Top 14 Orange
A narrowing playing field
August 15, 2012
Toulouse lifted the Top 14 title and will be looking to make it three from three this time around © PA Photos
Could it be that time of the year already? The French Championship swings into gear once more this weekend after its short summer hiatus, some three weekends ahead of Europe's two other big pro leagues. Bizarrely, Toulouse's Top 14 Orange win in June now seems like a long time ago, but maybe that could be something to do with the entirely forgettable series of semi-finals and final which failed to produce a single try. Never more has a new season needed to start in order to wash away the memories of the previous one.
Once upon a time, French rugby sides and personalities lit up the world by executing a philosophy which brought together the very best qualities of the game: grit, desire, aggression, pace, flamboyance and the ability to think on your feet. Yet more than ever before, it feels as though some of those values are disappearing from the upper echelons of French rugby. Sure, the grit is still there, while no one could deny last year's finalists Toulouse or Toulon from having enough desire and aggression on June 6 last. But it appears the rest of those values are becoming more and more side-lined in a marathon club competition that has become the epitome of 'last man standing'.
No one doubts that the Top 14 suffered particularly badly from last season's Rugby World Cup. Playing squads were stretched beyond capacity and players were flogged, leading to tired and injured limbs toward the business end of the season. This in turn impacted on team performances. 'Doublons' - weeks where clubs were forced to play twice - didn't help things either. For the club owners who believe the league should return to 16 clubs, last season was proof, if it were ever needed, that the opposite is true. A 12 team league is the only way forward as long as the club game must co-exist with the international game.
Unsurprisingly, three of last season's semi-finalists are likely to be in the mix once again this season. Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont Auvergne have all managed to increase their strength in depth for the season ahead, putting them some way clear of the rest, not to mention making it likely that France will have three major challengers for the Heineken Cup this season. Of the three, Toulon look the most improved, having signed another raft of internationals to supplement those already there. Signing the superb Chris Masoe from Castres is a huge signal of intent, while the capture of a rehabilitated Frederic Michalak following his second South African stint could be genius. Add in the other new signings in Maxime Mermoz, Delon Armitage, Andrew Sheridan and Gethin Jenkins and Toulon begin to look like real contenders.
Of the rest, Racing Metro and Montpellier will once again threaten, while Perpignan could well bounce back under new coach Marc Delpoux to make up the playoff places. The same could be said of Biarritz. With their bevy of France internationals available from the very first weekend, the new season promises to be a different one compared to last season's horror show, although it's unclear if the Basque side have the requisite depth to challenge for a playoff spot. The arrival of Dragons wing Aled Brew and Leinster and former Crusaders flyhalf Matt Berquist will strengthen an ageing backline but doubts remain about the forwards.
One club that could find itself going in the wrong direction is Castres. The club have recruited well in the wake of captain Chris Masoe's decision to up sticks to Toulon, but his loss will be huge for les Tarnais. With coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers due to depart at the end of this season, their days in the sun may be behind them. Expect a solid mid-table finish this season but real doubts remain about their long-term future following the demise of Bourgoin earlier this month.
Napolioni Nalaga is back at Clermont this season © Getty Images
Champions - Clermont Auvergne
There'll be no shortage of motivation this season at Stade Marcel Michelin following two defeats at the semi-final stages of both the Top 14 and the Heineken Cup last season. Additions in the shape of Damien Chouly, Napolioni Nalaga and Benson Stanley will strengthen a squad already brimming with talent.
Having won two consecutive Boucliers, Toulouse will go all out to win a third but the lure of another Heineken Cup might blur their focus. Toulon coach Bernard Laporte has constructed a squad with serious punch that should push les Toulousains and les Auvergnats all the way. The key will be how quickly he can meld all that serious talent together.
With no Rugby World Cup on the horizon, Montpellier will attack from the off, playing with the kind of style that has made Fabien Galthie one of the most wanted coaches in France. Racing are in a similar position - minus the style. Coach Pierre Berbizier is still waiting to get the best out of his expensively assembled side but the lack of a World Cup will be of great benefit.
Ones to watch - Agen
Armed with a new director of rugby in former club legend Philippe Sella, Agen will look to build on last season's promising debut. The signing of Scot Euan Murray will give their forwards a shot in the arm but doubts remain about the inexperience of the coaching line-up of Sella and Matthew Blin.
Relegation Fodder - Mont-de-Marsan
With a playing budget roughly a quarter the size of Toulouse, the omens do not look good for promoted Mont-de-Marsan. As is the case with most sides that cross the ever-increasing divide from Pro D2 to Top 14, les Landais' chances of avoiding the drop would be seen to be minimal.
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