Coach: Bernard Laporte
Last season: 1st (Champions)
Key player: Matt Giteau
Carl Heyman captains the reigning champions this season, after the retirement of their talisman, one Jonny Wilkinson. Much responsibility rests on his shoulders, as it does on Matt Giteau who will likely be asked to step into the breach at 10. There’s been more recruitment of top names over the summer, and even without Wilkinson it’s very difficult to see them finish anywhere other than top once again.
Coach: Fabien Galthié
Last season: 2nd (Semi-finalists)
Key player: François Trinh-Duc
It was a topsy turvy season last time out for Montpellier, starting and finishing strongly only to lose in extra time in the semi-final to knockout specialists Castres. They’ve recruited well this summer and their first team will be as good as any in the league – especially given that first choice pivot François Trinh-Duc continues to be overlooked (quite bafflingly, to the rest of the rugby world) for France duty. They’ll make the knockouts again, for sure.
Coach: Franck Azema
Last season: 3rd (Quarter-finalists)
Key player: Wesley Fofana
2013/2014 was a typically Clermont season – consistent for most of the year, before choking when it mattered in the knockout stages. They’ve had a fair amount of upheaval, with Vern Cotter departing and several club stalwarts moving on. That said, their recruitment has been excellent and the mere thought of Wesley Fofana and Jon Davies lining up in the centres is enough to get the rugby juices flowing. They’ll be in the mix again – there’s too much quality there for them not to be.
Coach: Guy Noves
Last season: 4th (Quarter-finalists)
Key player: Toby Flood
It’s a bit boring to keep picking fly-halves, but the manner in which Toby Flood integrates himself into the Toulouse set-up will be vital to their chances this year. Luke McAlister is a fine player, but he did not bring the control to Toulouse’s game last season that top level 10s, like Flood, do. He will also be available throughout international periods, when Toulouse will lose a lot of their players to the French cause. Difficult to see them doing any better than last season with same coaching set-up who looked like they’re running out of ideas.
Coaches: Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers
Last season: 5th (Semi-finalists)
Key player: Antoine Claassen
A hugely talented squad, coaches with a proven record in the league and cash to burn – fifth was a disappointment for Racing last season. They’ve recruited well this summer – Antoine Claassen was a key cog in Castres’ continued over performance in the league the past few years, while Johan Goosen’s presence will ensure Jonny Sexton can’t rest on his laurels. If their big name players can step up as they failed to do last season, they can go further than last year.
Coach: Serge Milhas
Last season: 6th (Runners-up)
Key player: Rory Kockott
Castres’ most significant bit of business in the off season was convincing Rory Kockott not to join Toulon. The French-qualified South African scrum-half is the man that makes Castres tick, and his dead-eye boot has seen them finish as winners and runners up in the past two seasons, despite never finishing higher than fourth in the regular season. They’ve lost some important players, but the stardust new signing Sivivatu provides will help fans forget about that. They’ll be battling for a play-off spot this season.
Coach: Gonzalo Quesada
Last season: 7th
Key player: Sergio Parisse
They were the early pace-setters in the league last season, spending several weeks at the top, before an alarming loss of form in the second half of the season saw them fail to even qualify for Europe. Parisse will be a key player almost because of the fact that he hasn’t been exactly that the past couple of seasons, a back problem robbing him of game time and form. Stade need their club captain fit and firing if they’re to break back into the top echelons, where they undoubtedly feel they belong. If he can manage that, they should sneak into the play-offs.
Coach: Raphael Ibanez
Last season: 8th
Key player: Metuisela Talebula
Like Castres, Bordeaux’s most important off season business was keeping hold of their best player – Fijian flyer and last season’s top scorere, Metuisela Talebula. Ibanez, ably aided by Joe Worsley and Vincent Etcheto, has turned Bordeaux into a force once again, and they’ve been on a real upward trend these last few years. Can that continue? They can upset the big boys, for sure, and I’d expect this season they’ll be battling the likes of Castres and Stade Français for the final European spot.
Coach: Nicolas Godignon
Last season: 9th
Key player: Sisa Koyamaibole
Brive are an immensely proud club, and last season was a real reflection of that – not many had them finishing so far clear of the relegation zone in their pre-season predictions. They do not have the star names of other sides in the league, but that almost binds them together even tighter. In Sisa Koyamaibole they have a real weapon from the base of the scrum, and last season’s top points scorer Gaetan Germain will ensure the points keep coming.
Coach: Patricio Noriega
Last season: 10th
Key player: Joe Rokocoko
Patricio Noriega becomes Bayonne’s sixth coach since 2010, which epitomises the turmoil that has come to define the club behind the scenes. Now the only Basque club in the Top 14 after Biarritz’s relegation, they have the hopes of a region on their shoulders. Their squad looks thin, however, with very little recruitment over the summer. Much faith will be put in youth then, and after years of big name signings failing to deliver, it might not be a bad plan. Far more likely, however, is another relegation battle.
Coach: Fabrice Landreau
Last season: 11th
Key player: Jonathan Wisniewski
They may have finished 11th last season, but Grenoble caused a fair few shocks along the way. They have recruited well, not least in fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski, who never really got a shot behind Johnny Sexton at Racing Metro. They have genuine finishing ability out wide in Springbok flyer Gio Aplon, and if pre-season results are anything to go by (which they often aren’t, but still) then Grenoble should cause a few headaches once again.
Coach: Christophe Urios
Last season: 12th
Key player: Pedrie Wannenburg
Nobody expected Oyonnax to stay up last season, but everybody (outside of Biarritz and Perpignan) were delighted that they did. Comfortably the smallest city to host a Top 14 team, their survival was hugely impressive and built, unsurprisingly given this is French rugby, on a superb home record. They have recruited well and the likes of Pedrie Wannenburg and Maurie Fa’asavalu have played against the very best in the game. They won’t surprise anyone this time round, but they should still be good enough at home to stay up.
Coach: Tim Lane
Last season: PROD2 winners
Key player: George Smith
When Lyon were promoted in 2011, everyone expected them to reestablish themselves in the Top 14 – instead, they finished rock bottom. They will be very wary of repeating that feat, and they have recruited extensively to that end. George Smith will bring experience in spades, and has played in the Top 14 before, while the likes of Lionel Nallet and Fabrice Estebanez are also veterans of this league. With an impressive squad, yo-yoing back into the PROD2 should be avoided.
Coach: Patrice Collazo
Last season: 3rd in PROD2 (won play-off)
Key player: Uini Atonio
La Rochelle have flirted with the Top 14 for years without ever establishing themselves in the league, and it’s difficult to see that changing this year. Club captain and mammoth prop Uini Atonio is a leader of men, but even he has a tough job on his hands keeping a squad that looks significantly weaker than its relegation rivals in the top flight.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43