France’s 14 sides are all back in action this weekend as the 2016/2017 Top 14 season gets underway.
Racing 92 are the defending champions while Lyon and Bayonne return to the top flight at the expense of the relegated Agen and Oyonnax.
Head coach: Vincent Etcheto
Last season: Pro D2 – 2nd (play-off winner)
Back in the top flight after just a year’s absence, Bayonne won promotion after defeating Aurillac in the Pro D2 play-off final back in June. There has been nothing subtle about their recruitment, looking to shore up the pack with a number of signings including Tanerau Latimer (Blues), Lorenzo Cittadini (Wasps) and Johnnie Beattie (Castres).
Staying up is quite obviously the priority, with Bayonne not expected to devote a lot of time to the Challenge Cup as a result, as a solid squad full of Top 14 experience hope to cause some upsets.
There are certainly easier fixtures to open up the season with than hosting Toulon at the Stade Jean Dauger, but the confidence that would stem from picking up a surprise win could be enormous.
A tough season awaits, with Bayonne scrapping all the way.
Player to Watch: Martín Bustos Moyano
Given every point is vital for Bayonne, the boot of Bustos Moyano has a serious role to play. The former Argentina international fell just short of 200 points last season in the Pro D2, scoring five tries, and offers plenty of threat with the ball in hand from full-back.
Head coach: Raphaël Ibanez
Last season: 7th
So close to making last season’s play-offs only to miss out by four points, more was expected from UBB after the high-profile signings of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Sekope Kepu. Kepu is now gone, his one season in the south west of France unlikely to live long in the memory, but Raphaël Ibanez and his squad are expected to have another solid crack at the top six this time around.
What UBB have done is to streamline their squad, with more departures than arrivals, as familiar names from seasons past such as Heini Adams and Matthew Clarkin have called it a day, with new France lock Julien le Devedec moving elsewhere along with Pierre Bernard (Toulon).
The new recruits however are all very promising indeed, with Ian Madigan tasked with steering the ship at fly-half following his arrival from Leinster, while Luke Jones has been consistently outstanding for the Rebels over the last two seasons in Super Rugby.
Managed by one of the more interesting coaching staffs in the club game currently, with former Italy head coach Jacques Brunel arriving to manage the forwards while Joe Worsley (defence) and Emile Ntamack (backs) play their part, the foundations are certainly there for UBB to mount a play-off challenge.
Player to Watch: Ian Madigan
The former Leinsterman will be hoping his stint in France proves to be more of a success than his former team-mate Johnny Sexton. Seemingly no longer set to be constantly rotated, Madigan in many ways feels like the missing piece from the UBB back-line as he prepares to combine with real talents in Ashley-Cooper and Metuisela Talebula.
Head coach: Nicolas Godignon
Last season: 8th
Four wins in their last six games of the 2015/2016 season propelled Brive up to a surprising eighth-placed finish, although they were still nine points off the top six play-off places.
With little turnover in their squad, and crucially no major losses, the recruitment of new France lock Julien le Devedec looks like an absolute masterstroke, as he takes his place in a pack of forwards who are rarely outmuscled up front. Vasil Lobzhanidze, the youngest player at last year’s Rugby World Cup with Georgia, is another noteworthy addition at scrum-half too.
Key weapons again for Brive this season will be powerful number eight Sisi Koyamaibole (when not suspended) but more importantly so will the boot of Gaetan Germain, the full-back who finished last season as the top points scorer in the Top 14 with an enormous 319, absolutely miles ahead of the rest.
And it feels like Brive are set up that way again, designed to overpower their opponents up front with Germain then knocking over the points to win tight matches. They will certainly need to score more tries if they want to progress, after just 43 in 26 games last season.
Player to Watch: Julien le Devedec
Joining Brive marks a return home for Le Devedec, having spent two years at UBB, the recruitment of the 30-year-old Test lock stands out after his performances in Argentina back in June, and given what an effective operator he was at the line-out last season.
Head coach: Christophe Urios
Last season: 6th (play-off quarter-finalists)
Having had a season following his arrival from Oyonnax to run the rule over his squad, it’s now all change for Urios after guiding the club first narrowly into last season’s play-offs, and then onto to the quarter-finals where they were well defeated by Montpellier.
Big names have left – Richie Gray, Rémi Lamerat, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Piula Fa’asalele – but the list of recruits hasn’t been short either, Urios packing his squad with Top 14 experience and solid talents, headlined arguably by veteran lock Loïc Jacquet from Clermont, who is joined by his front-row colleague Daniel Kotze in making the move south.
Everything about Montpellier’s recruitment feels steady; Jody Jenneker, Robert Ebersohn, Steve Mafi, Horacio Agulla and Pierre Berard all being capable of pulling their weight when the season gets tough, and because of that Castres will be more than able to stick with almost every side in the league on their day.
Urios will be targeting a much faster start than last season’s two wins from the first seven games whilst taking great heart from the way Castres finished the campaign. David Smith (wing) and Alex Tulou (number eight) produced 20 tries between them last season and command respect.
Player to Watch: Steve Mafi
Outstanding during his stint in the Premiership with Leicester Tigers before joining the Force, Mafi never quite hit the heights expected of him in Super Rugby over the last two seasons. The Tonga international however has shown time and again that he can cause problems with his athleticism.
Head coach: Franck Azema
Last season: 1st (play-off semi-finalists)
Always the bridesmaids (well, aside from 2010), Clermont were left facing another long summer of self-doubt following their semi-final exit in the play-offs at the hands of Racing 92, agonisingly in extra-time by a scoreline of 33-34. That kind of heartache is nothing new for Clermont but there are few excuses when you consider the depth and quality of their squad.
That hasn’t changed for the upcoming season, although there is a slight sense of an end of an era with the departures of long-term Clermont favourites Brock James and Jamie Cudmore. Jonathan Davies meanwhile returns to Wales having not quite been a complete success.
Head coach Azema has recruited meticulously rather than en masse, adding bulk in the shape of lock Sitaleki Timani, skill with Rémi Lamerat arriving to replace Davies in midfield, while Wales prop Aaron Jarvis gets a new challenge at the age of 30 after five years in the Premiership with Bath followed by five more in the PRO12 with the Ospreys.
No shortage of talent then, but with Clermont the battle will be about the top two inches. There are no weaknesses in their squad and no lack of top-class internationals either. Early tests against Montpellier and Bordeaux-Bègles will offer a good indication of Clermont’s state of mind, but they are serious title contenders once again. Maybe this time?
Player to Watch: Camille Lopez
Having battled with James for the Clermont number ten shirt over the last few seasons, now is Lopez’s time. The competition isn’t completely gone with Patricio Fernández a capable deputy. But Lopez is now 27, vastly experienced, and expected to give Clermont real authority at fly-half in the big matches this season.
Head coach: Bernard Jackman
Last season: 10th
Grenoble’s disappointing finish to the Top 14 season shows six straight defeats in the final rounds, although those don’t tell the story about the troubles faced by the side with injuries as they battled to try and reach the Challenge Cup final, going out at the semi-final stage to Harlequins.
What’s interesting though about Grenoble’s approach to the new campaign is that they have recruited specifically few players rather than turning over their squad. Fireworks are expected with the arrival of Sisa Waqa, while David Mélé provides a steady hand and also plenty of points off the boot after his arrival from Toulouse as well.
Putting the end of last season behind them as quickly as possible feels the best course of action for Grenoble but they are suffering still on the injury front, without key figures in Hendrik Roodt and Rory Grice when their campaign gets underway against Stade Français.
Last season whether in Europe or in the Top 14 they proved that on their day they are more than competitive, and while relegation would be somewhat of a surprise, they certainly need a good start.
Player to Watch: Gio Aplon
Still as capable as ever of producing something special from full-back. Aplon remains a threat with ball in hand, scoring five tries last season in the league, and along with Waqa can give Grenoble that X-factor required to turn matches in their favour.
Head coach: Patrice Collazo
Last season: 9th
Now resembling a part of the Top 14 furniture, La Rochelle finished strong last season and have recruited in a way that suggests their upwards curve since winning promotion to the top flight in 2014 is set to continue.
Upgrades in the personnel department include the recruitment of the vastly experienced Brock James at fly-half but the blockbuster signing is Victor Vito, with the All Black back-row fresh off winning the Super Rugby title with the Hurricanes.
Both of those aforementioned players will be key cogs for La Rochelle, as they join star names in the side such as France tighthead prop Uini Atonio and Fijian midfield threat Levani Botia too.
It’s the performances recently for France though from Vincent Pelo, the prop, and back-row Kévin Gourdon which hint that La Rochelle are capable of more. Back-to-back ninth-place finishes in a tough league are certainly respectable. It will be interesting to see if they are capable of more than that.
Player to Watch: Kévin Gourdon
Another player capped for the first time by France during the recent June Test series against Argentina. Gourdon made a real impression with his powerful ball-carrying and has a pivotal role to play off the back of the scrum when it comes to La Rochelle’s attacking game this season.
Head coach: Matthieu Lazarges
Last season: Pro D2 – 1st
Lyon, just like fellow promoted side Bayonne, are back in the big time at the first time of asking and in a bid to stay up have recruited with real purpose, with a high number of players arriving both with Top 14 experience of having played at the top level overseas.
Interestingly five of those arrivals are from Toulon, including Frédéric Michalak and Delon Armitage, although even they with all their international experience aren’t as high-profile a signing as Franco Mostert. The Lions lock, and new Springbok, will arrive at the Matmut Stadium in superb form.
It’s worth remembering that Lyon clinched the Pro D2 title at an absolute canter, finishing in first by a margin of 31 points and losing just five of their matches in the 30-game season. That kind of run, along with additions in personnel, will leave them full of confidence.
The fixture list has thrown up a relatively kind start with home matches against Brive and Grenoble in those first three matches, with a trip to champions Racing 92 sandwiched in-between, but, if they can win those first two home games then avoiding relegation will seem like a very real possibility.
Player to Watch: Delon Armitage
He might now be 32 but Armitage remains a real threat from full-back, scoring eight tries last season despite being heavily rotated in the Toulon back-line. His trophy cabinet is well stocked but the chance to prove himself again in France should bring the best out of him once more.
Head coach: Jake White
Last season: 2nd (play-off semi-finalists)
Men on a mission. Mohad Altrad hasn’t been shy in opening the cheque book in seasons past but Montpellier’s recruitment this time around has been on a scale to make even Toulon boss Mourad Boudjellal raise an eyebrow.
Two of Super Rugby’s top wingers have arrived in Nemani Nadolo and Joe Tomane, while Konstantin Mikautadze and Alexandre Dumoulin add impressive depth to the second-row and midfield respectively – not forgetting the now obligatory recruitment of a couple of South Africans, represented this time by Tiaan Liebenberg and Nico Janse van Rensburg.
That said, the list of those leaving Montpellier is an interesting one. The great Nicolas Mas has hung his boots up. Fan favourite François Trinh-Duc’s emotional departure was well-documented. No club has undergone as a radical a culture change over the last few years than Montpellier under White. And there’s no disguising their tactics either; batter teams into submission up front first, and the rest will follow.
Nadolo and Tomane (when the latter returns from injury) will help to add more of a threat out wide, adding to the danger posed by last season’s top try scorer with 16, Timoci Nagusa. What does having all those stars mean? No excuses. Last season’s Challenge Cup success will have barely quenched Montpellier’s appetite for success.
Player to Watch: Jacques du Plessis
So many stars to choose from, including another two Du Plessis in the Montpellier squad, and yet we’ve gone with an uncapped 23-year-old South African? Yes. Du Plessis, whether at six or in the second row, is a hell of an athlete, capable of topping tackle counts and dominating the line-out. He’s due a big season.
Head coach: Simon Mannix
Last season: 11th
In their first season back in the Top 14 last time out Pau comfortably avoided relegation by 20 points, partly down to springing a few surprises and also due to the fact that Agen and Oyonnax truly weren’t good enough.
Staying up however has allowed Pau to strengthen, and seriously too, backed by French petroleum company Total and starting to splash the cash as a result. After bringing in Conrad Smith and Colin Slade last season following the Rugby World Cup, their impressive recruitment has continued with the arrivals of Ben Mowen, Tom Taylor and most of all, Steffon Armitage.
In the build-up to the new campaign head coach Simon Mannix has suggested that after a season acclimatising to the level required to succeed in the Top 14, this time around much more will be expected.
Closing the gap between avoiding relegation and pushing for the play-off spots is some ask, but Pau certainly have the talent. If they get a fast start then they’re an interesting proposition.
Player to Watch: Steffon Armitage
It’s only two years since Armitage was named as the best player in Europe, but the one-time England international noticeably spent more time on the bench for Toulon last season as part of the squad’s rotation when previously he had been indispensable. As he will be now for Pau, ready to make a huge impact at the breakdown.
Head coach: Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers
Last season: 4th (champions)
A supreme performance in the final in Barcelona won Racing 92 their first title since 1990 and in some fashion too, comfortably outplaying Toulon at the Nou Camp to spark emotional scenes at the final whistle. Just 57 days later they’ll be back at it on the opening day of the season when Racing travel to Bordeaux-Bègles.
Head coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers will be all too aware of the decline suffered by 2015 champions Stade Français and have no doubt pushed plenty into warning their squad of the dangers of complacency.
The champions have recruited astutely, Leone Nakarawa and Ali Williams (out of retirement) plugging the holes left by Luke Charteris and Juandré Kruger, while Anthony Tuitavake does the same replacing Alexandre Dumoulin.
Can they repeat? With eight different winners in the last ten years, the odds aren’t exactly in their favour, but any squad boasting Dan Carter, Maxime Machenaud, Bernard le Roux and Johan Goosen will always have a chance.
Player to Watch: Brice Dulin
Few players offer up as much excitement with the ball in hand from full-back as Dulin, with his speed enabling him to make countless clean breaks if given time under the high ball. After just two tries in the league last season, more are expected this time around.
Head coach: Gonzalo Quesada
Last season: 12th
After such a high with their Top 14 final win over Clermont, the 2015/2016 was an absolute disaster for Stade Français, with relegation from the top flight a genuine concern at times during the campaign before the side got their act together down the stretch.
What’s interesting is that rather than viewing their slump as a cause to have a clearout, Stade Français have recruited just one player. That’s right, one – Alipate Ratini from La Rochelle.
Hitting the reset button and wiping the 2015/2016 season from their minds seems like a smart idea, as does a change of approach, with Gonzalo Quesada suggesting that his side were a little too flash last season and failed to put the work in up front.
The big men are there to make an impact, led of course by the excellent Sergio Parisse, and a pack featuring Rabah Slimani, Hugh Pyle, Pascal Papé and Willem Alberts should not be coming off second best on a regular basis.
Player to Watch: Jonathan Danty
Now an international player having made his debut during last year’s Six Nations for France. Danty is a real problem for defences to contain in midfield, his relatively small stature making him difficult to take down in the tackle once his legs get pumping.
Head coach: Diego Dominguez
Last season: 2nd (runners-up)
Trophyless for the first time since 2012, last season’s defeat in the Top 14 Final to Racing 92 brought the immensely successful Bernard Laporte era at Toulon to an underwhelming end. They were well beaten in the final despite having a man advantage for the majority of the match following Maxime Machenaud’s red card.
Laporte has now gone, replaced by Diego Dominguez, although that process hasn’t been without some bumps with speculation only last month that the former Italy fly-half would depart over disagreements regarding the combination of his coaching staff.
All appears to have now settled down ahead of the new season but for once the list of outgoing players is almost more interesting than those who have arrived, with the Armitage brothers and Frédéric Michalak moving on.
Coming in are well-known stars from rival clubs in Vincent Clerc and François Trinh-Duc, along with the energetic Liam Gill in the back-row. Marcel van der Merwe and Laurent Desboubles have a big job to do under new scrum coach Marc del Maso – get Toulon’s scrum up to speed again, after letting them down on more than one occasion last time out. Only silverware will do for the club’s owner, Mourad Boudjellal.
Player to Watch: Ayumu Goromaru
It’s hard to remember a transfer in recent times met with more cynicism that Goromaru’s switch from the Reds in Super Rugby to France’s top division. Having not worked out in Queensland, Goromaru will have to impress when given playing time to convince the several doubters that his acquisition is little more than a marketing move.
Head coach: Ugo Mola
Last season: 5th (play-off quarter-finalists)
Moving on from the lengthy, and extremely successful Guy Novès era, was never going to be an easy ask for Toulouse and it showed in a stuttering campaign for France’s most successful club, with 19 titles to their name but none since 2012.
As a result the club have undergone somewhat of a minor makeover, with a number of Toulouse legends including Louis Picamoles (Northampton), Vincent Clerc (Toulon) and Clément Poitrenaud (retired) all moving on. Imanol Harinorduquy, who signed a couple of years ago, has also hung up his boots.
A collection of solid signings though have arrived, including Richie Gray from Castres and Sofiane Guitoune from UBB, adding to a squad already brimming with internationals. Having a fully fit Yoann Huget back available is also a major boost.
Do they have what it takes to disrupt last season’s semi-finalists Racing, Toulon, Clermont and Montpellier? On paper yes, but a real change in momentum is required after recent disappointments. Mola too will be under pressure if the season doesn’t deliver at least a semi-final place.
Player to Watch: Yoann Maestri
A renowned force in France’s second-row, Toulouse need Maestri to be that kind of enforcer throughout the season, and his potential lock pairing with new signing Gray could be a major success. Now 28, Maestri is a senior player who needs to set the tone.
Photo credit: LNR
Who will win this season’s Top 14? Let us know – firstname.lastname@example.org