French Top 14 - Round 1 Preview
Top 14 all set for take-off
August 11, 2010
Last season's Top 14 Champions Clermont get the defence of their title underway against Perpignan © Getty Images
Troy Flavell Imanol Harinordoquy Carl Hayman Juan Martin Hernandez Byron Kelleher Remy Martin Noel Oelschig Joe Pietersen Paul Sackey Frans Steyn Damien Traille Jonny Wilkinson Rudi Wulf
The eagerly awaited Top 14 season gets underway this weekend with France's biggest and best out to lay claim to the Bouclier de Brennus.
Newcomers La Rochelle and Agen will be looking to survive in a cut-throat competition while Clermont Auvergne, now finally defending champions after ending their domestic hoodoo with defeat of Perpignan in last season's final, have it all to do as they go after a second title. It's a league that never fails to excite and provide drama and no doubt it'll be a rollercoaster from the outset.
Giants Toulouse get the season underway against last season's Pro D2 champions Agen at the Stade Ernest Wallon on Friday afternoon.
The visitors are one of the big names of French rugby and will feel fully confident of restoring the club to ots former standing, but they face a mountainous task first up against the reigning Heineken Cup champions. They of course have the firepower of Rupeni Caucaunibuca in their ranks - when available - and have also made a number of off-season signings including the former Toulon centre Jamie Robinson. Toulouse as always are a formidable set-up but they will be without lynchpin Byron Kelleher who's still not fit after breaking his jaw playing for the Barbarians against Ireland at the end of last season.
A rematch of last season's final sees the champions Clermont Auverrgne travel away to Perpignan as they begin their title defence in our Game of the Week. Perpignan are struggling at fly-half with an injury to Nicolas Laharrague in pre-season adding to their woes. While Clermont will be able to play with a newfound freedom now that they've finally broken their duck in claiming domestic glory, an early blow against Perpignan would seemingly be the perfect note on which to start.
Heineken cup finalists Biarritz have been struck a blow with the news that Imanol Harinordoquy and Damien Traille are not able to take the field against Montpellier at the Parc des Sports Aguilera. Les Biarrots will be looking to now convert that form in Europe more consistently in the league. They will begin their season without lightning-fast wing Takudzwa Ngwenya after the USA international was suspended, along with Ilikena Bolakoro, for an unspecified disciplinary breach.
New Bayonne signing Joe Pietersen, French flanker Remy Martin and lock Troy Flavell will all miss their season opener against Toulon at the Stade Mayol on Friday. Toulon, who have again recruited heavily in the off-season, could hand starts to new signings Carl Hayman, Paul Sackey, Dean Schofield and Rudi Wulf with Jonny Wilkinson expected to start at fly-half despite recently sitting out his side's pre-season win over Stade Francais with a sore shoulder.
Racing Metro's start to the new season has been disrupted by the selection of Francois Steyn for the home leg of the Springboks' Tri-Nations campaign, but the centre looks set to miss their opener anyway due to his ongoing injury rehab. They are away to Brive at the Stade Amedee-Domenech and will be looking to go one better after finishing last season as quarter-finalists. New recruit Juan Martin Hernandez look set to start at fly-half for Racing.
Noel Oelschig misses Stade Francais' season opener against Bourgoin in Paris after the red card that he received in pre-season against Toulon was upheld. New head coach Michael Cheika needs to hit the ground running after Stade's disastrous performance last season. Cash-strapped Bourgoin will yet again be hopeful of doing enough to stay in the top flight after recent flirtations with relegation.
And in the round's only fixture on Saturday newly promoted La Rochelle host last season's surprise package Castres, who made all the early running before just fading as the season wound down.
The Top 14 will again be LIVE on ESPN in the UK, kicking off with Toulouse and Agen going head to head on August 13 at 17.45 BST. Click Here to subscribe.