Top 14 - Season Preview
Usual suspects set to lead title chase
Martin Gillingham
August 12, 2013
Can Toulon's latest big name signing Bryan Habana propel them to Top 14 glory? © Getty Images
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The monthly pay cheque will, no doubt, lighten the burden. Even so, you've got to feel a bit for Les Deux Laurents, Travers and Labit.

Tapped up well over a year ago to take over at Racing Metro they've since gone on to secure a first Bouclier de Brennus in 20 years for Castres. Figuratively speaking, down in the Tarn region they'd reached the summit of their Everest equipped with just a decent packed lunch and a full Thermos flask. And now, just a few weeks later, they're at it again.

This time, though, they're attempting to scale French rugby's highest peak from the Paris side from where - and in keeping with the apparently limitless resources of their provider - they shall be backed up by the best breathing apparatus money can buy, a pack of huskies and a bus-load of Sherpa Tenzings. The pressure is on Travers and Labit and Sod's law suggests the only way is down. We shall see.

Castres demonstrated last season that it takes more than just financial muscle to win Europe's richest national competition. The small town club, rejuvenated two decades ago by the millions of local pharmaceutical giant Pierre Fabre yet still just ninth of 14 in the budget league and operating on less than half of the turnover of Toulouse, plotted their way skilfully through a season that comprises at least 35 matches.

In broad-brush terms Les Castrais' method is this: they effectively dismiss half-a-dozen of those 35 every year by placing the Heineken Cup on a list of second tier priorities; they then circle the wagons around their Pierre Antoine home making them too strong to target by even the Clermonts and Toulons while picking off bottom half sides on their travels. They also don't lose many to international call-ups in November or during the Six Nations.

What also served Castres well last season was the success of others in Europe. It is no coincidence that the three teams Castres beat in the play-offs to win the title - Montpellier, Clermont and Toulon - all made it through to the knock-out stages in the Heineken Cup with the last two going all the way to the final.

By the end of May both Toulon and particularly Clermont looked out on their feet. How else do you explain the dominant role of a Castres pack - particularly in the semi-final win against Clermont - with props Saimone Taumoepeau and Karena Wihongi and hooker Brice Mach the unlikely heroes?

In truth, the prospects of a successful Castres defence are slim. The coaches have left and been replaced by Serge Milhas (sacked by Biarritz) and David Darricarrere (relegated with Agen). It's hardly a dream team.

The club is also still coming to terms with the loss of their benefactor: Monsieur Fabre died last month. On the up side, their squad remains largely intact with just Marc Andreu (following the coaches to Racing) and Joe Tekori (Toulouse) moving on. Lion Richie Gray is among the new recruits.

Racing, Montpellier and Toulon have been the most active players in the transfer market, Racing have offloaded more than 20 with Jonathan Sexton, Dan Lydiate, Jamie Roberts, Juandre Kruger, Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati among the new names on the wage bill.

 
"On their day, Montpellier are the most attractive side to watch in France, combining the silky skills of fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc and Fulgence Ouedraogo in full flow with raw power and a bit of mongrel elsewhere."
 

What remains is the fact Racing play their home games in the grim surroundings of Colombes which even if you're in touch with the romance of the Chariots of Fire Olympics is largely uninspiring. Racing lost at home four times last season in the Top 14 which is four more than Clermont and three more than each of Castres, Toulon and Toulouse.

On their day, Montpellier are the most attractive side to watch in France, combining the silky skills of fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc and Fulgence Ouedraogo in full flow with raw power and a bit of mongrel elsewhere. Montpellier are also ambitious. How else do you judge Fabien Galthie's recent decision to extend his stay until at least 2017?

Of the other obvious contenders Toulon appear the best placed. Marquee signings attracting headlines are owner Mourad Boudjellal's stock-in-trade yet even if the likes of Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell prove expensive luxuries less glamorous new faces like prop Emmanuel Felsina will surely prove astute additions over a long season.

Clermont and Toulouse will, of course, finish in the top six yet both appear to have done little to answer their critics' observations.

Clermont's fragilities when in sight of the finish line were exposed again twice in May and they start the season with new fly-half Mike Delany absent following shoulder surgery. Meanwhile, the authority of head coach Vern Cotter must also be questioned with the New Zealander finishing the season with some indiscreet observations of his squad's failings while having his head turned by Scotland.

As for Toulouse, they just don't look any stronger now than they did last season when they failed to get through their pool of the Heineken Cup and were soundly beaten in the semi-final of the Top 14.

Let's finish this look-ahead with a few predictions.

Who will finish in the top two at the end of the league phase and go straight through to the semi-finals? Toulon and Clermont Auvergne.

The four barrage round sides? Racing Metro, Toulouse, Montpellier and Castres.

Next stop PRO2? Brive plus one of Oyonnax, Bordeaux-Begles or Biarritz

Can Castres upset the odds and claim victory again at the end of the season? © Getty Images
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