Top 14 preview: Toulon to build on title victory
August 14, 2014
Toulon are defending champions - but can they make it back-to-back successes? © Getty Images
The call to arms has already been issued by the Bayonne propaganda machine: the team bus will be driving from the hotel to the Stade Jean Dauger at such and such a time on Friday evening and the members of French rugby's most passionate supporters club, Pena Baiona, are expected to be along the route to greet the bus.
There is no better place to start the Top 14 season: Aviron Bayonnais at home to defending champions Toulon. The visitors may be sans Jonny but they are the most gilded of rugby men; Mourad Boudjellal's galacticos wear the mantle of Europe's No.1 club as if it were tailored for them. To the superstars who ply their trade on the Mediterranean coast the message is clear: if you want the Bouclier de Brennus then you're going to have to rip it from our grasp.
The Top 14 season is no sprint. Indeed when the champions, whoever they may be, lift the shield at the end of the final in Paris it shall be less than 14 weeks before the opening match in the World Cup in London.
So who is best-placed to make it to the play-offs at the end of May? And which teams are going to be scrambling week-by-week for points in their desperation to avoid the drop to Pro D2?
Bayonne (provisional budget: €15.76 million)
It was celebrations for Bayonne last season but they face a battle this year © Getty Images
One of my favourite rugby towns. Stade Jean Dauger, though improved in recent seasons, remains underwhelming yet the atmosphere stirs the blood. It's the more grounded, spit 'n sawdust end of the Biarritz-Bayonne commune.
Key figure? South African but now France-qualified, Scott Spedding. There may be more flamboyant and obviously talented full-backs in the Top 14 but he regularly outshines them.
Prospects? Pre-match rituals at Jean Dauger include the recital of the club hymn Pena Baiona which recounts tales of trips to Dax and Narbonne. Both of those two fallen giants are now in Pro D2 and I fear the song's words will prove prophetic. Going down.
Promoted in 2011 despite having finished just fifth in Pro D2 they were touted as favourites to go straight back down. But what's happened since has been a model for others to follow. President Laurent Marti has invested wisely over the last four years and spent shrewdly this summer, building a side which plays attractive rugby and draws big crowds when matches are relocated from the club's traditional home to the bigger Stade Chaban Delmas.
Key figure? Metuisela Talebula scored tries for fun last season and expect to see him top of the table this time round too.
Prospects? They fell just short of a play-off place last season and the summer recruitment drive suggests they'll be candidates again.
Smallest budget in the league and a modest increase on last season's numbers. Their home win against Toulouse last November while most rugby eyes were on Test matches elsewhere was one of the season's highlights. The sight of hooker Guillaume Ribes crashing over early on against the deafening din generated by a rabid Amedee Domenech crowd is an abiding memory. They are the Top 14's little guys and it's of little surprise that hardly any members of last season's squad have moved on - nobody else wants them.
Key figure? Sisa Koyamaibole used to the head the stats for misdemeanour, absence and general unreliability. Last season he was one of the league's top ball-carriers, offloaders and turnover kings. More of the same this season please.
Prospects? If Koyamaibole plays another blinder and Gaetan Germain kicks his goals then they'll survive.
Rory Kockott could prove instrumental in Castres' tilt for the top six © Getty Images
They have the smallest stadium in the league and a budget that places them in the bottom half. Yet somehow this club and town rejuvenated by the late Pierre Fabre and his pharmaceutical firm have bucked the trend. Frustrating in Europe, they are a tough nut to crack in the league and were the only unbeaten side at home last season. Must be the intimidating sight of local hero and one of French rugby's baddest men, 69-year-old Gerard Cholley, glaring down from the main tribune.
Key figure? After two years of allowing himself to be courted by anyone with a fat chequebook Rory Kockott has ended the turbulence around his future by committing himself to the Pierre Antoine. Likely to make his France debut in November.
Prospects? Loss of Brice Dulin and Antonie Claassen to Racing will be keenly felt while new recruit Sitiveni Sivivatu's long absence following shoulder surgery is a serious blow. Top six … just.
Clermont Auvergne (€27.90m)
There's a new captain (Damien Chouly); the head coach Vern Cotter's gone (to Scotland) and so have Lee Byrne (Dragons), Nathan Hines (Sale) as well as Sivivatu. In some respects it's the start of a new era though the man who pulls the strings, vice-president and directeur sportif, Jean-Marc Lhermet, remains. It's a terrific opportunity for new full-back Nick Abendanon who is sure to thrive in volcano country.
Key figure? Camille Lopez. Fly-half has long been recognised as Les Jaunards' problem position. The former Bordeaux-Begles and Perpignan player has already started for France.
Prospects? With the Stade Marcel Michelin finally stripped of its veneer of invincibility the club can fully focus on its Achilles' heel - an inability to get the job done in May and June. Top four finish.
The wheels came off in dramatic fashion at the end of last season and, in the end, saw them hanging on to their Top 14 status by a slender margin. Changes have been made in the management structure with the former Leinster and Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman stepping up to take charge of team affairs. Pre-season has gone well with recruitment from the southern hemisphere giving the squad more of a top seven appearance than one that looks like it belongs in the bottom half.
Key figure? Three seasons ago Jonathan Wisniewski was poised to play for France. But it never happened and following the recruitment by Racing of Jonathan Sexton opportunities dried up in the capital. Grenoble didn't score many tries last season which places additional pressure on their place-kicker. Wisniewski is one of the best in France.
Prospects? Most obvious threat, along with Bordeaux-Begles, to Castres for that sixth play-off spot.
La Rochelle (€14.47m)
New signing Peter Grant will offer experience for La Rochelle © Getty Images
The fixtures folk have not been kind to the league's 14th club. They play three of their first four matches on the road. And when they do get to reacquaint the locals with the top flight, on August 30, the visitors are Toulouse. Twelve months ago, Oyonnax flew out of the traps and sunk the mighty Clermont to establish their home ground's fortress credentials. Les Maritimes need to do the same against Toulouse; otherwise trips to Stade Marcel Deflandre will be targeted by the traditional powers.
Key figure? It's more than six years since Peter Grant made the last of his five appearances (all as a replacement) for the Springboks but the former Stormer who played more than 100 games in Super Rugby will offer experience, dependability and a reliable boot.
Prospects? Relegation confirmed by the end of April
Three seasons ago, they were cruelly cut down in their first season. This time around, having learnt from the experiences of his predecessor, the president Yann Roubert is taking no chances. The budget is the seventh largest and 16 new names have been added to the senior squad. It will be former France captain Lionel Nallet's last season and he's determined to ensure his final professional club do not suffer the same fate as in 2012.
Key figure? With additional emphasis being placed on homespun talent the signing of Fabrice Estebanez from Racing is a bit of a coup. He played for France in the 2011 World Cup and two seasons was, arguably, one half of the most effective 12-13 combination in the league (with Henry Chavancy at Racing)
Prospects? Lyon epitomise the shift in the balance of power in French club rugby from the traditional towns of the south-west to the big cities. Have enough muscle for a ninth or 10th place finish.
Owner Mohed Altrad has changed the name of the club's stadium to honour himself while significant departures include versatile prop Juan Figallo and Jim Hamilton who have traded in the Mediterranean sunshine for Hendon. Also gone is Georgian bruiser Mamuka Gorgodze to Toulon. Even so, those losses are cancelled out by the arrival of the Sanzar trio Pat Cilliers, Ben Mowen and Tom Donnelly. And with Philippe Saint-Andre apparently blind to the talents of Francois Trinh-Duc, they can expect a full season from their No.1 playmaker.
Key figure? Head coach Fabien Galthie may well be embarking on his last full season in charge. That's assuming France fall short at the next World Cup, PSA steps down, and his country comes calling.
Prospects? Beaten semi-finalists last season and now established among the top six. No reason to think they won't reach the same level this season.
Home wins against Clermont and Toulon were the highlights of their first season in the top flight and they get a crack at repeating the feats before the first break for Europe. The outcome of these matches will play a huge role in setting their path for the season. Summer recruitment has focused on the back row with Maurie Fa'asavalu (Harlequins), Olivier Missoup (Stade Francais) and Pedrie Wannenburg (Castres) among the new boys.
Key figure? Puma Benjamin Urdapilleta had nerves of steel last season. He'll need them again this time around.
Prospects? One of four clubs fighting for survival. But they should be OK.
Racing Metro (€25.36m)
Jonathan Sexton will be key if Racing Metro are to challenge for the title © Getty Images
Les deux Laurents now have three of the players - Brice Dulin, Marc Andreu and Antonie Claassen - who won them the Bouclier with Castres less than 15 months ago plus a fourth former colleague, tight-head Luc Ducalcon, on the Lorenzetti lucre. There is no deeper squad in Europe; the problem is in finding the best combinations and managing the expectations of a staff which includes 24 full internationals.
Key figure? There are plenty to choose from though, inevitably, the club's highest-paid player Jonathan Sexton carries huge responsibility. He's also got the young Bok Johan Goosen breathing down his neck this season.
Prospects? If Labit and Travers get it right then they are the most obvious threat to Toulon's title defence. Problem is, we've said it before.
Stade Francais (€25.28m)
Last season they were top of the table in mid-winter but suffered such a sharp decline in the Spring that they ended up missing out on both the play-offs and the final spot in the new premier European competition. It was a bitter blow and suggested that despite having returned home to the magnificently-reconstructed Jean Bouin cracks remain in the human edifice.
Key figure? Three yellow cards in the Top 14 this season mean an automatic one-match suspension. Pascal Pape is prone to disciplinary off-days. But when he behaves and is fit, he's magnificent.
Prospects? Summer recruitment drive suggests more of the same. Like the look of Raphael Lakafia's addition to the loose forwards but poised to be the biggest budget not to make the top six.
It's the start of the post-Wilkinson era and a chance for Frederic Michalak to step out of the shadow cast by the 2003 World Cup winner. The fact Mourad's millionaires go into the season defending both major prizes ramps up the pressure on all concerned. Leigh Halfpenny's arrival is sure to have riled Delon Armitage who has been outstanding at full-back for the past two seasons. Bryan Habana fell short of expectations in his first season and will feel under pressure to deliver once he's back from international duty.
Key figure? Matt Giteau is just one of the handful of galacticos rejuvenated by their time on the Cote d'Azur.
Prospects? Worthy favourites. Top two for sure and straight to semi-finals.
The sums no longer add up in the Ville Rose - on or off the pitch - and having failed to reach the semi-finals in May for the first time in more than two decades the pressure is on. The club operates on the biggest budget in Europe but with dwindling crowds and the renovation of the big stadium across town meaning all games must be played at the smaller Stade Ernest Wallon the club's accountants are looking at the expensively-assembled cast list on the pitch to improve the numbers.
Key figure? Toby Flood, sporting a No.1 trim in keeping with Toulouse's tonsor-themed initiation ritual, may well miss the impeccably-observed Welford Road hush for kickers but he'll enjoy the sunshine and fatter pay packet.
Prospects? Guy Noves saw his reputation sink to its nadir in the aftermath of the Florian Fritz head-knock incident and, like his squad, will come out fighting. Expect a top six finish.
Toulon will be without Jonny Wilkinson for the defence of their title © Getty Images
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