Team: SU Agen
Coach: Christophe Daylaud & Christian Lanta
Home ground: Stade Armandie (capacity: 12,000)
Strengths: Agen’s success last season was driven by their backs – particularly with tries from Cau Cau and Daniel du Plessis. With the addition of Welshman Jamie Robinson the midfield will now have that extra bit of steel and experience needed for the Top 14.
Weaknesses: As with all newly promoted teams, player investment is needed to get to grips with the top tier. Racing Metro poured millions into new players – Agen have drafted 16 new faces into the squad (the most notable recruitments have been Jamie Robinson and Argentine number 8 Alejandro Campos) and their success will be largely driven by how quickly they merge.
One to watch: Rupeni Caucaunibuca, the mercurial yet controversial winger was the Pro D2 top try scorer with 13 last season, but he has gone walkabout again, missing the deadline for returning to training and forcing the club to suspend him. If he turns up, he will be vital in helping Agen secure their status in the Top 14 this season.
Coach: Christian Gajan
Home ground: Stade Jean Dauger (capacity: 16,934)
Strengths: A wily, experienced pack led by the blond bombshell of former France flanker Remy Martin and bolstered by new players with plenty of experience will help Bayonne grind out another season in the Top 14.
Weaknesses: Last season’s 13th finish did not reflect the best that the team had to give. They suffered from international call ups last season – particularly in the backs unit, and have suffered further by the loss of new French wing sensation Benjamin Fall to rivals Racing Metro. However, with a raft of changes to the squad, the pressure is on the squad to gel in time for the big kick off – and their Top 14 reprieve came only as a result of the financial struggles at Montauban.
One to watch: Bayonne have made efforts to bolster their pack in the close season. The recruitment of Kiwi lock Troy Flavell (22 caps) is a major coup and will boost a pack already sporting the likes of Ross Filipo and Remy Martin.
Team: Biarittz Olympique
Coach: Jack Isaac & Jean-Michel Gonzalez
Home ground: Parc des Sports Aguilera (capacity: 15,000)
Strengths: New additions in the shape of Sylvain Marconnet and Erik Lund will give Biarritz the necessary fire power to push on both fronts this season. Biarritz will need to use this new strength in the pack to push forward this season – their inadequacies in the scrum were exposed in the Heineken Cup, and if they can improve up front, they have the backs to finish anyone off.
Weaknesses: Although it was a season to remember for Biarritz in the Heineken Cup, their European exploits took their toll in the league, leading to a final position of 7th last season. Biarritz will need to bolster their squad to push on both fronts this season.
One to watch: Only one choice here really despite the stellar squad. Current France number 8 Imanol Harinordoquy exemplifies the power and flair that took Biarritz to the Heineken Cup final, and will see them as tough opponents in the Top 14 yet again this season.
Team: CS Bourgoin
Coach: Eric Catinot & Xavier Pemeja
Home ground: Stade Pierre Rajon (capacity: 9,441)
Strengths: Bourgoin have a fantastic team spirit which showed last season in crucial games against the bigger teams, and the fact that the majority of the squad took a 20% pay cut to help the club with it’s financial woes.
Weaknesses: Bourgoin will be allowed to play in France’s first division next season after winning an appeal against relegation on financial grounds. It is this constant financial threat overhead that has prevented Bourgoin from kicking on from their appearance in the European Challenge Cup final in the 2008-09 season.
One to watch: New signing Nemani Nadolo from Super 14 side the Waratahs will add some dynamism to the Bourgoin back line and a try line threat in the back three.
Team: CA Brive
Coach: Ugo Mola
Home ground: Stade Amedee-Domenech (capacity: 15,000)
Strengths: The Brive pack grind out wins – that’s what they do, and every team visiting the Stade Amedee-Domenech will need to confront their imperious front 5 before they think about the rest of their game plan.
Weaknesses: Brive have seen a raft of their marquee players leave the club including Andy Goode, Steve Thompson, Horacio Agulla and Lachlan Mackay – downsizing considerably since the big spending sprees of 2008/09. The squad will need to return to their forward based strengths to avoid any slippage into the relegation battle.
One to watch: Welsh flanker Alix Popham has found a second home in Brive, and with his tough tackling style he will be seen as a leader on the pitch yet again this season – more of an onus will be on the pack this season as they look to hold on to their gains in the Top 14.
Team: Castres Olympique
Coach: Laurent Labit
Home ground: Stade Pierre-Antoine (capacity: 11,500)
Strengths: Castres strength has had its basis in the front 5, driven forward by the Georgian hooker Akvsenti Giorgadze. Recent discoveries in the back line such as Marc Andreu have provided more balance, but with summer acquisitions like Banjamin Kayser and Scott Murray, it’s clear where the Castres’ game plan starts from.
Weaknesses: The backs unit have been the weak link in the Castres machine over the past few years, but have got away with it at the Stade Pierre-Antoine. With some difficult games in the Heineken Cup, their resolve will be tested. The Heineken Cup will be a welcome distraction, but the bread and butter of the Top 14 remains their number one target.
One to watch: New France cap Marc Andreu made his debut in the Six Nations victory last year. His pace and guile will be called upon by Castres this season, especially with their ambitions to get out of a tough Heineken Cup group.
Team: ASM Clermont Auvergne
Coach: Rene Fontes
Home ground: Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin (capacity: 16,334)
Strengths: The perennial bridesmaids made it 11th time lucky last season to pick up their first Bouclier de Brennus title. They have a very strong all round game, and have consistently been in contention at the business end of the season. The pack feeds off of the experience of Mario Ledesma, Martin Scelzo, and Julien Bonnaire, whilst the backs keep the points ticking along, with Brock James, Morgan Parra, Napolioni Nalaga, Julien Malzieu and captain Aurelien Rougerie to name but a few providing the firepower.
Weaknesses: Clermont have tended to under achieve in the Heineken Cup of late, and will be looking to use their Top 14 success as a springboard this season in Europe’s premier cup compeition.
One to watch: So many to choose from! Clermont are blessed with talent in the pack and back line, but all eyes will be on their new signing, explosive All Black back row forward Sione Lauaki.
Team: La Rochelle
Coach: Serge Milhas
Home ground: Stade Marcel-Deflandre (capacity: 11,500)
Strengths: The plucky underdog spirit will be coursing through the La Rochelle camp throughout the whole season. Can they replicate the work that Leeds did in the Premiership last season?
Weaknesses: La Rochelle are favourites for the drop before the season even starts, with few players in their squad with any real experience of the intensity of the Top 14.
One to watch: Seru Rabeni may be in the twilight of his illustrious career, but he showed at Leeds Carnegie last season that he is still a force to be reckoned with, and featured in Will Greenwood’s Premiership team of the season. His no-holds-barred approach and lethal pace will need to be exploited to the full if La Rochelle are to avoid relegation.
Coach: Fabien Galthie
Home ground: Stade Yves-du-Manoir (capacity: 15,000)
Strengths: Montpellier are a young and dynamic side. Young France tyro Fulgence Ouedraogo epitomises this spirit, and with players such as Trinh-Duc, new signings Gonzalo Uva and Timoci Nagusa, could this be the season that they finally kick on from mid-table obscurity to top six contenders.
Weaknesses: Fabien Galthie has brought in some more hard nosed players to prop up a team which is traditionally strong at home, but fragile on the road.
One to watch: Francois Trinh-Duc has proved many of the doubters wrong who were out for France coach Marc Lievremont’s blood when he initially sent the young Montpellier fly-half into the test match cauldron. However, his game has come on leaps and bounds, and he’s an integral part of Montpellier’s game.
Team: USA Perpignan
Coach: Jacques Brunel
Home ground: Stade Amie Giral (capacity: 17,000)
Strengths: Continuity, continuity, continuity. The 2008/9 champions have been very selective in their transfer activity this summer as they seek to build on the squad consistency which has seen them finish first in the Top 14 regular season for the past 2 years.
Weaknesses: The continuing lack of a top quality fly half is the only real weakness in the Perpignan squad. Veteran Aussie Manny Edmonds was pressed into emergency service following his return from Bayonne on a coaching basis. The 33 year old has been granted a 3 month playing licence following yet another injury to Nicolas Laharrague, with the No. 10 berth effectively being left open for the anticipated return of Dan Carter following the RWC 2011.
One to watch: Jerome Porical may have had a night to forget with the boot when it came to last season’s Top 14 final, but the full back still remains a vital cog in the Catalans team – and will need to be at his imperious best if Perpignan are to continue to be a dominant force in the Top 14 – especially in light of their deficiencies at 10.
Team: Racing-Metro 92
Coach: Pierre Berbizier
Home ground: Stade Yves-du-Manoir (capacity: 15,000)
Strengths: Racing’s strengths lie in their coach and tactician Pierre Berbizier. Their 6th place finish last season and their ambitious player influxes confirms that they will be a force to be reckoned with this season again.
Weaknesses: Like fellow big-spenders Toulon, Racing Metro will make their debut in the Heineken Cup this season. The team will need to balance their Heineken Cup and Top 14 ambitions if they are to succeed in both.
One to watch: Racing Metro’s player budget is getting bigger and bigger, with an estimated €9M being spent by president Jacky Lorenzetti on the squad alone next season. However, high profile transfer such as Benjamin Fall, Nicolas Durand and Mirco Bergamasco have been dwarfed by the arrival of world class Argentine playmaker Juan Martin Hernandez following his sojourn with the Natal Sharks.
Team: Stade Francais CASG
Coach: Michael Cheika
Home ground: Stade Jean Bouin (capacity: 12,000)
Strengths: Stade will be aiming to re-establish themselves as a powerhouse in the Top 14 again. Their presence in the Amlin Challenge Cup should give Cheika a chance to rotate and rest key players. After cutting some of the dead wood, the core of the squad remain world class, and it will be this core that will help lift Stade back to where they want to be.
Weaknesses: Last season was quite simply a horror season for the glamorous Parisian club, with poor results, a horrorific run of injuries, suspensions, three changes of head coach and off-field financial problems. Michael Cheika has shaken up the squad and will be hoping that the likes of Sergio Parisse and Julien Dupuy will remain fit throughout the campaign.
One to watch: One of Michael Cheika’s first acts as coach was to promote Italian Number 8 Sergio Parisse to the captaincy ahead of Argentine incumbent Rodrigo Roncero. The Italian captain is the perfect candidate to help pull the Parisian side out of the doldrums.
Team: RC Toulonnais
Coach: Phillipe Saint-Andre
Home ground: Stade Mayol (capacity: 13,700)
Strengths: Toulon roared into the Top 14 finishing 2nd last season. Saint-Andre will be looking to re-affirm the squads credentials this season as well as prove their European calibre in the Heineken Cup. The Toulon squad is a who’s-who of international rugby, and with a dynamic forward unit, and a set of backs that know how to score tries, this could very well be Toulon’s year.
Weaknesses: Saint-Andre and club President (and bank roller) Mourad Boudjellal were hugely disappointed not to round off 2009/10 with a trophy – missing out in the Top 14 and the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup. Winning the Top 14 remains their priority – and with their new squad, they certainly have the depth to do so – however, the attraction/distraction of the Heineken Cup may well be a hindrance in the springboard to their success.
One to watch: Jonny Wilkinson. The man. The myth. The legend. He reinvigorated himself in the Top 14 last season scoring 260 points, and will be integral to Toulon’s fortunes this season. However, with the Heineken Cup now on Toulon’s agenda, the influx of seasoned internationals such as George Smith, Paul Sackey and Carl Hayman will only help Toulon’s case.
Team: Stade Toulousain
Coach: Guy Noves
Home ground: Stade Ernest Wallon (capacity: 19,000)
Strengths: The elusive Heineken Cup and Top 14 double may have slipped from their grasp last season, but the vast strength in depth of Toulouse’s squad means they will yet again be competing at the business end of the season in both the league and cup.
Weaknesses: What weaknesses?
One to watch: A number of young French players were recruited over the summer, but it’s the signing of Fijian winger Vilimone Delasau that could prove to give Toulouse that extra bit of bite in the back three next season.
By John White