should help to get his team over the gain line whilst Dan Lydiate will tackle anything that moves.

Soane Tonga’uiha and Brian Mujati join from Northampton providing powerful scrummaging options as well as strong ball carriers in the loose. The props will be supported by Springbok lock Juandré Kruger who will add even more power in the tight whilst French internationals Adrien Planté, Marc Andreu and Wenceslas Lauret will help add strength in depth to the team.

At this stage it is almost impossible to accurately predict how Racing might get on this season. Should the new signings click instantly then they could easily run away with both the Top 14 and the Heineken Cup, however should key players struggle to settle in it could make for a difficult season with more progress shown next year. At this stage I imagine the team will make a slow start with players taking time to build key relationships before bonding and having a strong end to the season.

Prediction – 4th

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Stade Français Club Athlétique des Sports Généraux

Last Season – 10th

Star Signing – Digby Ioane

Disappointing form away from home and leaky defence eventually resulted in a 10th placed finish for Stade Français, several places below their target of Heineken Cup qualification. Only the relegated Agen and Mont de Marsan conceeded more points than Stade last year whilst six wins in 42 games paints a picture all on its own.

The signing of Digby Ioane provides a potent attacking threat for Stade this season. The Wallaby wingers try scoring form should help ensure a hefty points return over the course of the season. 45 times capped Springbok fly-half Morne Steyn joins the Parisians this summer with a gigantic boot so should provide a consistent source of points throughout the season. Davit Kubriashvili, Heinke Van der Merwe and Sakaria Taulafo also join to provide Stade’s front row with some power and help stabilise their scrum.

Stade look to have recruited strongly this summer and their absence from the Heineken Cup could prove to be a blessing in disguise as it allows the team to focus on the Top 14. The teams existing stalwarts such as Pascal Pape and Sergio Parisse will be joined by a raft of new talent capable of getting Stade over the gainline, however their defence still remains a concern.

Prediction – 7th

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Rugby Club Toulonnais

Last season – 2nd

Star Signing – Bryan Habana

Despite winning the Heineken Cup last year Toulon still ended the season disappointed having narrowly missed out on the Top 14 title to Castres in the final. Despite leading the Top 14 for much of the season Toulon eventually slipped up in the final couple of games allowing Clermont to top the table at the end of the season.

Despite already having one of the most star studded teams in the world Toulon have still recruited heavily this summer bringing in even more heavyweights to help them challenge for the Top 14. Bryan Habana brings pace and finishing ability that should see Toulon score plenty of tries this season. He will be joined on the wings by Drew Mitchell and 7’s superstar Carlin Isles giving Toulon plenty of attacking threats. Martin Castrogiovanni joins to provide competition for Carl Hayman at tighthead whilst All Blacks lock Ali Williams will look to form a formidable partnership with second row enforcer Bakkies Botha.

It is hard to look past Toulon this season who have build strongly on the already impressive foundations of last year. If the new signings can be integrated into the team quickly it is difficult to see many teams being able to better Bernard Laporte’s men. The additions of Isles, Mitchell and Habana are also likely to provide more tries than last season making Toulon much more intimidating going forwards whilst losing nothing defensively.

Prediction – 1st

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Stade Toulousain

Last season – 3rd

Star Signing – Hosea Gear

A disappointing season by Toulouse’s usually high standards saw them finish third before being knocked out in the semi-finals by Toulon. An exit from the Heineken Cup in the group stages compiled a season that the club will want to quickly forget.

The signing of Hosea Gear will help provide an additional attacking threat and will hopefully help them score more tries despite threatening to for much of last season. Chiliboy Ralepelle will provide some experience at hooker as well as a strong ball carrying option. Jano Vermaak will provide competition at scrum half whilst Joe Tekori’s strength and athleticism at lock or loose forward will be a major asset.

Toulouse will always be there or there abouts having retained much of their squad from last year. Despite not recruiting as strongly as others around them there should still be enough in their existing team to see them competing at the top of the table once again.

 

Whatever happens this year it looks set to be an extremely tight one in the Top 14 with so many teams recruiting strongly. Whilst the likes of Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont are always going to be strong the likes of Montpellier and Racing have recruited extremely well and should the new signings bed in quickly could well be competing for silverware. Here’s how I predict the table will look come the end of the season. Based on this I predict a final between Toulon and Montpellier with Montpellier just sneaking it in the final round.

1Rugby Club Toulonnais
2Montpellier Hérault Rugby
3Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne
4Racing Métro 92
5Stade Toulousain
6Castres Olympique
7Stade Français Club Athlétique des Sports Généraux
8Aviron Bayonnais
9Union Sportive Arlequins Perpignanais
10Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque
11Football Club Grenoble Rugby
12Club Athlétique Brive Corrèze Limousin
13Union Bordeaux Bègles
14Union Sportive Oyonnax Rugby

How do you think this season will go?

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