Big names, big budgets
August 10, 2009
Toulon's high-profile signing of England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson has increased interest in France's top flight © Getty Images
Mourad Boudjellal Iain Balshaw Pierre Berbizier Sebastien Chabal Felipe Contepomi Julien Dupuy Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe Riki Flutey Andy Goode James Haskell Juan Martin Hernandez Andrew Mehrtens Jamie Noon Philippe Saint-Andre Frans Steyn Steve Thompson Jason White Jonny Wilkinson
The new Top 14 season kicks off in France this week with the battle for the Bouclier de Brennus set to be the most enthralling in the illustrious 117-year history of the competition.
Already one of the biggest draws in world rugby for both players and fans, interest in the Top 14 is set to reach new heights this season after a fresh wave of big name players made the switch to France's premier domestic competition during the off-season - many of them swapping the Guinness Premiership and Magners League for a new life on the continent, lured by the spending power of country's leading clubs.
These may be troubled economic times but that has not stopped France's leading clubs digging deep and in most cases budgets are on the rise. Toulouse lead the way with a reported €26m* (£22.4m) war chest although clubs are limited to spending just 55% of their budget on salaries. Stade Francais (€18.5m/£16m), Clermont Auvergne (€17m/£14.6m), Toulon (€16.5m/£14.1m) and Racing Metro 92 (€16m/£13.8m) round out the top five when it come to balance sheets. With attendances on the up there is more money to be made and with an increasing demand to entertain the masses the net has been cast far and wide.
Leading the way is England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson who became the latest high-profile recruit for Toulon earlier this summer. The leading all-time scorer in Test rugby will be the centre of attention over the coming months starting with the season-opener against Stade Francais on Friday night.
Toulon President Mourad Boudjellal, the most generous of owners in a league full of such benefactors, broke the bank to secure Wilkinson's services despite the No.10's injury woes - the most recent of which was a dislocated knee cap that curtailed his last season with Premiership side Newcastle Falcons. But it is the recruit of former Sale coach Philippe Saint-Andre that may be his shrewdest signing with the French legend joining ex-All Black Tana Umaga in a new-look coaching team.
Wilkinson has been joined in the south of France by a host of fellow cross-Channel transfers including compatriot and former Newcastle team mate Tom May, ex-Cardiff Blues centre Jamie Robinson as well as Scotland fullback Rory Lamont who joined from Sale. In addition, Argentine fly-half Felipe Contepomi (currently sidelined by injury) arrived from Leinster while another Pumas star, flanker Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, also linked up with the club via Sale.
Perennial challengers Stade Francais also raided their European neighbours in the hope of laying the foundation for a successful season. England internationals James Haskell and Tom Palmer were signed from Premiership side Wasps with former Edinburgh fullback Hugo Southwell and England 7s captain Ollie Phillips joining them in Paris. Their transfer dealings also brought two French stars home with hooker Benjamin Kayser and scrum-half Julien Dupuy waving goodbye to Leicester Tigers. These signings should go someway to filling the void left by influential play-maker Juan Martin Hernandez who left the French captial for pastures new with Natal in South Africa.
Brive are arguably the club with the strongest overseas ties, specifically the UK, with the likes of England duo Andy Goode and Steve Thompson having already made themselves at home. That multi-national talent pool grew larger in the off-season with the addition of two more England internationals in the form of Riki Flutey and Jamie Noon who joined from Wasps and Newcastle respectively. However, Flutey's contribution will be delayed as he sits out the compulsory five-week lay-off following his endeavours for the British & Irish Lions.
The big-spending Toulon, Stade Francais and Brive were not the only sides to plunder the leading clubs in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in search of a winning mix.
England's Iain Balshaw made the move from Gloucester to Biarritz, Jason White swapped Sale for Clermont Auvergne and Andrew Henderson opted for Montauban over Glasgow. But perhaps the biggest move of the lot in terms of popularity was the return of Sebastian Chabal to the French domestic stage. The fans' favourite signed for newly promoted Racing Metro 92 in the summer and will be joined by another big name - South Africa's Frans Steyn - later this season after he has completed his duties with the Springboks.
Some may struggle to adapt to the physical demands of surely the most incendiary league in Europe while others will no doubt revel in it. Similarly, the challenges they face off the field could be equally taxing as they attempt to assimilate themselves into the culture. But with the likes of Haskell leading everything in terms of pre-season conditioning at Stade Francais and Wilkinson and Robinson speaking fluent French in press conferences it appears these latest imports are keen to make a lasting impression.
Defending champions Perpignan, Toulouse, Stade Francais and Clermont Auvergne are once again set to challenge for honours but a re-vamped play-off format is set offer six teams, rather than the previous four, a shot at glory.
The top two teams at the end of the regular season will receive a bye into the semi-finals with those sides placed third to sixth doing battle to join them. The winners of the semi-finals will once against go head-to-head at the Stade de France in Paris in the season finale.
Perpignan have endured a worrying build-up to the campaign and that hangover may be compounded by a lack of big name signings. In contrast both Stade Francais and Toulouse have offered their respective fans a little more reason to smile in their pre-season dealings both on and off the field.
Toulon battled against relegation for much of last season but are fancied to raise their game significantly this time around especially if Wilkinson returns to his best. Elsewhere, Racing Metro 92 may be newcomers to the top division but some shrewd acquisitions and the experience of coach Pierre Berbizier and veteran fly-half Andrew Mehrtens should serve them well.
Biarritz have impressed in their warm-up encounters and will be dreaming of their first success since 2005-06 while Clermont Auvergne will no doubt rally themselves having suffered yet another agonising defeat in the last season's final. That 22-13 loss to Perpignan extended their miserable run to 10 successive final defeats but with the reliable boot of Brock James and the prolific Napolioni Nalaga in their ranks they are destined for another strong showing.
At the other end of the spectrum, Albi were lauded for becoming the first side to earn promotion back to the Top 14 at the first attempt but they will likely find the step up a stern test.
Realistically it will take a huge effort to break the usual suspects' grip on proceedings but the epic nature of the season - that will culminate on May 29 next year - and the Heineken Cup aspirations of the country's leading clubs will offer hope to their title rivals.
It is barely eight weeks since Perpignan ended a 54-year drought by claiming the title at a packed Stade de France but a host of fresh faces and the accustomary hype means there is a ferocious hunger for the new season. Add in the international aspirations of the overseas contingent and you have the makings of a superb feast of top-class rugby.
And so to a sold-out Stade Mayol on Friday night - let battle commence.
Top 14 - Round 1:
Friday, August 14:
Saturday, August 15
Follow this season's action LIVE on ESPN and ESPN Scrum including exclusive coverage of Toulon v Stade Francais on Friday night
*Source: Midi Olympique