The big kick-off
August 10, 2010
Aurelien Rougerie inspired Clermont Auvergne to Top 14 glory last season © Getty Images
La Rochelle 22 - 17 Castres Perpignan 21 - 13 Clermont Auvergne Biarritz 30 - 22 Montpellier Brive 18 - 23 Racing Metro Stade Français 43 - 12 Bourgoin-Jallieu Toulon 22 - 26 Bayonne Toulouse 44 - 24 Agen
The summer holidays at Gruissan Plage are safely out of the way. The moustache has been trimmed, the beret has been dusted down and the creases ironed out of the new jersey. And while much of France is still enjoying the national August pastime of 'Congés Annuel' - a process whereby half the population of the interior of France move en masse to the coast for three weeks - the Top 14 road show is back with a bang this Friday with Toulouse taking on newly promoted Agen at Ernest Wallon.
And what a season it promises to be. With the distraction of a World Cup just around the corner combined with the addition of Toulon as genuine title challengers , the 2010/11 French Championship promises to be one of the most closely fought in a generation.
The aforementioned join traditional heavyweights such as Biarritz and Stade Francais in chasing down the three big sides to beat - Toulouse, Perpignan and champions Clermont Auvergne.
Supporters of Les Jaunards have no doubt spent much of the summer basking in the warm glow that followed their historic, if a little tardy, Top 14 triumph back at the end of May. The outpouring of emotion that followed that win reminded us all that despite all the talk about filthy lucre, a loss of innocence and the seemingly endless, evil descent towards further professionalism, rugby in France has lost little of its passion or its ability to generate a story that tugs at the heartstrings.
Furthermore, a first French title in 11 attempts will have emboldened Clermont and it will be interesting to see this season if Vern Cotter can take the club further. There has been little turnover at Stade Marcel Michelin this summer apart from the signing of Kiwi Sione Lauaki so expect them to be a real threat in both domestic and European competition.
Toulouse are another club that will be expected to fight on both fronts. Europe's most successful club side won their fourth Heineken Cup last year yet coach Guy Noves gave an interesting insight into the Toulousain mindset when interviewed by La Depeche du Midi. "No, we've no title to defend," he said cheekily. "The title won symbolises the end of last season. We start at zero. We are no longer champions of Europe."
Toulouse estimate a turnover of around €29m this year, which to put in context is nearly half last year's turnover of the Irish Rugby Football Union (€59m) and only a fraction smaller than the Scottish Rugby Union's (€38m). Despite this, they like all French clubs will be forced to work under the new salary cap of €8m this season which has meant very few new arrivals at Stade Ernest Wallon. Wage inflation has been running at around 30% in the Top 14 since 2007 but it remains to be seen if this is going to level off in any meaningful way as it should do if the salary cap works. Most French clubs have seen an increase in their operating budgets despite the global recession with only Stade Francais and Brive seeing a decrease in turnover in real terms.
New Stade Francais coach Michael Cheika will have his work cut out in his first year at the Parisian club after what can only be described as a disastrous 09/10 campaign for Max Guazzini's men. Cheika's job has been made all the more difficult by the difficult financial position the club is in but given that Stade Francais need only concentrate on the Top 14 having missed out on H Cup qualification last season, a playoff place should be within grasp.
With a successful season behind them and a new star signing in former All Black prop Carl Hayman, Toulon look mostly likely of the 'nearly' sides to kick on and give the big three a run for their money. Their task is aided by the fact their participation in the Heineken Cup will be no more than a token one, if the comments of coach Aubin Heuber are anything to go by. "We'll be concentrating essentially on the Championship," said Heuber a few weeks ago. "The H Cup will serve as a spring board for certain players and for others a way in which to rediscover their form."
Toulon will join Perpignan, Racing Metro and Castres as sides the bookies can expect to have maximum focus on domestic affairs - a rather frustrating reflection of the pressures of the Top 14 - thereby pushing the dual focus clubs Toulouse and Clermont all the way. But all four remain susceptible to injury in key areas. The loss of a Jonny Wilkinson, Nicolas Mas, Sebastian Chabal or a Chris Masoe would be a serious blow to any of the sides, especially in a league season considered the longest and most challenging in the world.
So, who to win? Well, you'd have to be nuts to put money on anybody outside of Toulouse, Toulon, Clermont and Perpignan. The Top 14 has clearly become more competitive in recent years thanks to the deep pockets of some of the clubs' backers but the status quo has remained pretty much the same. Toulouse to finish top then, but goodness knows what will happen in the playoffs.
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