French elite go to battle once more
Ian Moriarty
August 20, 2008

"With much of France returning only this week from its summer holidays it might come as a bit of a shock to realise that the Top 14 is back, kicking off next Tuesday evening." Ian Moriarty previews the Top 14 campaign

With much of France returning only this week from its summer holidays and with the southern hemisphere season still in full flow, it might come as a bit of a shock to realise that the Top 14 is back, kicking off next Tuesday evening.

It's been just over seven weeks since Toulouse won their 17th title at the end of June and many of France's top players will have had little time off between their end of season exerts and pre-season training. A frustrated Clermont President Rene Fontes, in an interview with Midi Olympique earlier this summer explained: "My team finished on the 28th June and were back in training four weeks later," he said, adding, "it's intolerable." Many now believe that the demands now being made on clubs and players are damaging the world's most successful club competition, leading to two different 'speeds' within the Top 14. The result last season, according to French coach Marc Lievrement, was "a mediocre Championship."

Whatever about the difficulties of hosting a 26 game Championship in a world cup year, this season should prove to be that bit more straightforward with the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR) President Serge Blanco unlikely to see a repeat of Toulouse and Stade Francais sending each other under-strength teams for glamour ties. The outspoken LNR boss will retire from the role in December, in order to devote more time to his club, Biarritz. His time as chief of the elite French clubs has been a largely successful one, even if his abrasive style will be missed by few. The comment by Lievrement will have irked Blanco, however. Those two 'speeds' have grown steadily apart under his tenure, leaving three clubs head and shoulders above the others.

Toulouse to do the double?

The upshot to all this is that very little has changed when it comes to the balance of power in the Top 14. Toulouse will undoubtedly be favourites. The southerners won their first Bouclier de Brennus in eight years last season and all the signs are that the Champions will be stronger this time round. Coach Guy Noves has never been afraid of risky signings and much has been made of the arrival of Stade Francais out half David Skrela and the return of former Toulouse golden boy Frederic Michalak from South Africa. It remains to be seen if Noves can weave these talents into a side already bursting with talent but if he can, this particular vintage have the ability to claim not only back-to-back championships but a Heineken Cup too.

Michelin Men back on track?

"We've turned the page on that one," recalled Clermont captain Aurelien Rougerie when asked recently of his sides' loss against Toulouse on the 28th June. Evidently, it's been a summer of hand wringing at Stade Marcel Michelin. Following a season where Clermont dominated domestically only to fall yet again at the last hurdle, all talk has been about finding the mental toughness that goes with winning titles. They've also lost their World Cup winning captain John Smit and veteran Kiwi Sam Broomhall but have made two good signings in the Bourgoin pair of Benoit Cabello and Julien Pierre. Expect more of the same from the form side in Europe last year but will they have what it takes to be title winners?

In with the new, out with the old...

It's been all change at Stade Francais this summer. The departures of coach Fabien Galthie, French Internationals Remi Martin and David Skrela combined with the retirements of Christophe Dominici and Peter de Villiers will give the Parisian side an unfamiliar look this season. However despite those losses, oodles of class remain and the arrivals of Argentine Juan Manuel Leguizamon and NRL star Mark Gasnier should strengthen the squad. Expect the Parisians to challenge Clermont and Toulouse but only if new coach Ewen McKenzie can keep his side fit and healthy.

Best of the rest...

Unsurprisingly, all of Perpignan has been agog at the shock signing of Dan Carter back in June. Carter's decision to spend his six-month sabbatical in the Catalan enclave instead of compatriot Tana Umaga's Toulon was based on his desire to play Heineken Cup rugby. Hamstrung last season by injuries and the lack of an out half, expect Perpignan to exert more pressure on the top three this time round but even Carter may find it difficult to overturn their Achilles Heel - winning away from Stade Aime Giral.

Elsewhere, Castres Director of Rugby Alain Gaillard will be expected to continue their renaissance having made several fine signings in the shape of Chris Masoe from New Zealand and Steve Malonga from Biarritz. The Tarn-based club were something of a surprise package last season but led by French captain Lionel Nallet, they have enough experience to put the frighteners up any visiting side at Stade Jean Pierre Antoine. Like Perpignan however, Castres' lack of form away from home will surely stand against them.

Supporters of Biarritz Olympique will be hoping that form is temporary after the Basque side suffered their worst Championship finish in eight years last season. New backs coach Jack Isaac joins veteran Jacques Delmas in the hot seat and despite decent signings in Valentine Courrent from Toulouse, Magnus Lund from Sale Sharks and a defence which conceded fewer points than anyone else last season, Biarritz will continue to struggle scoring tries - unless Isaac can do something about it.

And what of Toulon, you ask?

If points were earned for press generation, Toulon would be way out on their own. As it is, all eyes will be on Tana Umaga's side to see if they can live up to the hype. Like Sonny Bill Williams, Toulon has talent in spades but plenty of question marks remain. For Umaga, the key will be whether he can mould his star players together effectively with all those journeymen. Club owner Mourad Boudjellal will expect Heineken Cup qualification as a minimum and the pressure will be on Umaga to deliver from the off. Expect Toulon to throw the odd surprise but a mid-table finish is likely in their first season back in the Top 14.

ELV's...c'est quoi?

With the Top 14 getting ready to roll the carpet out for Dan Carter, Jerry Collins et al, one could be forgiven for forgetting the arrival of that other well known personality from the southern hemisphere: the ELV's. As in other parts of Europe, reaction to the new laws has been somewhat mixed with punters and players alike unsure as to how much the watered down laws will affect the game. Toulouse boss Guy Noves is firmly in the no camp: "I think that there are dreamers out there who want us to play rugby like they play it on the beach in Fiji," said the veteran coach. "They risk taking away what is unique and special about rugby. If you take away the combat, the physicality, the scrum, you are losing valuable parts of the games identity and it risks becoming like any other sport. We need to look at ways of making rugby even more exciting, but not at the cost of everything which makes it stand out as a sport."

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