Gavin Mortimer runs the rule over the French contenders in this season's European Champions Cup
Heaven knows European rugby needs cheering up at the moment after a World Cup that for the first time saw no Six Nations side reach the last four. And what better way to lift the spirits than the return of the European Champions Cup, rugby’s premier club competition.
But the question on everyone’s lips is: who can break Toulon’s stranglehold? With their unprecedented hat-trick of titles, the Cote d’Azur club are strong favourites this season, but if they are to surrender their crown it may well be to one of their French rivals. Gavin Mortimer casts an eye over the seven French clubs and their progress this season…
Bordeaux, Pool Two: Ospreys, Exeter and Clermont
The club qualified for their first appearance in the Champions Cup courtesy of a play-off victory over Gloucester having finished seventh in the Top 14. They achieved their position playing with pace and panache, running in 66 tries – a number only bettered in last season’s regular season by the 81 of Toulon. One would have expected more of the same this season with former France threequarter Emile Ntamack (known for his attacking talent) replacing Vincent Etcheto as backs coach over the summer. But it’s been a difficult start for the season for Bordeaux, who have managed four wins in their opening eight encounters.
It’s the try count that is the most surprising, however, with their total of seven the lowest in the Top 14. Asked to account for this sterility, Sébastien Taofifenua replied: “I find us more pragmatic than last year… we’ve got to preserve our touch of madness which gives us our identity and our force, of course, but we must find the balance between the two.” The arrival of veteran Wallaby centre Adam Ashley-Cooper will be a plus for Bordeaux and he should bring the best out of French Test threequarters Jean-Marcellin Buttin and Felix Le Bourhis.
Clermont, Pool Three: Ospreys, Exeter and Bordeaux
European runners-up twice in the last three seasons, Clermont also lost in last season’s Top 14 final to Stade Francais, the culmination of an awful few weeks as they endured what is becoming their traditional end-of-season slump. Some canny summer signings – including Camille Gérondeau, Hosea Gear, Scott Spedding and David Strettle (the latter quickly hitting his stride on the right wing) – have propelled them to the top of the table.
There’s no question that Clermont will be fully focused on the Champions Cup, and having been drawn in some tough pools over the years, they are pleased this time around. “For once, the draw hasn’t placed us in the worst of pools,” admitted hooker Benjamin Kayser on Monday. “But we know that it’s a big challenge waiting for us.” None is bigger than Sunday’s trip to Bordeaux, where last season Clermont were thrashed 51-21 in the league.
Oyonnax, Pool One: Saracens, Toulouse and Ulster
It was all change at Oyonnax over the summer. In came a new coach in former Gloucester hooker Olivier Azam, while the squad underwent a major overhaul including the arrival of lock George Robson, scrum-half Piri Weepu, centre Eamonn Sheridan and, more recently, fly-half Rory Clegg.
There was also a new pitch, an artificial one, that some in Oyonnax might now be regretting. Last season Oyonnax only lost twice at home in the Top 14, the Stade Charles-Mathon an intimidating cauldron and the pitch often a quagmire that suited Oyonnax’s pack-dominated game. The atmosphere remains raucous but the pitch seems to working against their hosts, who have lost two of their four home league games this season.
Oyonnax are in only their third season of Top 14 rugby and they are the smallest town or city to boast a top-flight rugby club. To make it into Europe’s showpiece tournament is a feat in itself; to reach the knockout stages this season will be nothing short of miraculous.
Racing 92, Pool Three: Glasgow, Northampton and Scarlets
Racing 92 tasted Champions Cup knockout rugby for the first time last season but then cracked under pressure in the closing minutes of their quarter-final home tie to Saracens. That defeat hurt the Paris club but they’ve started this season in solid form and are third in the table. Backs coach Laurent Labit admitted last week that the return from World Cup duty of Brice Dulin, Eddy Ben Arous, Remi Tales and Yannick Nyanga would require a period of recalibration, and so it appears after Racing slumped to a 34-8 defeat at Castres on Saturday.
Tales and Johan Goosen will be fighting for the No 10 jersey in the absence of Dan Carter, who arrives in the French capital in December, while Dulin faces competition for his spot at full-back from the young South African Sean Robinson. In the pack the arrival of Chris Masoe is a boon, as is the signing of Nyanga, and keep an eye out for 19-year-old hooker Camille Chat – much is expected of the raw talent.
Stade Francais, Pool Four: Leicester, Munster and Benetton Treviso
It’s been a wretched couple of months for the reigning Top 14 champions, and despite beating Clermont on Sunday they lie 11th in the table. Now they have a five-day turnaround and a trip to Welford Road to play Leicester. The two clubs met in the 2001 Heineken Cup final (the Tigers winning a thriller 34-30) but this season sees the return of Stade to Europe’s showpiece competition for the first time in six years.
That they have a pack capable of taking on Europe’s best is not in question – and in the win over Clermont, props Heinke van der Merwe and Rabah Slimani demonstrated their scrummaging prowess. The arrival of Springbok flanker Willem Alberts will further beef up their scrum, but it’s in the back-line where Stade have been struggling. Fly-half Jules Plisson has lacked authority this season and scrum-half Will Genia, yet to make his Stade debut, can’t be expected to slot effortlessly in. But look out for 22-year-old centre Jonathan Danty, voted by Midi Olympique France’s outstanding centre last season – only to be absurdly overlooked by Philippe Saint-André for the RWC.
Toulon, Pool Five: Bath, Wasps and Leinster
Four wins, four losses and fourth in the table. Such symmetry has been lacking from their displays for much of the autumn but against Montpellier on Saturday we saw the Toulon of old, the same ruthless precision that has won them an unprecedented hat-trick of European titles. Alarmingly, they did it without Matt Giteau, Bryan Habana and James O’Connor, who were watching from the stands, and with Ma’a Nonu, Duane Vermeulen and Drew Mitchell still off on their holidays.
Quade Cooper was instrumental in orchestrating the 52-8 thrashing of Montpellier while another new boy, Samu Manoa, also caught the eye with a second-row display that included a 30-metre try. Star of the show, however, was wing Josua Tuisova, who scored a second-half hat-trick in 16 minutes. The 21-year-old Fijian is likely to be one of the sensations of this season’s Champions Cup, and given the way he effortlessly slotted in at fly-half on Saturday, so might Cooper.
Toulouse, Pool One: Oyonnax, Ulster and Saracens
A new coach and an old Toulouse this season at the Stade Ernest-Wallon. Gone is the muddled mediocrity that characterised the last few seasons of Guy Noves’s reign, supplanted by the confident dynamism that once was synonymous with Europe’s most successful club. Averaging 27 points a game under new boss Ugo Mola, Toulouse have run in 25 tries in eight Top 14 matches, nearly half the number they scored (53) in the 2014-15 regular season.
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They warmed up for Saturday’s trip to Saracens by thrashing Grenoble 52-12 with Gael Fickou running in the first hat-trick of his top-flight career. There was also another well-crafted display from young scrum-half Sébastien Bézy, while Louis Picamoles – off to Northampton next season – has brought his blistering form back from the World Cup. Luke McAlister, who missed the Grenoble game with a sore Achilles, is expected to return at the weekend to resume his partnership with Toby Flood. The Kiwi has been at fly-half this season, with Flood at 12, and they’ve pooled their experience and intelligence to restore to the Toulouse back-line a confident creativity sadly lacking in recent seasons.