With the Top 14 done and dusted we take a look at who upset the odds and who failed to reach their targets in France.
François Valentin reviews the highs and lows of the season, club-by-club.
Parce que Toulon! The "mercenary's club" club started well, and ended even better...almost. Bernard Laporte's team, lead by excellent recruits such as Andrew Sheridan, Delon Armitage, Danie Roussow or Fred Michalak, grabbed the leader's seat during the fourth round, only losing it two rounds before the end of season. Some scores sounded like a revival of the famous New Zealand-Japan match: 59-0 against Bayonne and 51-6 against Montpellier! And the initial criticism of Toulon's defensive style rapidly faded as RCT ended as the second-best try-scoring team. In fact ,the only team that Toulon failed to beat in a Top 14 match is Clermont! A stunner. A glorious season rewarded by a Heineken Cup. Les Toulonnais unfortunately tripped on the last step of the staircase to the "double" against a brave Castres side. Toulon want more and you can be sure that next year you will once again hear the Pilou-Pilou roaring in European stadiums. And this time with Bryan Habana...
Who would have thought it? Castres, Top 14 champions! After years struggling in the play-offs, les Tarnais finally lifted the Bouclier. Did Castres deserve it? Well, it's debatable. 17 points behind Clermont, seventh-best try-scoring team, no players in the top five scorers, Castres did not have phenomenal stats. But CO thoroughly deserve recognition. With the ninth budget of the Top 14, internal problems (Rory Kockott's December crisis, Laurent Travers and Labit leaving the club) and with the departure of big players (Chris Masoe, Luc Ducalcon), Castres did an incredible job. The young Brice Dulin, the humongous Joe Tekori, the brave Antonie Claassen, and the cunning Kockott lead the team to the final after another solid and constant year. Now the question is will Castres confirm their new title or will the departures of Tekori, Andreu, Labit and Travers, be a too heavy sacrifice?
It's a shame that there are so few possible cups to win in rugby because Montpellier deserve one. They've finally managed to cross the line separating good clubs from feared teams. An excellent regular phase on the national and European scene, even though les Héraultais had to manage the situation without their Argentine players away on international duty. Once again the club based itself on its academy, its offensive style, and its grinta rather than on big names. Unfortunately the club did not consolidate its new status of leadership of the region and lost heroically in the European quarter-final against Clermont after a magical first 30 minutes. The only big disappointment for this team is the heavy defeat (25-12) against Castres in the Top 14 play-offs. If Montpellier manage to confirm their ambitions another defeat of this sort would be a massive blow. And players like Rene Ranger, if he comes, and French top guns like Nicolas Mas or Anthony Floch, are hungry for titles.
Could have been better:
How can a team top the regular season for ten months and lose everything in two matches? Ask Clermont. After a difficult early season with some matches won in the last minutes and the start of the European cup, Clermont became a superpower. Brilliant in its European performances, l'ASM earned 28 points out of the 30 possible points in their European pool, considered as the deadliest group of all. An outstanding performance characterised by the now famous 21-28 victory in Dublin against Leinster. Well helped by its recruits (Damien Chouly, Benson Stanley, Napolioni Nalaga), and by its home invincibility (60 consecutive victories), Clermont even confiscated the first position from Toulon. Best attack, best defense, best scorers, what else? The dream was broken suddenly with Armitage's controversial try. The blow was so terrible that Clermont lost the two tournaments and even Vern Cotter for a few hours. Luckily for les Jaunards, the Kiwi guru will still be here next year and will try to win a last title in his final year in the Auvergne .
"Racing-Metro has a heart" sing the supporters of the Parisian team. Examples? Gonzalo Quesada tried to blur the DNA of the club with an offensive style that was completely new to the players. At Christmas they were stuck at the eleventh position, after a humiliating defeat against the visiting Mont-De-Marsan. Quesada and his players decided to go back to the fundamentals of rugby. Then started this amazing come back; step-by-step the climbed up the standings and ended 5th, thanks to an outstanding streak of nine consecutive victories. Unfortunately a heart needs to breathe. Out of breath, Racing were punished by Toulouse 33-19 in the quarter-finals. But it remains not too bad for a transition year with a transition coach. Next year Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers will have a big job. If this year the recruitment (Dimitri Swarzeski, Luc Ducalcon, Maxime Machenaud) wasn't enough to even reach the semi-finals, next year Racing has announced clearly its ambitions with the signings of some of the big names (Jamie Roberts, Jonny Sexton, Dab Lydiate, Andrien Planté, etc, etc). Let's hope Racing will keep its heart.
Comparing Perpignan's performance this year with the performance of their 2009 title is painful for the players. This year the only "titles" are a lost Amlin cup semi-final and three victories against Toulouse. Disappointing for a team of this standing. But compared to last year's stressful eleventh position, seventh place and the qualification for the Heineken Cup represent excellent news. And the 2012-2013 had not started well. Four victories in ten rounds aren't enough. But ex-Bordeaux coach, Marc Delpoux, needed time to modify Perpignan's defensive rugby into ambitious and offensive rugby. This evolution also mirrored a change in the team's squad with the retirements of emblematic players such as like Maruis Tincu, the departures (Jerome Porical), and the recruits (Alasdair Strokosch, Luke Narraway, Luke Charteris, Sona Taumalolo). But in the end Perpignan got what they wanted: an attractive style, and the Heineken Cup. Now the question is if Perpignan can cope with its rivals without the departing Nicolas Mas, David Mélé, Robins Tchale-Watchou, Adrien Planté, Farid Sid...
They need to confirm their progress next season:
It is often believed that the second year in the elite is always harder. Bordeaux discovered it ruthlessly: 8th last year, 12th this year. Bordeaux started a snail race for survival with Agen very quickly; both were glued at the 12th and 13th position. Bordeaux had won only three matches by the end of the 16th round. Bordeaux needed a miracle to survive, and the miracle was named Camille Lopez. He was the greatest contributor to the unbelievable 41-0 victory against Toulon. Decisive during the rest of the season, Lopez impressed Saint-André, but also his ex-coach Marc Delpoux who bought him to Perpignan. The remaining matches demonstrated that the victory against Toulon was not an fixed match: 26-26 at Castres, 48-17 against Agen. And although Bordeaux ended 12th, UBB had the 8th-best attack and defense of the Top 14. If les Bordelais continue on their end-of-season rhythm they may surprise a few pundits. The recruitment looks intelligent (Poux, Fakaté, Sa, Lacroix) and their rugby offered is very attractive. Let's hope Lopez's loss won't be too penalizing.
Grenoble's season was a constant surprise. D2 champions, Grenoble intelligently chose their recruits (Hegarty, Sowerby, Venderglas, Bancroft.) Fabrice Landreau, the coach, managed to transform the Stade Lesdiguières into a real Alpine fortress. Initially everything worked: Grenoble were victorious against opponents for relegation, at home, and against big names (Toulouse, Racing-Metro). In fact Grenoble ended confiscating the 6th position for 10 rounds. Relegation seemed very far away for les Isérois. But the buzz dimmed after their first home defeat 10-17 against Clermont. From then Grenoble were incapable of showing their powerful rugby again. The six defeats in the following seven rounds plunged the club into the midst of the Top 14. The average 11th position sounds harsh compared to the 5th position reached in January. It remains nonetheless a good season for the D2 champions. Grenoble discovered that the southerners aren't accustomed to the long championship, and decided to recruit French veterans of the Top 14 such as Donguy, Caminati, Lorée or Messina. But beware of the second season, which is often harder as can confirm Bordeaux.
Bayonne were euphoric when they discovered their final Top 14 ranking: they were in front of Biarritz! Bayonne at last had a reason to celebrate. After years in the shadow of the BO, Bayonne has the opportunity to become the number one club in the Pays Basque. For years Bayonne had announced they aimed for a Heineken cup qualification and in the end fought to survive. It seems that at last Alain Affelou, the famous eyewear manufacturer and also president of the Aviron Bayonnais, understood the importance of stability in a team: no huge recruitments, no coaches fired, and no controversial Boudjellal-style declarations. Instead Bayonne worked serenely with their new coaches Cristian Deylaud and Cristian Lanta, and recruited smartly (Scott Spedding, Dewald Senekal, Gabby Lovobalavu). Progressively the defensive team became a more-interesting team to watch. A man symbolizes this resurrection: Joe Rokocoko. Moved to outside center, the Rocketman finally justified his recruitment by, like Bayonne, by starting to score tries and by using some of his All Black magic. The impressive scores of the last rounds (31-24 against Grenoble, 32-26 against Montpellier,) and the targeted recruitment (Vaka, Bustos Moyano, Monribot, Belie) leave hope for a possible European qualification.
Saying that Toulouse's season is disappointing may sound a bit harsh at first. Third behind the two giants Clermont and Toulon, Toulouse made an average season overall . But this year will remain in Guy Novès' head memory because Toulouse clearly became number three in France after years of leadership. For the first time in four years Toulouse haven't won any titles and were eliminated in the pool stage of the Heineken Cup. Toulouse's rugby became more and more based on the fundamentals and its offensive game is obsolete compared to Clermont's or Montpellier's. Of course all is not bad. Toulouse went to the Top 14 semi-finals for the twentieth consecutive time. The recruitment has been overall quite good (Yohan Huget, Gael Fickou, Vasil Kakovin). Nonetheless for the club to remain competitive, Guy Novès has decided to change the club's philosophy radically. And, unfortunately for Saint-André, few French players are announced and a lot of foreigners are (Hosea Gear, perhaps Jano Vermaak, Joe Tekori). Is it the beginning of a new era or the end of a glorious chapter? Wait and see ...
Each year since 2010, the Stade Français' season looks like a reenactment of the preceding years'. Once again the Parisian team failed to participate in the play-offs, to win the Amlin cup, and therefore to qualify for the Heineken cup. Once again the club announced it wanted to move on. And once again the coaches were fired at the end of the season. After Dominici, McKenzie, Delmas, and Cheika here goes Pool-Jones, Laussucq and Auradou, all emblematic players of the club. They paid the price for the disappointing season. Second at the end of the first round, Paris never managed to reach the top six again during the whole season. The twelfth defence of the Top 14, Stade Français had a rather attractive rugby led by some young and talented players such as Plisson, Bonneval or Doumeyrou. Their enthusiasm bought the club to the Amlin Cup Final, but was not enough against Leinster's experience (34-13). A disappointed Thomas Savare, the club's president, who has finally resolved the debt problems of the club due to the Canadian scam story, is now ready to invest heavily in players such as Morné Steyn, Digby Loane or in coaches (Quesada). But most the most important weapon for the European cup will of course be the new Jean-Bouin Stadium, finally finished. Could 2014 be the year for the Parisians?
Biarritz is not the team it used to be. They at first impressed with four initials victories, but the six following defeats crushed all hope of competing for a spot in for the play-offs. Ninth in the ranking behind the Bayonnais neighbour, eliminated in the Heineken Cup pool phase in a easy group (Harlequins, Connacht, Zebras), humiliated 44-16 in the semi-finals of the Amlin Cup, Biarritz had a bad year. For the fans watching BO, which probably plays the most soporific rugby in France, is a torture. The survivors of the matches against Agen or Connacht will confirm. In fact the defeat against Connacht pushed Serge Blanco to recruit the ex-Bayonnais coach Didier Faugeron. The situation evolved carefully, but Biarritz has lost everything: their Amlin Cup title, and most importantly a berth Heineken Cup. Their recruitment is the main culprit. The new comers played poorly (Berquist, Broster,). Although next year's recruitment sounds better (Furno, Perez, Lockley), Biarritz won't be playing in the Heineken Cup and will therefore lose many players (Barraque, Lauret, Haylett-Petty). A season to forget, but that may have a huge impact on the club in the long term.
Mont-De-Marsan last is not a big surprise. Condemned since the beginning by everyone, the Stade Montois fought bravely during the whole season with the smallest budget of the Top 14 (6.2 millions). But losing 24 matches of 26 is not a very honorable score. Last from round one to round twenty-six, Mont-de-Marsan were incapable of proving its detractors wrong. Nonetheless Mont-de-Marsan has scared a few teams especially in the first rounds. Toulouse ruthlessly won in the last minutes at home, Clermont scored its only try at the 75th minute, and Toulon gave a defensive bonus point at Stade Mayol and of course Racing, who lost 16-17 in Colombes. The step was too high for the club that now wants to stabilize itself in the top 20 French teams. And to prepare for the Pro D2, les Montois kept the backbone of the team and plan to add a few experienced players of the Pro D2 (Mirande, Dut, Vunisa). Back home?
They got it all wrong:
It is always sad to see a monument of French rugby leaving the Top 14, but Agen clearly did everything to leave the championship. It started last summer with a catastrophic recruitment (Falefa fired after a month, Ben Blair and Jamie Robinson injured for the entire season). Tingaud, the president, and his legendary coach Phillipe Sella announced they wanted to end in the top 10. After four initial defeats and later nine consecutive defeats, Agen were struggling to survive. The victory against Toulouse 22-9 could have started a winning cycle, but Bordeaux's 41-0 victory annihilated all hopes. Then came financial issues and with the issues a menace of a strike by the players, upset by the threat of a salary renegotiation. For les Agenais this year was a nightmare with eight defeats at the Stade Armandie and with some matches completely abandoned by the players. Next year will be hard, since so many players are leaving (Monribot, Fonua, Vaka, Lorée, Seymou, ...), but the arrival of new players (Ludik, Mazars, Waqaseduadua, Felsman) may create a new dynamic. Things can't get worst anyway.