Season preview: Top 14

21st Aug 2014, 12:11

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Can anyone stop Toulon?

Can anyone stop Toulon?

With the French season kicking off on Friday, we take a look at the prospects of each of the clubs competing for the Bouclier de Brennus.

With the new French domestic season kicking off on Friday, we take a look at the prospects of each of the 14 clubs competing for the Bouclier de Brennus.

Toulon

Toulon has historically been one of the big guns of French rugby, but the turn of the century saw a downturn in fortunes and they were relegated for financial reasons in 2000. Their first promotion back to the top flight ended in disaster, but since then Mourad Boudjellal has arrived with his comic book riches and an unprecedented collection of stars, and they finally got their hands back on the Bouclier de Brennus after 22 long years in Paris in May. That followed on from back-to-back Heineken Cups for the side led by the now-retired Jonny Wilkinson.

Track record: Toulon have won the Bouclier de Brennus on four occasions, and have been a rising force over the last few years. In 2012 they reached the final only to lose to reigning champions Toulouse, and the following year they were stunned by underdogs Castres. They got their revenge this year though with a hard-fought win in a repeat of that final.

Captain: While Matt Giteau and Frédéric Michalak will be charged with replacing Wilkinson at fly-half, it is former All Black tighthead Carl Hayman who has to step up as Toulon skipper. Known more for his deeds than his words, Hayman took a while to find his best form at Toulon, but was a key part of their dominant pack of forwards last season. And he won't be short of leaders alongside him in a star-studded team.

Coach: For a while it seemed as though Bernard Laporte might be off at the end of last season, with Argentina rumoured to be interested in his services. In the end the former France coach will continue, and you can be sure he will be as vociferous as ever in his criticism of referees, the FFR, disloyal players and anyone else who crosses him. His record speaks for itself though.

Last year's performance: Champions

This year's prospects: Wilkinson may be gone, but Leigh Halfpenny, Mamuka Gorgodze, James O'Connor and Guilhem Guirado should soften the blow somewhat. After what they have achieved over the last two seasons, it's hard to see past Toulon to defend their title. The only worry is that some of the older legs in the pack might start to show their age this season.




Castres

The epitome of the small French town from the South West which lives and breathes rugby, Castres have been something of an anomaly in recent years where clubs from the larger cities have dominated the league. Backed by the family of late pharmaceutical giant and local businessman Pierre Fabre, they have won the Brennus on four occasions, and have been in the top flight for nearly a century.

Track record: The exception that proves the rule, Castres have remained competitive in recent seasons despite a budget significantly inferior to their main Top 14 rivals. They stunned everyone in 2013 by knocking off Heineken Cup finalists Clermont and Toulon in successive weeks to win the Brennus, and were almost as impressive last season in reaching the final again, ending Clermont's 77-match unbeaten home record in the process.

Captain: Rémi Talès has had an unlikely path to the top, having spent most of his career in the second flight with Mont-de-Marsan and La Rochelle before joining Castres in 2011 at the age of 27. He has since established himself as first-choice fly-half and scored two vital drop goals to help Castres to the Top 14 title in 2013. He was also called up to the French squad by Philippe Saint-André and looks to be in pole position to start for France in November.

Coach: Replacing the two Laurents (Labit and Travers) who were off to Racing, was quite a challenge last season, but general manager Matthias Rolland, in his first season since retirement, and coaches David Darricarrère and Serge Milhas, did a fantastic job.

Last year's performance: Runners-up

This year's prospects: Castres seem to relish being the underdogs and defy expectations every season. Keeping hold of Rory Kockott was huge for them, while Sitiveni Sivivatu could prove an inspired signing if he can rediscover his early-season form from last year. It remains to be seen whether the losses of Brice Dulin and Antonie Claassen will prove decisive but expect Castres to be in and around the top six.




Montpellier

The contender with the shortest history, Montpellier only came into existence in 1986 as a merger of two other clubs in the city. Now the premier sports club in arguably France's most sporting city, Montpellier benefit from the support of backer Mohed Altrad, who has been at the head of the club since 2011, and after whom the stadium will be named from this season.

Track record: Unsurprisingly given their brief history, Montpellier are still chasing their first Top 14 title, having come close four years ago when they surprised everyone to reach the final, only to fall to Toulouse. They've become a more consistent force in recent years though, and earned a semi-final spot by right last season, before falling to play-off nemesis Castres after extra-time in a game they will feel they should have won.

Captain: Fulgence Ouedraogo has been at the club since the age of 17, and leads by example when fit. Unfortunately for the French international, that has not always been the case in the last couple of seasons. When he's not available, fly-half François Trinh-Duc has stepped up, and looks more and more comfortable in a leader's role.

Coach: The former France scrum-half and Stade Français coach Fabien Galthié is tipped by many to be Philippe Saint-André's successor, and it's easy to see why with Montpellier's dynamic style. Very animated and occasionally over-excitable on the sidelines, Galthié has an astute rugby brain, along with a pair of very competent coaches in Stéphane Glas and Mario Ledesma.

Last year's performance: Semi-finalists (Lost to Castres)

This year's prospects: Some of the big money signings made last season didn't really pay off, with Sitaleki Timani and Jim Hamilton struggling in particular. This year the recruitment has been a little less eye-catching, although Ben Mowen will be a very different successor to Mamuka Gorgodze in the back row. Expect Rene Ranger to make more of an impact in his second year, while Montpellier look a good bet to be Toulon's closest challengers provided Trinh-Duc stays fit.





Racing-Métro

The first-ever winners of the Bouclier de Brennus, Racing have experienced the highs and lows of French rugby more than most. In their famous light blue and white hoops, they spent long periods out of the top flight, before bursting into the limelight in the late 80s and early 90s thanks to emblematic players such as Jean-Baptiste Lafond and Franck Mesnel. After another lean patch, the investment of Jacky