With two rounds gone of the Top 14, Toulon and Toulouse are setting the pace at the top of the table with teams containing a lot of familiar faces. But already there have been some eye-catching performances from one or two of the more unfancied teams, and young French players hitherto unknown outside the Top 14 are staking a claim for a place in Les Bleus’ World Cup squad.
Here are five young stars to look out as the season progresses.
Charles Ollivon: The headline in Monday’s Midi Olympique’s summed up the impact the Bayonne No 8 has made so far this season – ‘The Phenomenon’. The 21-year-old stood out in the Basque pack during their 15-29 defeat to Toulon on the opening weekend with his hands, pace and positional awareness. And Ollivon was at it again on Saturday, his hard running a crucial factor in Bayonne’s 38-12 thrashing of Oyonnax. At 6ft 5in and 17 ½ stone Ollivon – who attributes his exceptional hand/eye coordination to a youth spent playing the Basque game of Pelote – has already attracted the interest of France forwards’ coach Yannick Bru and if his form continues an international call-up seems certain for a player yet to represent his country at any level.
Jefferson Poirot: Selected in Midi Olympique’s XV of the Week on Monday, the 21-year-old Bordeaux loosehead prop is one of the most exciting front-row prospects in France. He made his Top 14 debut in 2012, when he was just 19, and his subsequent progression has been rapid. Poirot is learning his craft at Bordeaux from veteran prop Jean-Baptiste Poux as well as head coach and former France hooker Raphael Ibanez. At 5ft 11 and 19 stone, Poirot was more than a match for the Racing front row on Saturday as Bordeaux notched their second victory of the season with a 30-21 win. Having played for France Under 20s in the 2012 Junior World Championship, Poirot said recently he “dreams every night” of winning his first senior cap.
Teddy Thomas: The revelation of the 2012-13 season for Biarritz, Thomas burst on to the scene with a two try display in his side’s Amlin Cup quarter-final defeat of Gloucester, and Thomas looked on his way to fulfilling the great promise he displayed for France U20. But last season his development stalled as Biarritz lurched from one defeat to another so Thomas signed a four year deal with Racing. Still only 20, Thomas made his debut for the Metro men against Bordeaux on Saturday and scored both his side’s tries in their 30-21 defeat. Fast and strong, and a sharp finisher, the 14 stone Thomas says he was schooled in the art of try-scoring by former Biarritz teammate and American flier Takudza Ngwenya.
Alexandre Dardet: Enjoying his first full season in the Top 14, the 21-year-old Grenoble loosehead has come through the toughest of initiations, against first Clermont and then Montpellier. On Saturday Dardet showed up well against Nicolas Mas, one of the world’s most experienced tightheads, and he also caught the eye in the loose as Grenoble almost pulled off a shock win on the Mediterranean coast. Like Ollivon, the 18 stone Dardet missed out on junior honours for France but Grenoble coach Bernard Jackman rates him highly, saying: “He’s naturally very strong and has a back-rower’s handling skills…he’s still raw but he has so much potential.”
Camille Lopez: Capped twice by France during their summer tour to New Zealand in 2013, the 25-year-old fly-half endured a wretched campaign last year. He had moved to Perpignan from Bordeaux-Begles at the end of the 2012-13 season, expecting the Catalan club to challenge for a place in the play-offs but instead found himself sidelined with a serious knee injury while his teammates were relegated. Joining Clermont in the summer, Lopez is thriving at his new club and was nominated Midi Olympique’s Player of the Week for his display in the 21-6 win at Brive. Tactically astute, Lopez likes to attack the gain line and he can also kick his goals, landing six from six against Brive.