Silly season arrives in the Top 14
January 2, 2014
Rory Kockott's case personifies the mad French transfer scene © Getty Images
In the spirit of the elf 'n safety culture which prompts news channels to warn of flashlight photography and dramas 'n thrillers of blood 'n gore, I shall issue a warning of my own: this story on Top 14 transfers peddles plenty of rumour and speculation.
The seesaw nature of the Top 14 transfer merry-go-round is perhaps best illustrated by the tale of Rory Kockott who, if we are to believe what we read, has dug more escape tunnels beneath Castres' Stade Pierre Antoine than Steve McQueen did in The Great Escape.
This time last year it was being confidently predicted that Kockott was heading for Toulouse albeit a full 12 months before the end of his Castres contract. There was even a report which claimed the former Natal Sharks scrum-half had flounced off to Durban in mid-season refusing to return unless his wish for an early "out" was granted. As it happened that story proved wide of the mark; Kockott duly returned to the Tarn refreshed and reinvigorated where his torpedo-like boot fired Castres to their first championship triumph for two decades. Meanwhile, Toulouse refused to stump up the cash to buy Kockott out of his Castres contract leaving him to see out his final season.
But it didn't end there. No sooner had the sun risen on the new season than speculation in papers, websites and social media was at fever pitch about Kockott's next destination. The rumours of Racing Metro came and went before a bombshell was dropped in October, L'Equipe reporting that Kockott had been offered - and had agreed to in the form of a pre-contract - a three-year deal with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.
The player's agent issued an immediate denial claiming a decision wouldn't be taken in November. Indeed, that deadline came and went. And it wasn't until the first week in December that the next twist came; Castres's biggest hitter, former LNR and club president Pierre-Yves Revol, stepped in, held a private meeting with the player, while "friendly" reporters were tipped off. Within hours, the usual outlets were alive with news that on the promise of a handsome pay rise Kockott had reaffirmed his vows with Castres and was blanking Boudjellal.
But official sources at Toulon told a different tale. They were adamant Kockott was still talking to them. And Monday's news from Toulon - Boudjellal's claim that the Castres scrum-half had recently called to assure him he will, after all, be coming to the Stade Mayol - appears to be the last word.
It had promised to be a tough winter for Castres. Champions maybe, but with the club's overall budget placing them mid-table and with the two coaches (les deux Laurents, Labit and Travers) having followed the Lorenzetti lucre to Paris, there were concerns the club's best talent may head north too.
Wing Marc Andreu is the only one already there though it seems inevitable France internationals Antonie Claassen and Brice Dulin will be among this summer's new intake. It is to Castres' credit that they have been smart in reacting. No.8 Johnnie Beattie looks like joining from Montpellier while their signing of Sitiveni Sivivatu, already confirmed by the former All Black wing, is the coup of the winter so far.
It's a transaction which tells you something of the prudent approach taken by Clermont in their recruitment policy. French reports have claimed Clermont were only prepared to offer Sivivatu two more years while Castres had countered that with 45,000 euros a month (allegedly) over three seasons.
Sitiveni Sivivatu has signed for Castres © Getty Images
Despite its reputation as one of Europe's most affluent clubs Clermont has reduced its squad size in recent seasons and in what may be construed as a barbed reference to its rivals insist they are not only anxious to observe the salary cap but to be seen to be observing it. So far, Clermont have agreed deals with Jonathan Davies and Perpignan lock Sebastien Vahaamahina. Given their back row resources are to be depleted by the departures of Gerhard Vosloo and Elvis Vermeulen it is possible one of the Welsh or Irish loose forwards whose names are currently being hawked around French clubs might land in volcano country. Don't forget, forwards coach Jono Gibbes is on his way this summer from Leinster. Lee Byrne is a second member of the back three who has confirmed his departure which makes sense of speculation that a fullback/wing such as Alexis Palisson (always moaning at Toulon) might head for the Stade Marcel Michelin.
One fullback who has got away from Clermont is Benjamin Fall who it seems is on his way to Montpellier.
Biarritz No.8 Raphael Lakafia, the son of an Olympic javelin finalist, is another possible Clermont recruit. Two or three years ago he was billed as France's next big thing but his stock has followed a similarly downward trend to his club's. Montpellier, Castres and Toulon are other possible destinations for him.
Toulouse, like Clermont - and in stark contrast to Toulon and, to a lesser degree, Montpellier - prefer to do their bidding in private. Confirmation of Toby Flood's arrival in the Ville Rose is imminent while their most interesting acquisition may prove to be the Biarritz wing Teddy Thomas. The 20-year-old demonstrated in the Amlin Challenge Cup at Gloucester last year - and again against Worcester last month - just what a quality finisher he is. It has been mooted that Leicester, who are losing Vereniki Goneva to Castres, had also been in contact with Thomas. But if Toulouse do want Thomas it's hard to imagine how any other club could really turn his head.
Perhaps the winter's best buy will be the Biarritz scrum-half Yann Lesgourges. The heir to Yachvili turns 23 later this month and impresses every time I see him. And if Jonathan Pelissie (from Grenoble to Montpellier) proved the best signing ahead of this season - not just my view but Midi Olympique's too - then Lesgourges's path over the coming months may well be one worth following.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Despite having lost all four of their 2014 Six Nations games, the future of Italian rugby is bright with the team showing a new youthful core, argues Enrico Borra
"The loudest cheer at a rugby game, away from social media gimmicks, pumping music and pyrotechnics will always be for a try." Tom Hamilton on the Twickenham atmosphere
"The only thing that will stop this England team from becoming a great team is themselves. They need to ask themselves 'what can we be?'" The Phil Vickery column
The latest Monday Maul looks at the hectic final weekend, the Lions hangover, the superb Mike Brown and the 'selfie'