With the French season kicking off on Friday, we take a look at the prospects of each club competing for the Bouclier de Brennus.
In our second part we will look at the teams that finished in the top half of the table last season.
Read Part 1 here.
Montpellier, or Little South Africa, as they might as well be known now, are one of the more recent additions to the upper echelons of French rugby. Based in what was for a time regarded as France's most sporting city with strong handball and football teams (less so these days for the latter), Montpellier have undergone a major change in the last 12 months with the departure of head coach Fabien Galthié and the arrival of Jake White and his foreign legion. Overseeing all this has been Mohed Altrad, the Syrian-born president who saved the club from financial ruin in 2011.
Track record: A rising force in French rugby, Montpellier reached the Top 14 final out of nowhere in 2011, losing to Toulouse. Since then they had reached the play-offs in each season, losing to Castres every year including an extra-time heartbreaker in 2014. Last season was less successful, with a disastrous nine-game losing streak seeing them slump and leading to Fabien Galthié's dismissal. Jake White's arrival had little impact on the results and they finished eighth, missing out on both the play-offs and the Champions Cup.
Key players: While correlation does not imply causation, the fact that François Trinh-Duc's broken leg directly preceded that losing streak only goes to show his importance to the team. The French fly-half was in the form of his life prior to that injury, and while he will be away at the World Cup, he surely has a big role to play this season. Joining him in England may be Fulgence Ouedraogo, the club captain who is the natural leader in the pack. His dynamic, linking game was key to Galthié's style, but it remains to be seen how much of an influence he has under White. Of the new players coming, Nic White will surely have a big impact, having worked with coach White before, and the power of Bismarck du Plessis should be invaluable as well.
Coach: Jake White arrived to much fanfare last Christmas, but despite a win over Toulon to start things off, Montpellier actually went from sixth the eighth under his stewardship. White has enjoyed success wherever he has been though, with a very structured game plan, and he's gone about bringing in the players to carry it out this season. Alongside him is Shaun Sowerby, the former Toulouse number eight, as forwards coach, while Scott Wisemantel arrives to be the backs coach.
Offseason changes: It's been a quite remarkable turnover in Montpellier where almost an entirely new team has been brought in. Gone are a host of academy products, as well as key players Alex Tulou, Alexandre Bias and Lucas Dupont. In their place come a wave of South Africans and former Brumbies. Nic White and Demetri Catrakilis offer a new half-back pairing, while Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis arrive to bolster the pack. It's impossible to name all the new signings but Jacques du Plessis, Pierre Spies and Jesse Mogg should all make a big impact while Marvin O'Connor, a rare French arrival, appears to be impressing in pre-season.
Last year's performance: Eighth
This year's prospects: It's fair to say that Mohed Altrad has high expectations, so anything less than the play-offs would be unacceptable, particularly without the distraction of the Champions Cup. The squad is there to do so, and White knows how to get teams playing his style. Still, it's hard to hit the ground running with so much turnover, and if the likes of Trinh-Duc are sidelined under the new regime, things might just get a little edgy in the squad. They will be in the fight for the play-offs but could miss out.
The feel-good story of last season, La Rochelle were written off by everyone but beat the drop relatively comfortably in the end thanks to a stunning second half of the season. Their nine-game unbeaten streak was the best any team managed in the Top 14, as they went undefeated between mid-January and mid-May. One of France's oldest clubs, La Rochelle have never won the title, but were a strong side in the 1960s when they made three Championship quarter-finals.
Track record: Last season marked the return of La Rochelle to the top flight, four years on from their previous stint in the Top 14. On that occasion they went straight back down the following year, but last season they were able to beat the odds and avoid the drop. That means consecutive seasons in the top flight for the first time since 2002 for La Rochelle.
Key players: While there were a number of key departures, two important forwards will remain and have a major role to play. Uini Atonio, the club captain, will likely miss the start of the season as he plays in the World Cup in France, but number eight Kevin Gourdon will be available. Arguably more influential than French international Loann Goujon (who is off to Bordeaux), Gourdon is smaller but more athletic, and a great ball-carrier especially when the game breaks up. Second row Jason Eaton, who will captain the side at the start of the season, is also a key figure in the back. Built like a forward, Levani Botia made a massive impact last season both figuratively, and literally to any player who tried to tackle him. His discipline is an issue, but La Rochelle will be keen to get him back from the World Cup as soon as possible.
Coach: Former Toulouse and Gloucester prop Patrice Collazo has been in charge since 2011, and was joined by backs coach Xavier Garbajosa, the former France international, last season. While Collazo's background is in the front row, his team have shown their ability to play an all-court game and not simply rely on their forwards.
Offseason changes: There were a couple of key departures over the off-season including French international Loann Goujon in the back row to Bordeaux, and fly-half Peter Grant who returned to the southern hemisphere. The ageless Sireli Bobo also left to join Toulon, but coming in are a couple of experienced forwards in David Roumieu and Damien Lagrange. Ricky Januarie and Zack Holmes provide options in the half-backs although they won't be guaranteed starters, while Benjamin Lapeyre looks to be a good pick-up from Racing.
Last year's performance: Ninth
This year's prospects: Survival will be the order of the day once more for La Rochelle, and continuity in the squad will help. While Peter Grant's departure will hurt the team, they look to have solidified their pack and after finishing last season strongly, we think they'll beat the drop again this season.
A unique club in European rugby, Brive are the only side to have won the European Cup without winning their domestic title. The way things are going, it's hard to see that changing any time soon, with the club from Corrèze firmly established as relegation battlers. It's surprising that Brive have never won a French title, given their place in the top flight of French rugby, virtually uninterrupted since 1930. Four times they've reached the final, losing on each occasion, with a one-point loss in 1975 to the great Béziers side, the closest they came.
Track record: Promoted back to the top flight two years ago after a season back in the Pro D2, Brive have surprised people thanks to a strong home record, which has allowed them to twice beat the drop. While the 2013/14 season was relatively comfortable, Brive cut it a lot finer on the final day of last season, with a bonus-point win over Stade Français seeing them sneak ahead of Bayonne by a single point.
Key players: Skipper Arnaud Méla is the heartbeat of the side, an old-fashioned French second row who never takes a backward step, typifying the attitude of the pack. Sisa Koyamaibole is a very different sort of player, but his sheer size makes him a monster with ball in hand, and he will be looking to recover his 2014 form after a slightly less impressive season last year. At fly-half Nicolas Bézy established himself as first choice last season, and despite his diminutive stature, he really impressed with his vision and playmaking ability. The biggest difference maker last season though, was Benito Masilevu, a Fijian winger who arrived from Sevens and hit the headlines with a sensational step and score that left Gaël Fickou for dead. He went onto be the team's top scorer and will be available from the start of the season after missing out on Fiji's World Cup squad. Finally full-back Gaëtan Germain is arguably the best goal-kicker in the Top 14.
Coach: Nicolas Godignon got his chance when Brive were relegated in 2012 and has done a fine job with the team ever since. He works alongside forwards coach Didier Casadei and former France international Philippe Carbonneau, who looks after the backs.
Offseason changes: There were a fair few departures over the off-season, but few key players left, with arguably the most notable being Riaan Swanepoel and Andrew Malilei in the backline. The main signings were up front, with Saimone Taumoepeau and Giorgi Jgenti coming in, while Teddy Iribaren could be a very useful addition at scrum-half, as will Bayonne's Matthieu Ugalde.
Last year's performance: Tenth
This year's prospects: Brive may well have improved a little over the off-season, but there are a number of important players who are starting to get on in age. With Germain, Brive have a strong goal-kicker, but there is a danger they might start to struggle a little up front, and if that's the case, it wouldn't be a shock if they didn't survive.
Located just next to the Alps, Grenoble have become a fixture in the Top 14 since their return to the top flight in 2012. Their lone title came all the way back in 1954, although almost as famous was their defeat in the 1993 final to Castres, when Gary Whetton's controversial try cost them the title.
Track record: Grenoble's seasons have followed a remarkably similar pattern since their return to the Top 14, flying out of the blocks before collapsing down the stretch. In each of the last three seasons they've looked a good bet to make the play-offs, with last season their best yet. However on each occasion they've gone on a losing streak at just the wrong time, and in the end it was only a losing bonus point at relegated Lyon in the final day which saved them.
Key players: Rory Grice made a huge difference in his first season in France, coming from New Zealand. The powerful number eight formed an athletic back row alongside Fabien Alexandre and Henry Vanderglas, an area of real strength for the team. In the backs Jonathan Wisniewski rediscovered his best form at fly-half after stagnating behind Johnny Sexton at Racing, his partnership with Charl McLeod will again be key.
Coach: Fabrice Landreau is the man in charge at Grenoble, although he will have a new title from this season as the general and sporting director. That could mean slightly less time spent coaching the side, with another former hooker, Bernard Jackman, offering support in his fifth season with the club.
Offseason changes: A few notable departures, with the most high profile being that of Alipate Ratini, the club's top scorer who was let go for disciplinary breaches. It's a big blow even if a torn Achilles means he would have missed the start of the season anyway. Julien Caminati has also gone, while potential star second row Paul Willemse departs after a single season. To replace them, James Percival will have a big job in the second row, while Lucas Dupont returns to his first club having impressed last season for Montpellier.
Last year's performance: Eleventh
This year's prospects: With the fewest players away at the World Cup, Grenoble would be well-advised to make hay in the early season as they always do. If their stamina improves they could finally get to the play-offs, but more likely is they finish just outside, while avoiding a relegation battle.
The 2013 champions and 2014 finalists looked dead and buried at times last season, and it seemed that they would join the likes of Biarritz and Perpignan in Pro D2. Instead they were able to turn things round in spectacular fashion, and despite the loss of a couple of players, they look well-placed to make major strides back up the table this year under new coach Christophe Urios.
Track record: One of the most consistent teams in the league until last year, Castres had been play-off regulars, winning the title in 2013 before losing a rematch against Toulon the following year. Last season was catastrophic however, as they crawled out of the blocks losing four of their first five games and looked to be dead and buried in March. The turnaround came with a win over Lyon after trailing 14-0 and down to 14 men after an early red card. From there they never looked back and even sealed their survival with a round to spare.
Key players: Veteran lock Rodrigo Capo Ortega will lead the side this year, and is available at the start of the season after pulling out of the World Cup to stay with his pregnant wife. Just as crucial could be Ibrahim Diarra, the exceptionally hard-working flanker, although he will get more of a rest this season with some real depth in the back row. In the backs Rory Kockott remains key at scrum-half, while new signing Benjamin Urdapilleta will add a lot. Not to mention Sitiveni Sivivatu, who struggled with injury last year.
Coach: Arriving from Oyonnax, Christophe Urios comes with a burgeoning reputation, having done a sensational job on a limited budget. While every team is different, he already looks to have made some smart acquisitions ahead of the new season. He has brought assistants Joe el Abd and Frédéric Charrier along with him.
Offseason changes: Beyond the coaching changes, there has been considerable turnover, but the squad looks stronger than a year ago. The departures of Ramiro Herrera and Rémi Talès will hurt, but the blow has been softened with some key pick-ups from Oyonnax. Loosehead Antoine Tichit was outstanding last season, while Benjamin Urdapilleta was arguably the most influential player on any team. Elsewhere Alex Tulou and Alexandre Bias provide bags of experience, and Toulon duo David Smith and Rudi Wulf will boost the wing stocks.
Last year's performance: Twelfth
This year's prospects: A vast improvement seems very likely under Christophe Urios, and the fact that so many players coming in already know the Top 14 should make their adaptation quicker. The strength at the top of the table means a play-off spot won't be easy, but Castres should be right in that battle.
The Pro D2 champions are back in the top flight for the first time since 2006 bringing some familiar faces with them. The club that produced the likes of Imanol Harinordoquy, Philippe Bernat-Salles and Damien Traille returns, with the financial backing of oil giants Total that should ensure they are here to stay.
Track record: Three-time French champions, Pau were still a major player in the late 90s and at the turn of the Millennium, even reaching a Heineken Cup semi-final in 1998. After dropping into the second flight in 2006, they have regularly challenged for promotion, losing the play-off final in successive years in 2012 and 2013. They finally got over the hump last season as they romped to the title.
Key players: Damien Traille returned to his first club last season and was an influential figure in midfield, while James Coughlan impressed at number eight after joining from Munster. Their new arrivals should also play a big part, with Conrad Smith and Colin Slade both joining after the World Cup.
Coach: Kiwi Simon Mannix runs the show for Pau, having previously worked as an assistant at both Racing and Munster. His first season was a great success, and he will be hoping for more of the same, with assistants Joel Rey and former France fly-half David Aucagne.
Offseason changes: It was a hugely positive off-season for Pau, who held onto the majority of the side that got them promoted. The players coming in provide some real star power, most notably with Colin Slade and Conrad Smith. Experienced campaigners Julien Pierre and Santiago Fernandez will also come in very useful, while Euan Murray will have the job of shoring up the scrum. Mannix also used his Munster links to bring in back row duo Sean Dougall and Paddy Butler.
Last year's performance: Pro D2 champions
This year's prospects: The big name signings only serve to underline the club's ambitions. They look to have the depth to survive on their first season back in the Top 14, but similar statements applied to Lyon last year. Still, we feel they will have enough to avoid the drop, and will build from there.
Historically one of the great clubs of French rugby, Agen's recent history has been a tale of yo-yoing between the top two flights. Their golden era came in the 1960s, with three French titles, but up until the mid-2000s they were one of the biggest clubs in France. The advent of sugar daddies and rich investors hit the club hard, and since then they have merely tried to survive in the top flight.
Track record: A first relegation in 2007 saw Agen drop down into Pro D2 for three seasons, before they returned for as many years back in the top flight. They were relegated once more in 2013, but two years later make their return to the top flight after seeing off Perpignan and then Mont-de-Marsan in the play-offs.
Key players: Out of the first four weeks of the season, hooker Jalil Narjissi is a key part of the Agen pack. Back row Marc Giraud also has a big role to play but it could be in the backs where Agen are most dangerous, with the flying Taylor Paris and veteran centre Lionel Mazars.
Coach: Philippe Sella is the man in charge, with the legendary French centre supported by his assistants Mathieu Blin, Stéphane Prosper and former France prop Jean-Jacques Crenca.
Offseason changes: There were a number of departures over the off-season, including fly-half Raphaël Lagarde and centre Benjamin Petre, while Junior Pelesasa retired. While the recruitment wasn't extensive, Johann Sadie could make an impact in midfield, and Benoît Sicart showed potential at Montpellier.
Last year's performance: Pro D2 play-off winners
This year's prospects: It's good to see a famous old name like Agen back in the top flight, but their squad looks ill-equipped to cope with the Top 14. Of course three of the last four play-off winners have beaten the drop, but we don't think Agen will manage it.