Our man in France, Gavin Mortimer, previews the runners and riders and the major comings and goings of all the fourteen clubs

It’s mid-August which means only one thing – the Top 14 is back. Bayonne host champions Toulon in the opening match om Friday evening and then it’s ten months of top-class, gruelling Top 14 action until only two teams are left standing at the Stade de France on June 13.

BAYONNE

Former Australian prop Patricio Noriega is the new coach at Bayonne, taking over from last season’s duo of Christian Lanta and  Christophe Deylaud. With a new president also in Manu Merin there is a sense of a page turned at Bayonne after the trauma of last season when events off field almost ended in the club following neighbours Biarritz into the Pro2. With a heavy emphasis on young, local talent, Bayonne will rely on the experience of the likes of Scott Spedding,  Joe Rokoçoko and new signing, Kiwi fly-half Blair Stewart. Only relegated Biarritz scored fewer than Bayonne’s total of 29 tries last season so Noriega has a lot of work to ensure the club remains the Basque country’s representative in the Top 14.

Old-stager:  Joe Rokocoko will add experience to the Bayonne midfield

Old-stager: Joe Rokocoko will add experience to the Bayonne midfield

Au revoir: Stephen BRETT, Julien PURICELLI (both Lyon)

Bonjour :  Blair STEWART (Grenoble),

BORDEAUX-BEGLES

Boasting the biggest average crowd in the Top 14 last season (beating Toulon into second), Bordeaux-Belges will be playing ten of their matches this season at the 38,000 capacity Stade Chaban-Delmas. Raphael Ibanez and his coaching staff (which includes former England flanker Joe Worsley) have turned Bordeaux into a stylish side whose 58 tries were the most in the Top 14 regular season. Fly-half Pierre Bernard scored 294 points last season and he will face competition this campaign from Lionel Beauxis. With a trio of Perpignan players also arriving, Bordeaux (who finished eighth last season) are an outside bet to reach the play-offs this time around

Au revoir:  Bruce REIHANA (retired), Poutasi LUAFUTU (Bordeaux-Bègles),

Bonjour:  Lionel BEAUXIS (Toulouse), Sofiane GUITOUNE, Bertrand GUIRY, Sebastien TAOFIFENUA (all Perpignan), Francisco  GOMEZ KODELA (Biarritz)

BRIVE

In 24-year-old full-back Gaetan Germain Brive had the leading points scorer in the Top 14 last season. His haul of 299 was five more than the next best, Bordeaux’s Pierre Bernard, and Germain’s accuracy went a long way in ensuring Brive remained in the top flight having won promotion through the Pro 2 play-offs in 2012-13. There have been few upheavals in their squad over the summer with Natal Sharks lock Peet Marais their one big signing. Though they lost only once at home last season, Brive failed to win on the road and that record will need to improve if they’re to avoid a relegation dogfight next spring. So, too, will their discipline, with Brive’s three red cards and 29 yellows last season making them the unruliest club in the Top 14!

Au revoir:

Bonjour:  Peet MARAIS (Sharks)

Key signing: Rory Kockott is a prolific kicker and is much sought after

Key signing: Rory Kockott is a prolific kicker and is much sought after

CASTRES

The only side last season not to lose at home in last season’s Top 14, Castres managed just one victory away from the Stade Pierre-Antoine. Yet despite that deficiency, and some inconsistent form early last season, Castres made it through to their second successive final, along the way ending Clermont’s five-year unbeaten streak at home with a stunning quarter-final victory. Narrowly beaten by Toulon in the Top 14 Final, Castres have waved goodbye to a clutch of class players over the summer but they’ve also recruited wisely in Scotland No 8 Johnnie Beattie and former All Black wing Sitiveni Sivivatu. Despite all the changes in personnel Castres should be challenging for the play-offs again in the spring with scrum-half Rory Kockott at the heart of all their endeavours.

Au revoir : Brice DULIN (Racing-Métro), Antonie CLAASSEN (Racing-Métro), Romain TEULET (retired), Anton PEIKRISHVILI (Racing-Métro), Julien TOMAS (Stade Français), Seremaia BAÏ (Leicester), Pedrie WANNENBURG (Oyonnax),

Bonjour: Sitiveni SIVIVATU (Clermont),  Paea FA’ANUNU (Montpellier), Johnnie BEATTIE (Montpellier) 

CLERMONT

A new era at the Stade Marcel Michelin with Vern Cotter’s eight year tenure at the club at an end following his decision to coach Scotland. He’s replaced by the duo of Franck Azema and Jono Gibbes, the latter the coach of Leinster last season. Though they’ve lost some high profile players, Clermont haven’t been idle in the transfer market themselves, signing Wales and Lions centre Jonathan Davies, Bath full-back Nick Abendanon and All Black wing Zac Guildford among others. And keep a lookout for fly-half Camille Lopez, impressive in the warm-up matches and pushing to claim the France 10 jersey after missing most of last season with injury.

Au revoir:  Gerhard VOSLOO (Toulon), Sitiveni  SIVIVATU (Castres), Lee BYRNE (Newport), Nathan HINES (Sale), Regan KING (Llanelli), Elvis VERMEULEN (retired),

Bonjour : Camille LOPEZ (Perpignan), Seb VAHAAMAHINA (Perpignan), Jonathan DAVIES (Llanelli), Zac GUILFORD (Crusaders), Nick ABENDANON (Bath) 

Leader: With no Vern Cotter, Aurelien Rougerie will assume even more responsibility

Leader: With no Vern Cotter, Aurelien Rougerie will assume even more responsibility

GRENOBLE

Former Ireland and Leinster hooker Bernard Jackman has replaced Franck Corrihons as coach and he signalled his intent to stamp his mark on the club by taking Grenoble on a summer tour of Argentina where they played two matches against the Pumas. The benefit of that experience was plain to see when they thrashed Harlequins 31-10 on Saturday with new signings Jonathan Wisniewski (fly-half) and Ross Skeate both catching the eye. The club has ambitious plans for the future but in the short-term it’s the defence that needs shoring up: last season only Biarritz conceded more tries than the 52 shipped by the Mountain Men.

Au revoir:  Blair STEWART (Bayonne), Rudi COETZEE (retired), Shaun SOWERBY (retired)

Bonjour: Jonathan WISNIEWSKI (Racing-Métro), Mahamadou  DIABY (Oyonnax), Jono OWEN (Queensland Reds), Gio APLON (Stormers), Chris FARELL (Ulster), Rory GRICE (Waikato), Ross SKEATE (Agen), Charl MCLEOD (Sharks),Jackson WILLISON (Auckland Blues) 

LA ROCHELLE

A survey of Top 14 coaches this week revealed that La Rochelle are favourites for the drop. They won promotion to the top flight by surprising Agen in the play-off final but there is a lot of inexperience in their 39-man squad. Coach Patrice Collazo will be relying much on the nous of former All Black lock Jason Eaton and Bok fly-half Peter Grant. Jean Pascal Barraque, 23, was hailed as the next great French threequarter a few years ago but he’s failed to find his feet at Biarritz and Toulouse. La Rochelle need him to fulfil his undoubted potential if they’re to avoid a rapid return to the Pro2.

Au revoir:  Maxime LE BOURHIS (Oyonnax)

Bonjour : Jean-Pascal BARRAQUE (Toulouse), Jason EATON (Japan), Peter GRANT (Stormers), Alofa ALOFA (Waratahs), Jone QOVU (Racing-Métro), Romana GRAHAM (Exeter)

Lyon-bound: George Smith has been called in to help Lyon's transition into the Top 14

Lyon-bound: George Smith has been called in to help Lyon’s transition into the Top 14

LYON

Back in the top flight after a three-year absence, Lyon won all three of their pre-season friendlies, including a 24-14 victory over Stade Francais at the weekend. Tim Lane is one of the canniest coaches in the business, while in fellow Aussie Scott Wisemantel and Englishman Dave Ellis he has two sharp operators at his side. Some exciting signings, including Wallaby legend George Smith, former Toulon flanker Pierrick Gunther and Stade’s Jerome Porical, are another reason why Lyon fans should be confident of a respectable showing this season, though they may struggle to equal last season’s try tally in Pro2 of 112 tries in 30 games.

Au revoir : Sebastien CHABAL (retired), Julien DUMORA (Castres),

Bonjour : George SMITH (Japan), Pierrick  GUNTHER (Toulon), Fabrice ESTEBANEZ (Racing-Métro), Sakiusa MATADIGO (Racing-Métro), Deon FOURIE (Stormers), Stephen BRETT (Bayonne), Jerome PORICAL (Stade Français), Hoani TUI (Exeter)

MONTPELLIER

Beaten semi-finalists last season, Montpellier looked sluggish in losing to London Irish at the weekend and they’ve lost some imposing figures in their pack what with the departures of the iron Georgian, Mamuka Gorgodze, as well as a couple of Brits in Johnnie Beattie and Jim Hamilton. The Mediterranean club welcome some big names, however, in former Wallaby captain Ben Mowen and French internationals Benjamin Fall and David Attoub. But they might struggle to replicate the impressive form they showed last year in scoring more points – 670 – than any of their rivals in the regular season.

Au revoir: Mamuka GORGODZE (Toulon), Johnnie BEATTIE (Castres), Juan FIGALLO (Saracens), Jim HAMILTON (Saracens), Paul GRANT (Nottigham), Paea FA’ANUNU (Castres),

Bonjour : Akapusi QERA (Toulouse), David ATTOUB (Stade Français), Tom DONNELLY (Blues), Antoine BATTUT (Racing-Métro), Pat CILLIERS (Stormers), Ben MOWEN (Brumbies), Benjamin FALL (Racing-Métro). 

OYONNAX

The unfashionable Oyonnax narrowly avoided relegation back to the Pro 2 in May in their first season in the Top 14. Though they enjoyed some memorable wins at home – including defeats over Clermont, Castres and Toulon – Oyonnax won just once on the road last season and managed just 34 tries in their 26 matches. The arrival of the experienced South African forward Pedrie Wannenburg will bolster their pack and boss Christophe Urios will be hoping former Northampton prop Soane Tonga’uiha finds his feet in France after a poor season with Racing Metro.

Au Revoir: Mahamadou  DIABY (Grenoble),  Joe EL ABD (retired), Conrad BARNARD (retired).

Bonjour : Yves DONGUY (Toulouse), Pedrie WANNENBURG (Castres), Maxime LE BOURHIS (La Rochelle), Maurie FA’ASAVALU (Harlequins), Riaan SMIT (Cheetahs), Soane TONGA’UIHA (Racing-Métro). 

Jonny Sexton

Lynchpin: If Racing are going to challenge Toulon, Sexton needs to be firing

RACING-METRO

After a poor start to last season under the new coaching team of Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit, Racing came good in the second half of the campaign and qualified for the play-offs, beating Toulouse in the quarters before going down to Toulon in the semis. A raft of high-profile signings will further strengthen the club with Springbok fly-half Johan Goosen challenging Jonathan Sexton at fly-half. With experienced old campaigners such as France No 8 Antonie Claassen and Wales lock Luke Charteris also arriving in Paris, Racing could turn out to be the team to most likely threaten Toulon’s dominance of the Top 14 but to do that they’ll have to score considerably more than the paltry 32 tries they managed last season.

Au Revoir : Fabrice ESTEBANEZ (Lyon), Jonathan WISNIEWSKI (Grenoble), Benjamin FALL (Montpellier), Soane TONGA’UIHA (Oyonnax).

Bonjour : Brice DULIN (Castres), Antonie CLAASSEN (Castres), Anton PEIKRISHVILI (Castres), Johan GOOSEN (Cheetahs), Casey LAULALA (Munster), Luke CHARTERIS (Perpignan). 

STADE FRANÇAIS

The early pace-setters last season, the Parisien outfit tailed off after Christmas and ended in seventh, subsequently losing out to Wasps in a qualification play-off for the Rugby Champions Cup. Patricio Noriega has decamped to Bayonne but Stade welcome former Fijian lock Simon Raiwalui to their coaching staff under the overall command of Gonzalo Quesada. Some notable signings over the summer including  Aussie lock Hugh Pyle, and Stade will be hoping for more consistency from fly-half Morne Steyn this season, who scored just 88 points in 15 appearances.

Au Revoir : Jerome PORICAL (Lyon), David ATTOUB (Montpellier)

Bonjour: Julien TOMAS (Castres), Adrien OLEON (Mont-de-Marsan), Hugh PYLE (Melbourne Rebels), Raphael LAKAFIA (Biarritz), Martens VAN DER HEEVER (Toulouse).

Star man: In-form Steffon Armitage had a standout season for Toulon

Star man: In-form Steffon Armitage had a standout season for Toulon

TOULON

The double champions remain the team to beat this season and in a Midi Olympique survey of Top 14 coaches they came out as favourites to retain their title. There are chinks in the armour, however, with no Jonny Wilkinson and a raft of players (Bakkies Botha, Bryan Habana, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Juam Smith) missing for the first eight rounds of action because of Rugby Championship duty. Having said that, there is still 1,118 caps’ worth of experience in the squad and in Steffon Armitage and Matt Giteau Toulon have arguably the most consistent performers in last season’s Top 14. They open the defence of the Bouclier de Brennus in Bayonne, an awkward fixture that Toulon’s four wins on the road last season were the most (along with Montpellier) managed by a Top 14 side.

Au Revoir : Jonny WILKINSON (retired), Alexis PALISSON (Toulouse), Pierrick  GUNTHER (Lyon), Joe VAN NIEKERK (retired), Danie ROSSOUW (retired), Seb BRUNO (retired).

Bonjour : Mamuka GORGODZE (Montpellier), Gerhard VOSLOO (Clermont), Guilhem  GUIRADO (Perpignan), Leigh HALFPENNY (Cardiff), James O’CONNOR (London Irish), Romain TAOFIFENUA (Perpignan), Fabien BARCELLA (Biarritz)

TOULOUSE

Having failed to reach the Top 14 semi-finals last season for the first time in 21 years, the pressure is on Toulouse and coach Guy Noves. Pre-season preparations haven’t been easy with a heavy 38-12 defeat at Toulon and a raft of injuries to key players. Missing from Saturday’s clash with Oyonnax are Thierry Dusautoir, Louis Picamoles, Luke McAlister and Schalk Ferreira. Englishman Toby Flood and All Black Corey Flynn are among the new faces at Toulouse but it may be that a new coaching regime is what the club really needs to challenge Toulon’s dominance.

Au Revoir:  Lionel BEAUXIS (Bordeaux-Bègles), Hosea GEAR (Honda Heat).

Bonjour: Toby FLOOD (Leicester), Imanol HARINORDOQUY (Biarritz), Cory FLYNN (Crusaders), Alexis PALISSON (Toulon).

Rugby World’s Play-Off Predictions: Toulon, Racing, Clermont, Montpellier, Grenoble, Bordeaux

Don’t miss the Top 14 preview in the September 2014 issue of Rugby World – on sale now.