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Top 14 Verdict - Part 1
Le bon, la brute, le truand
Martin Gillingham
May 16, 2012
Stade Francais coach Michael Cheika directs proceedings, Stade Francais training session, Paris, France, May 3, 2011
Michael Cheika's time at Stade Francais appears to have come to an end © Getty Images
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Tournaments/Tours: Top 14 Orange
Teams: Brive

So the league phase has finished and we now know who has qualified for the play-offs and who has joined Lyon in Pro2 for next season. It's time to pass verdict on each team's season and to consider what lies ahead for them. I'll work from the bottom up, starting this week with the clubs whose seasons are now over…

14th, Lyon, 31 points

The 2011 Pro2 champions had been planning and building towards promotion to the top flight for a long time so their dismal failure has been a surprise. Lyon's budget was almost twice that of Bordeaux's and on a par with play-off contenders Castres's. The conclusion must be that they spent badly and underestimated what it takes to compete in European rugby's most competitive league. But the owners appear undeterred. The recruitment process for their campaign for a swift return has begun with Lionel Nallet, Sebastien Chabal and Wales hooker Huw Bennett already signed up. Former Lion Tom Smith is moving from Edinburgh to take charge of the forwards.

13th Brive, 42

In the late 1990s they reached the French Championship final, beat Leicester in a Heineken Cup final, and the following year came within a whisker of its successful defence. Their demise will be a salutary lesson to the likes of Biarritz and Perpignan who too are in sharp decline. Rumours of financial problems have circulated from time to time and the club's board and owners who are all based in Paris will have to act smartly to ensure Brive's slide is arrested and that they are competitive in Pro2 next season.

12th, Bayonne, 48

The two turncoats from Agen, coaches Christian Lanta and Christophe Deylaud, will move in during the summer and it will be interesting to see what changes they make to the playing staff. Faded star Joe Rokocoko still has one year to run on his deal but he has been a feeble contributor this season. And he's not alone. If the new coaches and president Alain Afflelou can stabilise a club which has lurched from crisis to crisis over the past two years then anything's possible. But it's a big IF.

11th, Perpignan, 49

Have suffered similarly to Biarritz with the culture of big city rugby and their fatter wallets leaving traditional rugby towns trailing. The 2009 champions were 2012's chumps with Jacques Delmas's appointment in succession to Jacques Brunel as head coach a disaster. He may share the same tonsorial stylist as Bath-bound Gary Gold but Delmas doesn't have anything like the same powers of persuasion as the former Springbok assistant coach. Delmas lost the dressing room on virtually the first day he walked in. The Catalans never really looked like going down but neither were they ever in contention for the play-offs. There will be a playing and coaching staff clear-out in the summer with Marc Delpoux moving down from Bordeaux to head it up.

 
Agen are the season's best example of how boardroom battles can permeate the dressing-room walls
 

10th, Agen, 52

Agen are the season's best example of how boardroom battles can permeate the dressing-room walls. In mid-December, Agen travelled to Toulon knowing that victory would lift them into third place. They lost 34-12 at the Stade Mayol and the following week speculation emerged that the two coaches Lanta and Deylaud had agreed to join Bayonne next season. It was a turning point with Agen losing 10 of their 15 remaining matches and the coaches being told a fortnight before the end of the season to clear their desks and leave. A new regime headed by local hero Philippe Sella takes charge in the summer.

9th, Biarritz, 52

The warning bells have been rung for president Serge Blanco. In the last seven seasons Biarritz have won the French title twice and lost two Heineken Cup finals but over that period their powers have waned and they are now in danger of being left behind as rivals grow their budgets and build up larger, more star-studded squads. Fly-half continues to be a problem position and the appointment of a new head coach to replace France-bound Patrice Lagisquet is eagerly anticipated. Biarritz may be one of the world's most attractive rugby destinations but it is no longer the home of a team capable of competing for France's national title. Their run of 11 straight seasons in the Heineken Cup will end if they don't beat Toulon in Friday's Amlin final at the Twickenham Stoop.

8th, Bordeaux-Begles, 53

A revelation. They had by far the smallest budget in the league and were tipped by many (including me) to be the first to be relegated. Yet inspired by coach Marc Delpoux they picked up points here and there throughout the season and gave themselves a real chance of survival with a dramatic 18-17 win against Toulouse in round 21 when Lionel Beauxis missed a kick at the death which might have sunk them. That was the start of a run of four wins from their last six matches which not only saw Les Bordelais avoid the drop but clinch a remarkable mid-table finish.

7th, Stade Francais, 58

The ownership and debt problems that have blighted them in recent times may have been resolved but their form remains an enigma. Their home record was certainly good enough to book a top six finish - just one defeat to Toulouse - but their record on the road was woeful. They won just once - at Perpignan in November - and collected just eight points from a possible 65. Talismanic hooker Dmitri Szarzewski and head coach Michael Cheika are two high-profile departures. More will surely follow. The balance of power in the capital is shifting further towards Racing Metro.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
This article first appeared in The Independent on May 15, visit http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/
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