Top 14: Predicting the Final Regular Season Table
The Top 14 gets underway this Friday with everyone gunning to topple Toulon following last season’s triumph.
It was a miserable summer for French rugby with Les Bleus blown away 3-0 on their tour of Australia. Coach Philippe Saint-Andre trained his sights on the domestic top flight as one of the causes of the downturn in the national side’s fortunes, per his comments reported by ESPNScrum:
“England will take three weeks holiday before starting five weeks of technical and physical development," he said. "They will resume their domestic programme in early September. Our internationals resume early August. It is unfortunate, but a high-level player must not play more than 30 matches per season or they will be subject to serious injury."
He then returned to a point he raised during the tour. Foreign players. "Seven or eight years ago there were 70% foreigners in the Premiership. Now there are 70% English. With us, it's the other way round. Suddenly, the pool [to choose from] becomes scarce. There are not currently ten wingers on our list of those available to play for France."
Nevertheless, imports continue to top the big name signings for the new season, with the likes of Toby Flood, Jonathan Davies and Ben Mowen all heading to the Top 14 to earn a crust.
With an assessment of their summer transfer activity and overall strength, here is a prediction of who will end up where at the end of the regular season.
14. La Rochelle
The winners of the promotion play-off rarely stay up the following season.
But La Rochelle have made some eye-catching signings in a bid to buck that trend. The most notable is the flying wing Alofa Alofa, who comes hot off the back of Super XV glory with the Waratahs.
He is accompanied by the 38-year-old Sireli Bobo, once of Biarritz, but it is hard to see this sprinkling of stardust as enough to save Patrice Collazo’s side from an instant return to the second tier.
The team from close to the Swiss border were tipped to go straight back down last season but surprised everyone by staying up on the last day of term.
That element of the unknown has gone now, and the second-season syndrome could strike. But the coach Christophe Urios has made moves to stave that off with the excellent signing of Pedrie Wannenburg.
With others strengthening around them, it looks a tall order for Oyonnax, and they could lose out to Lyon, who will be enjoying the first-season bounce they themselves profited from last year.
Lyon arrive in the top flight as Pro D2 champions and intent on making this stint in the Top 14 longer than their last, which did not extend beyond the 2011/12 season.
Experienced coach Tim Lane has hired Wallaby legend George Smith to aid that ambition and veteran skipper Lionel Nallet has the quality required to help Lyon stay up.
The men from the Alps bloodied many a nose last season, including twice beating Toulon.
They have recruited wisely in the summer with the arrival of Springbok Gio Aplon and fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski.
If they can maintain their respectable home form and pick up the odd shock win on the road as they did last year, they will retain their Top 14 status.
A 10th place finish last season looks unlikely to be improved upon after a quiet offseason in the player market.
New coach Patricio Noriega, the former Argentina and Australia prop, will be fully focused on steering his side clear of the drop zone.
The former European champions have much to do to fight their way into the argument for silverware this season.
They are building the right way with a heavyweight pack that assured them of a safe finish in ninth last year but with minimal changes to the roster, mid-table would seem their best bet once again.
Last season’s eighth-placed side are coached by former France hooker Raphael Ibanez.
They have retained the services of Fijian sensation Metuisela Talebula, last season’s top try scorer, and added the experience of Lionel Beauxis to the mix, which will bolster their ambitions to make the top six.
7. Clermont Auvergne
Losing Gerhard Vosloo to Toulon is a major minus for the men from the Massif Central. Also out of the door go Nathan Hines, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Elvis Vermeulen, Lee Byrne and Regan King.
In come Jonathan Davies from the Scarlets, Nick Abendanon from Bath and Zac Guildford from the Crusaders to form a new back line, while Sebastien Vahaamahina is the big name recruit up front.
But it will take time for this side to click with so much player movement.
A season of transition awaits.
6. Stade Francais
A stunning midseason run of form set the Parisians up for a tilt at the title last season, but they faded badly thereafter and ended up out of the play-off places.
Young pivot Jules Plisson is a year older and wiser and has the chance to make the shirt his own while Morne Steyn is away in the Rugby Championship.
Much will depend on the form and fitness of skipper Sergio Parisse. Injury has been unkind to the Italian general in the last two seasons, but if he is clear of the back pain that has been dogging him, he could lead a charge toward the top four that may stick this year.
Last season’s beaten finalists have suffered two blows in the transfer market with the loss of French Test full-back Brice Dulin and back-rower Antonie Claassen, who have both gone to Racing Metro.
They have recruited Sitiveni Sivivatu from Clermont and Johnny Beattie from Montpellier, and with the cool head of Remi Tales still running the show at No. 10 they should make the play-offs again.
Toby Flood has a huge job on his hands to steer Toulouse back toward the top of the tree.
There is no arguing with the caliber of names filling the shirts around him, but the vaunted pack no longer flattens everything in front of it and injury to inspirational skipper Thierry Dusautoir left them looking a little rudderless at times last year.
The front row could be due for a freshen-up with the arrival of New Zealand duo Neemia Tialata and Corey Flynn, while Imanol Harinordoquy comes in from relegated Biarritz.
The 34-year-old may not be the dynamic No. 8 of old but, used sparingly, could have a real impact.
Ben Mowen is the marquee signing for the surprise package of last season, and he will need to hit the ground running if the loss of Mamuka Gorgodze and Johnny Beattie is to be abated.
The Australian should be well-suited to the flowing style coach Fabien Galthie likes to implement.
If all of Montpellier’s front-line players stay fit for most of the season, they should once again find themselves in the mix for the semi-finals.
2. Racing Metro
Smart recruitment in the summer saw the arrival of Brice Dulin and Antonie Claassen from Castres.
These two are clearly seen by the former Castres coaching duo of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers as key men for the side they are building in the French capital.
Their stellar Lions names like Jonny Sexton, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips all now have a season under their belts at the club and should be ready to push on this year. Luke Charteris is also a smart acquisition.
Repeating a domestic and European double is the aim for Toulon this season, and there is every chance they can pull it off.
It will be interesting to see what impact the retirement of Jonny Wilkinson has on the way the team plays. But they have recruited well with Leigh Halfpenny and James O’Connor adding further stardust to the back line and Mamuka Gorgodze joining their formidable pack.
All Blacks tight head Carl Hayman assumes the captaincy, so expect the forward-based power game to remain.
It is hard to see the main challengers grinding this team down over the course of a season. Champions again.