The French domestic season kicks off in earnest tonight at the Stade Ernest-Wallon, the home of champions Toulouse. Such is the strength of the French Top 14 that there are eight possible teams with squads strong enough (on paper) to mount serious challenges for the title.
Castres made the play-offs last season and will hope that signing Pedrie Wannenburg from Ulster will be enough to fill the huge boots left by their talismanic All Black Chris Masoe. I suspect it will be a tough assignment for Toulouse, but it is difficult to see them not banking their first four points of the season.
Another title contender Clermont Auvergne, have a potentially tricky first fixture away to Bayonne in the heartland of the French Basque country. They can expect a loud and hostile reception at the Stade Jean Dauger, but their pre season results suggest they will have too much firepower for Bayonne.
The crunch match of the weekend sees big spenders Toulon make one of the most difficult away trips in the Top 14 to Catalan club Perpignan. Perpignan have been busy in the transfer market themselves after having such a poor season last time round by their high standards. Toulon will rightly be viewed as favourites but, I am going to put my neck on the line by picking a tight win for Perpignan. The crowd will be baying for blood, so I suspect it could be a feisty affair without too many tries.
Elsewhere, I expect Biarritz to win with a bonus point at home to Mont-de-Marsan who could be the whipping boys of the league. Bordeaux Begles will rely on home advantage to sneak past Grenoble, in a match that could already be viewed as a must win game for both sides. Home advantage should also be enough for Agen to squeeze passed Racing Metro.
My final prediction is another tough one to call. Stade Francais always look strong on paper but they seem to have developed a soft underbelly in recent years. Their challengers Montpellier on the other hand, are now considered genuine big hitters in the top 14, and despite the absence of their three Argentines on International duty – Juan Figallo, Santiago Fernandez and Lucas Amorisino – have developed enough of a winning mentality I believe, to win games like this.
Here are my SuperBru picks for Round 1:
Toulouse v Castres: Toulouse by 10
Agen v Racing Metro: Agen by 6
Bayonne v Clermont Auvergne: Clermont by 4
Biarritz v Mont-de-Marzan: Biarritz by 20
Bordeaux Begles v Grenoble: Bordeaux by 6
Perpignan v Toulon: Perpignan by 3
Stade Français v Montpellier: Montpellier by 2
By Mike Dolan @michaeldolan18