The French Top 14 gets underway this weekend after a summer of unrivaled transfer activity. Staggeringly at the last count the total number of players arriving in France from this year’s Super 15 competition was approaching the thirty mark.
Despite finishing fourth in the 2012/13 league standings, Castres won their first French Championship final since 1993 after three impressive play-off victories over Racing Metro, Clermont Auvergne and Toulon. Richie Gray is their marquee signing but they have lost their coaching duo of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers to Racing Metro. Their recently retired lock Matthias Rolland has been appointed as the club’s new manager for the upcoming campaign but faces an uphill task to emulate his predecessors’ success.
Of the usual suspects likely to appear near the top of the table again, both Toulon and Toulouse have recruited more experienced international southern hemisphere talent. Rugby World Cup winners Ali Williams, Bryan Habana and the 63-times capped Wallaby Drew Mitchell have signed for Toulon, while Blue Bulls stars Jano Vermaak and Chiliboy Ralepelle, who replaces compatriot and former Bulls club mate hooker Gary Botha, join All Black flyer Hosea Gear at Toulouse.
Clermont Auvergne have been relatively quiet in the transfer market but already had a squad filled with home grown stars Morgan Parra, Welsey Fofana and Thomas Domingo as well as foreign talent including the likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu, Jamie Cudmore and Napolioni Nalaga. Last season Clermont were undoubtedly the most impressive side in the early rounds of Heineken Cup and finished first on the Top 14 ladder, but they will need to discover a more ruthless play off mentality if this talented group of players is to finally fulfil their potential by winning a first Top 14 crown since 2010, or first ever European Cup title.
RaboDirect PRO12 and Aviva Premiership fans will be well aware that Racing Metro have signed Lions stars Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate and Jonathan Sexton as well as the ex Northampton front row duo of Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga’uiha. Lineout specialist and Spingbok second row Juandré Kruger also joins a side already boasting names such as Benjamin Fall, Juan Martín Hernández and Dimitri Szarzewski, but new coaches Labit and Traver could prove the most important additions to the club. Racing’s owner Jacky Lorenzetti, who made his fortune in real estate, will be aiming to emulate Toulon’s Mourad Boudjellal by seeing his investment yield a trophy, or at least a few final appearances, in the coming years.
Montpellier’s summer acquisitions include star South African centres Wynand Olivier and Robert Ebersohn, the latter impressively having the best turnover rate in the 2013 Super 15, and another destructive force in the midfield in the shape of All Black centre Rene Ranger. Their coach Fabien Galthié has also made some useful forward acquisitions including Scotland’s Jim Hamilton, Australian lock Sitaleki Timani and veteran front rower Nicola Mas, who joins from Perpignan. Much will depend on whether their impressive half back duo Benoît Paillaugue and François Trinh-Duc hit form and remain fit throughout the season but Montpellier have a squad capable of featuring in the latter stages of both the Top 14 and the Heineken Cup.
It will be difficult for other sides to break into the top six but of those in the chasing pack Stade Francais have their most impressive squad in a number of years and should also be rejuvenated by moving back to the renovated Stade Jean-Bouin, which will now accommodate 20,000 spectators. This will be the perfect stage for new signings Digby Ioane and Morné Steyn as well as club stalwarts Sergio Parisse, Pascale Pape and co to take the club back to the top of French rugby. A Heineken Cup place, assuming that there is a European competition in 2014/15, will be the minimum target for the Parisian outfit.
Of the new arrivals to the Top 14 over the summer that have not already been mentioned, keep an eye on Stephen Brett (Bayonne), Peter Kimlin (Grenoble) and Joe Pietersen (Biarritz), who could be the catalysts for improved performances by their respective new clubs, all seeking to move away from the mid table places they finished in last season.
What about at the other end of the league? The two newly promoted clubs, Brive and US Oyonnax, will be many fans’ favourites for a return to the PROD2 but Oyonnax, who will be captained by ex Bristol flanker Joe El-Abd next season, have had an impressive pre season campaign, registering wins over Clermont and Grenoble and could surprise a number of the more established Top 14 clubs in the next 10 months.
It should be a fascinating season in the top tier of French club rugby. For those hoping for spending to slow down and fewer players moving to the Top 14 do not hold your breath – the current native television deal is likely to be renegotiated in the coming months, which could see greater funds for clubs to attract even more talent from all corners of the globe. Fans in England can catch the Top 14 on BT Sport.
By Alistair Pickering (@FollowRugbySite)