As we enter 2009, it seems a good opportunity to look back at the French Top 14 season so far, analyse how the league table is taking shape and debate what might happen come May. Here we take a look at a hand picked selection of teams and discuss whether they are where they expected to be before the campaign got underway.
Top 14 – a close-fought race
Leading the way
Toulouse: The reigning Top 14 champions are looking good to retain their title as they sit three points clear at the top after 11 wins from their 13 games so far. They are the only team to have scored more than 300 points this season and one of only three that have conceded fewer than 200. Overall, things are very much going to plan.
Stade Francais: Last season this Paris-based side were defending champions and they were disappointing for the majority. They were always in touch with the leaders, but never looked like jumping that final hurdle. This time around, they are once again in a decent position – just three points off Toulouse at the top. Their three defeats so far this season all came in successive games at the end of October and beginning of November though, so if anything they need to make sure a defeat doesn’t affect them too much as they can’t afford to go on a run like this again.
Perpignan: The arrival of Dan Carter has prompted many rugby odds to start backing Perpignan to go on an unbeaten run during the early stages of 2009 and mount a serious title challenge. At the moment they sit five points away from Toulouse, but with two games against teams in the lower part of the table coming up in January, they have a chance to push on. Then it’s a trip to Paris to face Stade Francais which could make or break their season.
Montauban: Mediocrity is probably the wrong word for this French Top 14 side. They are one of the smaller teams in the division and this is only their third season in top-flight Rugby. Therefore the fact that they sit comfortably away from relegation in 8th place must be given high praise. The main reason they aren’t further up the table is their dreadful away form. They are nearly unstoppable at home, but on the road they have only won one game all season. Nevertheless, they will be happy with their current situation.
Biarritz: There are several other teams that I could have picked for the ‘mid-table’ section, but I have gone for Biarritz because, in 10th position, they have been very disappointing this year. Last season when they finished 6th was considered bad enough, but eight defeats from 13 games this season? That’s abysmal for a team of their pedigree. Many changes were made in the close season and it seems that this has taken its toll on their results. A new year needs to bring a change of fortune for them.
Mont-de-Marsan: Propping up the French Top 14 table is this newly promoted side. They were always up against it because this is a very tough league to come into and succeed in straight away. Only three victories for them so far this season have proved this. Four points adrift at the bottom means that their fate could already be sealed.
Castres: Just ahead of Mont-de-Marsan is a team that were the revelation of last season. They finished 5th in the table after a disastrous start left them in 11th place in December and this was largely thanks to their new coach Alain Gaillard. They eventually missed out on a play-off place though and this season they have struggled again. They didn’t quite expect to emulate last season’s success, but there is no doubt they will be disappointed that they are one of the relegation favourites. Perhaps another fantastic post Christmas run is in order to save their season?
Overall, the French Top 14 is shaping up nicely. Nothing is certain yet. Rugby betting may be favouring Toulouse for the title and Mont-de-Marsan for relegation, but anything can happen in the coming months. Bring on 2009!