Top 14 tournament preview

Date published: August 17 2012

The dust has barely settled on the previous Top 14 and we're already gearing up for the 2012/2013 season which kicks off this week.

The dust has barely settled on the previous Top 14 and we're already gearing up for the 2012/2013 campaign which kicks off this weekend.

It's perennial problem in France: how do you fit 29 rounds of rugby (including the knock-out phases) into a calendar that also needs to accommodate European fixtures, the Six Nations as well as June Tests?

The answer is start the season really early, which means that Round One will be played with summer still in full swing.

With scorching temperatures forecast for this weekend in France – the Bayonne v Clermont match has already been rescheduled from the afternoon to evening – one might forget that rugby remains a winter sport.

Playing in warm temperatures might not seem like a train smash to fans across the Channel, but anyone who has experienced a hot, humid day in the South-West will know it's not ideal for rugby. Some might even suggest it's dangerous.

This year, the advent of the Rugby Championship means that a whole host of Argentine internationals will be absent for the first two months of the season.

Montpellier have been particularly hard-struck with no less than six players away on duty for the Pumas, and coach Fabien Galthié is not a happy camper. Last season Montpol had a nightmare start to the campaign due to World Cup absentees and they look set for a repeat.

Of course such a lengthy season means that squad depth is more important than ever in France, where the arms race for big name players continues unabated. At least ten teams have legitimate hopes of making the top six and qualifying for the Heineken Cup.

So without further ado, let's take a look at who has what it takes to go all the way.

The contenders

As champions of the last two seasons and France's most decorated club, Toulouse must once again be considered favourites to defend their title. Despite having the league's biggest budget, Guy Novès seldom splashes out in the transfer market but his recruitments are always from the top drawer. The return of Yoann Huget from Bayonne and the arrival of heavyweight youngsters Antoine Guillamon (Lyon) and Edwin Maka have left the squad as strong as ever. William Servat's conversion from stalwart hooker to forwards coach will be closely watched. The policy of turning former players into coaches has worked well in the past and in young Christopher Tolofua, Toulouse have a quality replacement on the field.

Beaten in the semi-finals of both the Heineken Cup and the Top 14 when they looked unstoppable, Clermont are a safe bet to be in the mix at the business end of the season. Despite their knack for breaking records, les Jaunards have formed a habit of stumbling at the final hurdle. All that matters now in the Auvergne is silverware and Vern Cotter's side certainly have the necessary firepower. Keep an eye on fan favourite Napolioni Nalaga, who returns after a stint with the Western Force in Super Rugby.

Losing finalists in June, Toulon have once again gone on a major shopping spree in their bid to finally bag a trophy. Masoe, Durand, Michalak, Armitage x 3, Mermoz, Sheridan, Jenkins… the big names continue to arrive in the Var. They now have all the players required to compete on both the European and domestic fronts. Another year without silverware will be considered a major failure. “Last year our team lacked power – our squad wasn't deep enough to play in two finals. This year we have 30 top level players,” said manager Bernard Laporte.

The Outsiders

There have been a few major shifts behind the scenes at Racing-Metro where former Argentina international Gonzalo Quesada has taken over from Pierre Berbizier, whose old-school bully approach was no longer appreciated by many players. Sixth place last year was not good enough considering the money spent. The arrival of Dimitri Szarzewski, Mathieu B̩lie, Luc Ducalcon and Sakiusa Matadigo will add some new blood to the squad but the departures of new big names Рnotably Fran̤ois Steyn Рmight leave the Parisians a little short of the requirements for the title.

After making the play-offs for three straight years, the perennial nearly-boys of the Top 14, Castres, will hope to finally have a crack at the final. Relatively quiet on the transfer front, CO have compensated for the departure of Chris Masoe by signing former Springbok loose forward Pedrie Wannenburg. Also keep an eye on former Hurricanes pivot Daniel Kirkpatrick and full-back Brice Dulin, who arrives from Agen after making his Test debut in June.

Play-off hopefuls

Three former champions in a period of rebuilding, Perpignan, Stade Français, Biarritz have announced grand objectives for 2013.

After their worst season in years, 2009 champions Perpignan have made headlines by signing a few big names – especially Tongan try-machine Sona Taumalolo – but they have seen a large chunk of the squad exit for greener pastures.

Stade Français have totally changed their coaching staff as they seek a revival of fortunes after failing to make the play-off for three consecutive years. For once they've looked in-house and former flank Richard Pool-Jones has been charged with the task of bringing silverware back to the capital.

Montpellier have been punching above their weight for a few seasons thanks to a dynamic coaching team. Many feel Fabien Galthié was unlucky not to get the France job and their staff will be even stronger with the addition of Mario Ledesma as forwards mentor.

Destined for the bottom half

Agen and Bordeaux-Begles defied the predictions of many last season and finished relatively comfortably in mid-table. One of the oldest clubs in the country, Agen are taking their time about building for the future but are making constant, steady progress. Scotland tighthead Euan Murray will stabilise the scrum while South African lock Ross Skeate brings plenty of experience.

Former France legend Raphaël Ibanez has taken command at Bordeaux-Begles, who will be aiming to improve their defence but will expect to produce a few more upsets.

A number of big-name signings disappointed last season but Bayonne have grand ambitions and have flung their cheque book around once again. Former Wallaby Mark Chisholm will lead the Basque team this season. Keep an eye on 21-year-old sensation Marvin O'Connor, who has been tipped for big things.

Relegation candidates

As is always the case, the newly-promoted sides will struggle to make the step up from the ProD2. Grenoble however, have promised to play attractive rugby and have legitimate ambitions of avoiding the drop after winning their way back into the top flight for the first time in seven years. After convincingly winning the ProD2, the core of their squad has been maintained although former Toulouse number eight Shaun Sowerby and Perpignan fly-half