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 first part we will look at the teams that finished in the top half of the table last year, starting with the champions from the capital, Stade Français.
Last year's surprise champions, Stade came back with a bang as they reached the play-offs for the first time in six years, before knocking off Racing-Métro, Toulon and Clermont in consecutive weeks. The Parisians did it thanks to a dominant scrum, an all-action back row, and some smart control from Morné Steyn at fly-half. Just as important in recent years has been their ability to bring through young players, and after a lean few seasons, the trust they've shown in their academy is bearing fruit with a talented home-grown generation now comfortable at this level.
Track record: Only Toulouse have won more than Stade's 14 titles, with two very distinct eras for the Parisians. They were a major force at the end of the 19th century, winning eight of the first 20 championships, before a revival in the late 90s and start of the new millennium when they added a further five titles. After a six-year wait just to reach the play-offs, they added title number 14 last season.
Key players: Many players shone last season, but few had a bigger impact than the front row. Heinke van der Merwe was arguably the best scrummaging loosehead in the Top 14, while Rabah Slimani matched him on the other side. In between them, Rémi Bonfils is a criminally underrated hooker who is an absolute menace at the breakdown. Elsewhere Sergio Parisse needs little introduction, while it seems only a matter of time before Antoine Burban is a France regular. In the backs Jules Plisson missed the end of the season through injury, but has matured into a fine fly-half, while Jonathan Danty and Waisea combine for a devastating midfield partnership.
Coach: Gonzalo Quesada, the former Argentina fly-half, first started coaching France's kickers under Marc Lièvremont. His influence is believed to have stretched further than the kicking game, and he then moved to Racing where he twice reached the play-offs. A switch the city rivals Stade has only seen his reputation grow, leading them to the title in his second season. He lost backs coach Jean-François Dubois to France over the off-season, so will take on the backs coach duty himself this year.
Offseason changes: The core of the team remains the same, with only the retirements of veteran duo Pierre Rabadan and Jérôme Fillol, as well as the departure of Digby Ioane, really affecting the side. Coming in are big name duo Willem Alberts and Will Genia (if he doesn't pull out), but just as intriguing could be the signing of France U20s star Sekou Macalou.
Last year's performance: Champions
This year's prospects: The fact that Stade didn't play in the Champions Cup was an advantage last season, and the year before the loss of a number of players to international duty clearly hurt them. At their best they can beat just about anyone, as they showed last season but if fatigue starts to kick in, we wouldn't be surprised to see them in the top four but missing out on the title.
Another season, two more lost finals. Clermont fans don't know whether to laugh or cry at a team that has been arguably the most consistently excellent side in France, and possibly Europe over the last decade. For that they have one Top 14 title (the only one in their history) and a Challenge Cup. It seems scant reward. Last season, at least, they were probably beaten by better teams on the day, which hasn't always been the case. Les Jaunards remain one of the powerhouses of French rugby though, and they are right when they say it's better to reach the final and lose, than not get there at all (even if another win would go down well).
Track record: As mentioned above, Clermont are the perennial finalists in France, with a staggering record of one French title and 11 losing finals. They've lost four finals in the last eight seasons, to add to two lost European finals to Toulon. They did pick up their Bouclier de Brennus in 2010, when they beat Perpignan in the final to avenge a loss to the same team a year earlier.
Key players: A notable absentee at the end of last season because of concussion problems, Jamie Cudmore is the heartbeat of the Clermont pack. The veteran Canadian will miss the opening weeks of the season because of the World Cup, but offers a hard edge that is sometimes lacking. Other than Cudmore, Fritz Lee is a key part of the pack, and easily their best ball carrier. Up-and-coming Fijian Peceli Yato might join him in that role this season after starring in limited game time last year. In the backs Morgan Parra is the natural leader of the team, although he endured a difficult season last year. There is plenty of firepower out wide with Nick Abendanon, Noa Nakaitaci and Wesley Fofana, but the fly-half battle will be key, with Camille Lopez and Brock James both supremely talented but lacking consistency on occasion.
Coach: Former backs coach Franck Azéma took over from Vern Cotter at the end of last season and the team didn't really skip a beat. Jono Gibbes came in to look after the forwards, and the same duo will continue this season. Azéma is not the most outspoken of French coaches, and has gone somewhat under the radar, but his work with Perpignan and then Clermont speaks for itself.
Offseason changes: An aging team was freshened up with a few departures including former France international Julien Bonnaire. Club stalwarts Julien Pierre, Julien Malzieu and Napolioni Nalaga also departed but Clermont have recruited strongly. In the pack Flip van der Merwe will be a major boost in the second row, while Camille Gérondeau is an intriguing talent from Racing. There is more turnover in the backs, with Hosea Gear, David Strettle and Adrien Planté filling the void on the wing, while Scott Spedding provides a lot of depth at full-back.
Last year's performance: Runners-up
This year's prospects: While there have been changes, Clermont should again be right up with the very best. They have a few problems during the World Cup, particularly at scrum-half and hooker, but they will be there or thereabouts for an automatic semi-final this season, and going against the grain, we think this will be the year where they get the job done and reclaim the Brennus.
It says something about how dominant Toulon have been over the last few years that last season's Champions Cup victory and Top 14 semi-final almost seemed like a disappointment. Since Mourad Boudjellal took over as president, the team has been transformed, with waves of big names and unprecedented success, including their historic three straight European Cups. The big spenders will start this season deprived of up to 19 players because of the World Cup, but there are plenty of players in reserve to make up for it.
Track record: The dominant team in France over the last three years, having won three straight European titles, as well as the Bouclier de Brennus in 2014. Last year they looked well-placed to repeat their double, beating Clermont in Champions Cup final before finishing top of the table in the regular season. However they then went down convincingly to Stade Français in the Top 14 semi-final, overpowered up front and starting to show their age.
Key players: Over the last two seasons, Steffon Armitage and Matt Giteau have been the key men up front and in the backline, and they will be expected to perform again this year, after the World Cup in the case of the recalled Wallaby. The star-studded pack also features the ever-improving Guilhem Guirado, a revelation since arriving from Perpignan, while this season's new faces will all have a role to play. In the backs Maxime Mermoz provides the creative spark to lessen the load on Giteau, while Bryan Habana seems to be able to step it up for the biggest games. Also expect a big year from Josua Tuisova, who at times looked unstoppable last season in his first year at the top level.
Coach: Bernard Laporte is running things at the start of the season, but his successor Diego Dominguez will be working alongside him before taking over full-time in January. The Italian legend has virtually no coaching experience, but Boudjellal does not seem too concerned, and has been impressed from what he's seen.
Offseason changes: Beyond the coaching changes, which also saw backs coach Pierre Mignoni depart to be replaced by Steve Meehan, it's in the playing squad that there has been major turnover. The retirements of Carl Hayman, Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha, combined with the departure of Chris Masoe, removes a wealth of experience up front. Luckily, coming in are Paul O'Connell, Duane Vermeulen and Samu Manoa among others. In the backline, there are question marks at ten, where Quade Cooper's arrival still seems in doubt, but Ma'a Nonu will definitely be joining.
Last year's performance: Losing semi-finalists
This year's prospects: In terms of raw talent, Toulon are almost in a league of their own, but early-season struggles wouldn't be a surprise given the huge turnover. There are also issues at tighthead, where they are short of world class options, while the fly-half spot remains up in the air depending on Cooper's arrival and the availability of Giteau and Frédéric Michalak at the start of the season. Still, they should still reach the play-offs and maybe return to the final this year.
France's most successful club will have something of a different look to them season after the departure of Guy Novès to take over as France coach. In more than two decades at the club, he led the team to nine Top 14 titles and four European Cups, so Ugo Mola has a big job to replace him. Recent seasons have seen Toulouse's position at the top of the French game challenged somewhat, and they aren't as active on the transfer market. They still have an outstanding squad however, and even in an up and down season last year, they won as many games as anyone in the league.
Track record: A record 19 Top 14 titles, to go with four European Cups, and in the last 20 years alone they've won the Bouclier de Brennus seven times. Their last title came in 2012, beating Toulon in the Top 14 final, and last season they were knocked out at the semi-final stage by Clermont after letting a lead slip late on.
Key players: Julien Marchand and Christopher Tolofua are two of France's brightest prospects at hooker, but as it stands, Corey Flynn is irreplaceable in the position. The former Crusader was virtually an ever-present last season, and offers huge experience and solidity in the set-piece. Elsewhere in the pack, skipper Patricio Albacete will have an important role during the World Cup, while a number of players are away, and the veteran Puma showed he still has what it takes in the big games last year. In the backs, Sébastien Bézy was one of the breakthrough players last season, and if he can back it up, the scrum-half might be reunited with Novès sooner rather than later. His combination with Toby Flood blossomed in the second half of the season, and if they can do the same again, Luke McAlister will be forced to up his game, either at fly-half or inside centre.
Coach: Ugo Mola is given the unenviable job of trying to replace Novès, although Toulouse sensibly realised that one man couldn't do that job alone. As a result, Fabien Pelous arrives as sporting director, and will oversee matters, with under-fire duo William Servat and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde continuing in the coaching staff.
Offseason changes: We've already mentioned the loss of Novès, but others to depart included Yannick Nyanga, Jano Vermaak and Schalk Ferreira. The arrival of Mola could well see a few more youngsters get their shot, with Yacouba Camara, Arthur Bonneval and Cyril Baille all primed for breakout seasons.
Last year's performance: Losing semi-finalists
This year's prospects: Toulouse never missed the play-offs under Novès, so the pressure is on Mola. While Toulouse will suffer during the World Cup, they have a lot of talent in the squad, and provided they can cope without Novès, which is no guarantee, they'll reach the play-offs, and likely a semi-final.
There has been a change of name for Racing over the off-season, going from Racing-Métro to Racing 92 after their partnership with merger club US Métro came to an end. The 92 refers to the department in which they are located, in the suburbs in Paris, and is a reminder that unlike Stade, Racing aren't really a Parisian club. President Jacky Lorenzetti has again shown he means business with a big recruitment drive while the Arena 92, the new start-of-the-art stadium, is due to be ready at the end of 2016.
Track record: The Racing Club de France, as they were originally, was one of the great clubs of the early French championship, winning three titles at the turn of the 20th century. After a revival in the 1980s, Racing returned to the top flight again in 2009, and have reached the play-offs in every season since. They reached the semi-final stage in 2014, but fell a stage earlier last season when they were comfortably beaten by rivals Stade, losing all three games to the Parisians, a first in the history of the derby.
Key players: One man who knows both of the capital's clubs intimately is Dimitri Szarzewski, the former Stade hooker who is now captain at Racing. A dynamic player around the field, he is also a natural leader in a powerful pack. Also key in the pack are back row duo Bernard le Roux and Wenceslas Lauret, who are a constant menace at the breakdown and dovetail well in the battle on the deck. Last year also saw the emergence of Maxime Machenaud as arguably Racing's most important player. The scrum-half was overlooked for the French squad for the World Cup, but established himself as one of the most imposing scrum-halves in the league, controlling his pack while constantly threatening the opposition.
Coach: Renowned duo Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers have enjoyed success almost everywhere they have been, from consistently over-achieving with lowly Montauban, to their surprise title while at Castres. Their style is generally quite conservative, based on dominance up front, but as was seen against Northampton last season, when it works, it can be deadly. Labit is the more outspoken of the two, but has vowed to be more restrained this year after a series of outbursts have led to a number of touchline bans.
Offseason changes: There has been a huge turnaround on the playing front, with the likes of Johnny Sexton and Jamie Roberts heading out the door, followed by valuable squad members such as Camille Gérondeau and Adrien Planté. In their place, Racing have been astute, picking up a number of players with Top 14 experience, in Yannick Nyanga, Rémi Talès and Chris Masoe. In addition to that quality trio comes the biggest name of the lot in Dan Carter. His last spell in France was cut short by injury at Perpignan. Lorenzetti will be hoping for a better return this time around, even if the Catalans won the title without Carter in the one season he was there.
Last year's performance: Lost in the barrage
This year's prospects: They have a formidable squad, and the depth to cope during the World Cup, so it's hard to see Racing missing out on the top six. Despite a few additions in the pack, the questions still remain over whether they can beat the very best teams if they aren't dominant up front. We're not convinced they can.
The Top 14's smallest club who surprised everyone by reaching the play-offs for the first time in their history last year. The epitome of the small town club, Oyonnax lives and breathes through its team, with a team spirit that seems to be unrivalled in France. After their most successful season, they were decimated over the off-season with the loss of a number of key players, and most notably coach Christophe Urios to Castres. They have also taken the step of becoming the first team in France to play on an artificial pitch, a significant change for a team that would often grind teams down in the mud at the Stade Charles Mathon.
Track record: Promoted to the Top 14 two years ago, Oyonnax confounded expectations by beating the drop in their first season. Last year was even more of a shock as they sneaked into the play-offs before coming desperately close to upsetting Toulouse away in the barrage. While their home record was the foundation for their success, they also picked up notable wins on the road at both clubs from the capital and Clermont.
Key players: Oyonnax's pack was a major asset last season, and tighthead Marc Clerc will be charged with maintaining that despite the loss of loosehead Antoine Tichit. The back row was also a major strength, with hard-carrying duo Viliami Ma'afu and Maurie Fa'asavalu. In the backs, the offseason changes mean that new pairing Piri Weepu and Nicky Robinson have big shoes to fill, while Silvère Tian is the heartbeat of the side on the wing.
Coach: The man replacing Urios is former Gloucester hooker and Toulon forwards coach Olivier Azam, who arrives from Lyon. He will be joined by former Montpellier backs coach Stéphane Glas, who spent a successful few seasons in the south of France before the arrival of Jake White.
Offseason changes: A dramatic overhaul saw the departures of Antoine Tichit, Thibault Lassalle, Damien Lagrange and Benjamin Urdapilleta, four first-team regulars, and the core of the team. Replacing them won't be easy, but Azam has brought in some intriguing players, including Harlequins stalwart George Robson, and the aforementioned half-back duo of Weepu and Robinson. Whether the former All Black will prove to be an inspired signing or a flop remains to be seen. Judging from last season, the latter seems more likely at this point.
Last year's performance: Lost in the barrage
This year's prospects: It's hard to understate quite how big a loss Christophe Urios is, and with the spine of the team also ripped out, it's hard to imagine Oyonnax coming close to last year's performances. They will play with a lot of spirit, but there is a danger this could unravel if they start slowly. We'll back them just to beat the drop however.
Now officially Europe's best-supported club, Bordeaux's transformation under president Laurent Marti has been one of the great stories in recent seasons in France. Last year they officially said goodbye to the Stade André Moga, and will play the majority of their games in the former football stadium, the Stade Chaban Delmas, with the odd major fixture in the new stadium which hosted last year's Top 14 semi-finals. The club's progression gathers pace and thanks to a late drop goal from Pierre Bernard against Gloucester they will play in Europe's top competition for the first time this season.
Track record: After winning promotion through the play-offs from Pro D2, Bordeaux have established themselves as one of the most entertaining teams in the league. Last year they came desperately close to a first play-off appearance since their return to the top flight in 2011, missing out when Lionel Beauxis missed a straightforward penalty in the final minute of the regular season. They did however finish with the second-best attack in the league, and stuck 50 points on a number of teams at home, most notably eventual finalists Clermont.
Key players: The Bordeaux pack is full of top quality players plucked from obscurity, with South African lock Jandre Marais a huge presence in the second row. Occasional skipper Louis-Benoit Madaule is an all-action flanker who drives the team on, while hooker Ole Avei will be sorely missed during the World Cup. It is in the backs where Bordeaux really stand out though, with scrum-half Yann Lesgourgues an exceptional sniping threat, and a trio at the back of sensational counter-attackers in Metuisela Talebula, Blair Connor and the oft-injured Darly Domvo. Add in new recruit Adam Ashley-Cooper and it's a formidable backline.
Coach: It looked for a long time as though Bordeaux would need to replace Raphaël Ibanez, but he was overlooked for the France job in the end. That is good news for UBB, but the loss of backs coach Vincent Etcheto will be keenly felt. The man behind their attacking game joined Bayonne over the off-season after leaving in somewhat acrimonious circumstances. In his place comes former France winger and backs coach Emile Ntamack.
Offseason changes: Bordeaux didn't lose many major players, although Bertrand Guiry's departure after one underwhelming season is disappointing. Recruitment-wise, they look to have done a fantastic job, with headline acts Wallaby duo Adam Ashley-Cooper and Sekope Kepu. They are joined by France back rower Loann Goujon, who should provide some of the carrying that is occasionally lacking in the team, while Luke Braid looks an excellent pick-up. Finally Jean-Marcellin Buttin arrives from Clermont, and could be the latest talented player to revitalise his career in Bordeaux.
Last year's performance: Seventh
This year's prospects: The team looks to have improved dramatically with some very shrewed acquisitions, making them prime to move up the table. The loss of Vincent Etcheto hurts, and we'll have to see how they cope without him, but there is the potential for a very good team this year. We expect them to make the play-offs for the first time since their return to the top flight.