Planet Rugby

Top 14 Preview: Round One

14th August 2013 17:08

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bakkies botha toulon v Montpellier

Opener: Montpellier v Toulon

With millions of euros spent and pre-season done and dusted, it's time for the fireworks to begin in France!

Castres are the defending champions after their surprise victory over Toulon, whilst Oyonnax and Brive will be scrapping it out at the bottom following their promotion from the ProD2.

Early title playoff contenders will include European champions Toulon, losing European finalists Clermont, along with Racing Métro after their heavy investment in plenty of international stars, lead by Johnny Sexton.

Toulouse and Montpellier should also not be ruled out, having made some fantastic acquisitions over the off-season, leaving the likes of Stade Français, Perpignan and Biarritz dreaming of past glories.

With more stars in the league than ever before, we are in for a treat.

Fixtures:

Friday, August 16:

Montpellier v Toulon (20:45)

Saturday, August 17 - Kick-offs at 18:30 (17:30 GMT) unless stated otherwise:

Biarritz v Clermont (15:00, 14:00 GMT)
Racing Metro v Brive
Grenoble v Stade
Bayonne v Oyonnax
Bordeaux-Begles v Toulouse
Perpignan v Castres (20:00, 19:00 GMT)

Previews:

Montpellier v Toulon

Stade Yves du Manoir, Montpellier

A new season means big ambitions and you won't find many clubs with bigger aspirations than these two.

Montpellier are growing at an impressive rate under the guidance of Fabien Galthié and their recruitment has matched their ambition. Rene Ranger, Wynand Olivier, Sitaleki Timani and Robert Ebersohn are all arriving from the south with Nicolas Mas and Robins Tchale-Watchou moving internally in the Top 14. MHR are an incredibly exciting prospect, but they could not have asked for a trickier start to their campaign than hosting Toulon.

Mourad Boudjellal has spent big again bringing in Bryan Habana, Ali Williams and Martin Castrogiovanni to name just three recruits, after the Bouclier de Brennus evaded Toulon for a second successive time in the Top 14 Final.

Montpellier can beat the top teams - they proved so last season by notching up a win against each side that finished in the top six. If they are to be true title contenders this season, then defeating the Heineken Cup champions would send a message; but it feels like a task too big despite all their new investment.

Previous result: Toulon won 51-6
Prediction: Away win. Toulon by eight.
Kick-off: 20.45 (19.45 GMT)
Referee: C. Marchat


Biarritz v Clermont

Parc des Sports Aguilera

The concern over Biarritz is genuine. It has been a conveyor belt of key departures with Benoit August and Jerôme Thion retiring, whilst Wenceslas Lauret, Jean-Pascal Barraque, Marcelo Bosch and Dan Haylett-Petty were all talented and essential personnel. Joe Pietersen arrives with an accurate boot from the Stormers, but you sense that Biarritz will need more than a reliance upon the South African marksman's ability going for goal.

As for Clermont, their key objective is bouncing back.

Last season's Heineken Cup loss in Dublin was brutal. This is a club used to disappointment after taking 11 attempts to seal a first Top 14 title, but something about the manner of their collapse in Dublin - up 15-6 heading into the final quarter, Delon Armitage's taunt - deeply stung as they lost out by a single point.

Recruitment has been modest; Gavin Hume offering experience to a star-studded group, but Vern Cotter in his final season has to deliver some silverware.

Clermont had the league's best attack and defence last season, yet finished up with nothing to show for it. They need to make a fast start.

Previous result: Biarritz won 32-28.
Prediction: Heavy away win. Clermont by 12.
Kick-off: 15.00 (14.00 GMT)
Referee: R. Poite


Bayonne v Oyonnax

Stade Jean Dauger, Bayonne

Bayonne seem to be clear of the spectre of relegation, for now at least, planting the seed one hopes for a more expansive attacking game that gets the best out of Scott Spedding, Joe Rokocoko and Mike Phillips. Stephen Brett is also an intriguing signing from Japan.

Three pre-season victories, most recently over Toulouse, will have created a positive atmosphere in the camp and that winning run certainly should be continued against promoted Oyonnax.

The ProD2 champions finished up their pre-season with a 30-24 win over Grenoble after a loss to Biarritz and previous surprise victory over Clermont.

The big names in Oyonnax's squad include Damien Browne, Joe El And, Viliami Ma'afu and Benjamin Urdapilleta - far from world-beaters but the core of a hard-working squad that will give Bayonne a scrap.

Previous result: -
Prediction: Heavy home win. Bayonne by 15.
Kick-off: 18.30 (17.30 GMT)
Referee: A. Ruiz


Bordeaux Bègles v Toulouse

Stade Jacques Chaban-Delmas, Bordeaux

Stronger after their battle for survival last season, Bordeaux's recruitment has been positive by bringing in Jean-Baptiste Poux and Benjamin Sa to shore up the scrum.

Plenty of importance rests on the shoulders of Argentinian fly-half Nicolás Sanchez, but in his absence Bordeaux will rely on Pierre Bernard to steer the ship. Their last pre-season match ended in a 22-15 defeat against Biarritz.

Toulouse on the other hand, after just slipping off the pace of Toulon and Clermont last season, have recruited handsomely.

Joe Tekori and Jean-Pascal Barraque both join from Top 14 rivals, with Hosea Gear, Chiliboy Ralepelle and Jano Vermaak jetting in from Super Rugby.

A strong squad filled with experience and versatility, expect nothing less than an opening triumph.

Previous result: Toulouse won 33-32.
Prediction: Heavy away win. Toulouse by 16.
Kick-off: 18.30 (17.30 GMT)
Referee: L. Cardona


Grenoble v Stade Français

Stadium Lesdiguières

A surprise package last season in the Top 14 when they occupied a spot in the playoff places for a large portion of the season, Grenoble would love a repeat of those feats in 2013-2014.

Their squad is certainly solid. Nicolas Bezy and Olly Barkley are there to run the show at half-back, whilst a tough pack features the likes of Shaun Sowerby, Peter Kimlin and Dan Palmer. Defeat to Oyonnax in their pre-season match however drew the ire of head coach Fabrice Landreau after a poor first half.

Stade on the other hand are still more about the glitz than toughing it out, hence the arrivals of two megastars in Morné Steyn and Digby Ioane.

Steyn will not be present for this weekend's opener due to international duty with the Springboks in The Rugby Championship, leaving Jules Plisson with a chance to impress.

Stade's heavy squad turnover doesn't scream stability but that is what three new props should offer, including Davit Kubriashvili's arrival from Toulon. A top-six contender, Stade should prove it with an opening weekend victory.

Previous result: Stade won 35-6.
Prediction: Heavy away win. Stade by 14.
Kick-off: 18.30 (17.30 GMT)
Referee: P. Pechambert


Racing Métro v Brive

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Star-studded indeed. It's not often Toulon's recruitment is overshadowed, but the Parisian side have splashed the cash in a serious way over the off-season - 14 coming in, 20 departing.

The incoming sextet of Jonathan Sexton, Juandré Kruger, Brian Mujati, Soane Tonga'uiha, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts all add world-class calibre to an already strong starting XV and it will be exciting to see how they blend together. Such a high turnover of players normally leads to early-season stutters, but Racing should be comfortable regardless against promoted Brive.

Scraping their way up thanks to a late surge that saw them pip La Rochelle to the post, Brive's losses have been greater than their gains and a season of real struggle is expected.

A pre-season victory last Friday over La Rochelle has added a touch of momentum, but the task of taking down Racing with all their talent seems impossible.

Previous result: -
Prediction: Heavy home win. Racing by 20.
Kick-off: 18.30 (17.30 GMT)
Referee: S. Attalah


Perpignan v Castres

Stade Aime Giral

The deposed against the champions. Castres winning the Top 14 title still feels like a surprise given how so few backed them to defeat Toulon, but it was a brilliant victory.

Perpignan, for now anyway, can only dream of that level of success. A club in transition after being continually competitive throughout the 2000s, seeing the likes of Nicolas Mas, Robins Tchale-Watchou, Adrien Planté and David Mélé all leave the club - stalwarts all of them - is a worrying sign.

Castres have recruited well but will miss Joe Tekori, unless Richie Gray can rediscover the form he showed when bursting onto the international scene with Scotland.

The double coup of signing Julien Tomas and Santiago Fernandez from Montpellier is a plus, but the key man again is Rory Kockott, whose ability off the kicking tee cannot be undervalued. This could be tight.

Previous result: Castres won 21-20.
Prediction: Away win. Castres by 7.
Kick-off: 20.00 (19.00 GMT)
Referee: J. Garces

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