Top 14: Best XV of the 2014-15 Season
The Top 14 season is finally at an end after a gruelling campaign saw Stade Francais crowned champions in their home town on Saturday night.
The regular season was led virtually from gun to tape by the top two of Toulon and Clermont Auvergne, with the traditionally common sight of several big guns being well beaten on their travels.
Once into the knockout phase, form became the decisive factor, with Stade Francais finding a rich vein of it right on cue to storm past Parisian rivals Racing and then topple the European kings Toulon before overcoming Clermont in a dour final.
With their comparatively huge budgets, the top sides in France can attract many of the world’s best to complement their homegrown talent.
The result is a colourful, fiercely contested tournament that throws up a mixed bag of grinding brutality and outrageous flair.
With 43 weeks of battle concluded, here is B/R’s team of the Top 14 season.
The Back 3
15. Scott Spedding
Nick Abendanon faces some stiff competition for his Clermont full-back jersey next season with the arrival of Scott Spedding from Bayonne.
The New Zealand–born No. 15 qualified to play for France this season and featured for Les Bleus in the Six Nations off the back of an impressive campaign for Bayonne.
His capture by Les Jaunards underlines his standing as one of the league’s best No. 15s this season.
14. Julien Arias
Stade Francais’ scrum and powerful forward unit garnered much of the credit for the Parisians' first Top 14 title in eight years, but out wide they had one of the league’s leading try scorers in Julien Arias, who bagged 11.
11. David Smith
Toulon’s powerfully built Smith topped the try-scoring charts with 14 in the league in this campaign. His double in the game above against Clermont showed his positional sense for his first try and his power in the build-up to his second, followed by his intelligence to track play and run at the correct gap to finish the attack.
13. Wesley Fofana
Fofana was sorely missed by Clermont in the Top 14 final and has to make this team, albeit one removed from his usual No. 12 jersey. The prospect of a Fofana/Giteau axis in midfield is practically mouthwatering.
12. Matt Giteau
Giteau’s influence on Toulon’s attacking ability was once again profound this season. The Australian’s form even prompted a change in policy by the Australian Rugby Union to ensure he is available for the World Cup as an overseas player.
It remains to be seen if he will make the squad, but he edges out the brilliant Wesley Fofana as inside centre in this team.
10. Jonathan Wisniewski
Grenoble may not have troubled the trophy-hunters this season, but they were a tough nut to crack at their home in the foothills of the Alps.
The chief reason for this was the metronomic goal-kicking of fly-half Jonathan Wisniewski. The former Racing Metro man scored 339 points, 42 more than his closest challenger. Wisniewski’s points haul was a major factor in Grenoble ensuring their top-flight status.
9. Maxime Machenaud
The Racing No. 9 is one of the surprise names overlooked by France coach Philippe Saint-Andre in his 36-man squad for the World Cup. The scrum-half showed great consistency throughout the campaign for the Parisians, working well in harness with Jonny Sexton.
8. Sergio Parisse
Others may have made more hard yards or smashed back more opponents, but Parisse remains in a class of his own as a leader and ball player of unique ability. He has improved with age and was the talisman around which the rest of the Stade Francais players rallied to claim their first Top 14 title in eight years.
7. Steffon Armitage
Armitage made it on to the shortlist once again for European Player of the Year. The exiled Englishman had another season that prompted many to call for his inclusion in England's World Cup plans despite his non-dom status.
6. Antoine Burban
The Stade Francais flanker came on strong in the second half of the campaign to underline the quality he has long been known for but not quite produced until now. With injuries behind him, Burban showed his class this season and was totemic in Stade’s semi-final win over Toulon.
5. Sebastien Vahaamahina
The 23-year-old giant from Clermont Auvergne took on the role of senior member of Les Jaunards' engine room with the injury to Jamie Cudmore. And he rose to the challenge. There is still much more to come from this youngster.
4. Ali Williams
Williams was the man for the big occasion for Toulon. The retiring New Zealander was as effective as ever throughout the campaign, particularly in the European Cup final where he played a blinder. For the measure of his worth to this Toulon side, look who they have hired to replace him: Paul O’Connell
3. Rabah Slimani
The scrum of Stade Francais had no equal over the course of the season. On the tight-head side, Rabah Slimani was unconquerable. With his ramrod-straight back producing tonnes of power, he shunted back all-comers, including the tough guys of Toulon in the semi-final. His work in the clip above for France against Italy is indicative of the sort of season he had for his club.
Honourable mention: La Rochelle's Uini Atonio bulldozed his way to international recognition for France with his performances this season. Could be one of the major impact players for France this autumn.
2. Guilhem Guirado
Others may be better as pure scrummagers, but none were the match of Toulon’s No. 2 when it came to ball carrying and offloading. Guirado may yet prove one of the stars of the coming World Cup for Les Bleus if he can barge his way past the experienced duo of Benjamin Kayser and Dimitri Szarzewski.
1. Antoine Tichit
It has been a breakthrough season for the Oyonnax No. 1. The unfashionable club elbowed their way into the end of season play-offs and came close to toppling Toulouse in their barrage match. Their scrum was a key factor in their campaign and Tichit’s performances on the loose head caught the eye.