This summer there has been a wealth of big money transfers moves in the Top 14, RW takes a look at the ins and outs
The Top 14 transfer market has more or less closed for the summer. Clubs are still permitted to sign up to two supplementary players in addition to ‘World Cup jokers’, players brought in from August to November as cover for those on World Cup duty.
The season opens on the weekend of August 21/22 and, because of the World Cup, goes on until June 24 with Barcelona’s Nou Camp Stadium hosting the final. So it’s going to be a long stamina-sapping season and the 14clubs will be hoping that their squads can last the pace. With some clubs already back in training for the new season we give a rundown of the major comings and goings.
Back in the Top 14 after an two-year absence following their Pro D2 play-off victory over Mont-de-Marsan, Agen have thus far recruited modestly, with New Zealand Sevens star George Tilsley and Cheetahs centre Johann Sadie their two stand-out signings. A dozen players have been released, the most notable being former Fiji wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca, who joins Montauban.
Seventh in the Top 14 last season, Bordeaux will play in the Champions Cup next season after beating Gloucester in the play-off. Emile Ntamack, the former France centre, has replaced Vincent Etcheto as backs coach, and he’ll have veteran Wallaby centre Adam Ashley-Cooper among his charges as well as France full-back Jean-Marcellin Buttin. Up front the pack is reinforced with, among others, France No 8 Loann Goujon, who joins from La Rochelle, former Auckland Blues captain and flanker Luke Braid and Sekope Kepu, the Wallaby prop capped 52 times.
A quiet transfer period for Brive, who finished 10th last season despite being threatened with relegation right up to the final day of the regular season. Among those departing the club are Riaan Swanepoel (Montauban) and Patrick Barnard (retired), while new additions include second-row Johan Snyman, who joins from the Scarlets, and back-rower William Whetton, son of All Black great, Gary, who makes the move from Castres.
A traumatic season for the 2013 champions (and 2014 runners-up) saw Castres propping up the table until springtime. They eventually strung together enough victories to pull them clear of the relegation zone – just, finishing 12th. With a new coach next season in Christophe Urios, there have been many changes to the squad with the likes of Remi Tales (Racing 92), Max Evans and Marcel Garvey, Ramiro Herrera (Argentina) and Pasa Fa’anunu (Grenoble) all moving on. Among the nine new players are the Toulon threequarters Rudi Wolf and David Smith, Hurricanes prop Eric Sione and possibly their most canniest signing, Argentine fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta, who performed so reliably for Oyonnax last season.
After another season that promised so much but delivered nothing, other than defeats in the finals of the Champions Cup and the Top 14, Clermont will be hoping their new recruits can break their losing habit. England wing David Strettle knew how to win with Saracens, while Scott Spedding (Bayonne), Flip Van der Merwe (Bulls), Adrien Plante (Racing 92) and Hosea Gear (Chiefs) are all proven performers. Among the players no longer with Clermont are Ti’i Paulo, Napolioni Nalaga and Julien Bonnaire (all Lyon), Julien Malzieu (Montpellier), Julien Pierre (Pau) and Kiwi fly-half Mike Delany, who joins Newcastle Falcons.
At one stage pushing for a place in the Champions Cup, a spring slump in form left Grenoble fighting a relegation dogfight and they finished in 11th. A major overhaul of the squad has taken place since then, with 15 players moved on – including Ross Skeate to Aix and Paul Willemse to Montpellier – and nine players brought in. Among that number are experienced centre Fabrice Estebanez from Lyon, lock James Percival from Worcester, Tongan prop Sona Taumalolo and former Highlanders loose forward Steven Setephano.
Tipped by many to be the whipping boys of the Top 14 last season, La Rochelle finished ninth and took some notable scalps along the way, including Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse. Not one of the richer clubs in the French league, La Rochelle have lost star No 8 Loann Goujon to Bordeaux but they welcome seven new faces including former Springbok scrum-half Ricky Januarie from Lyon, utility back Zack Holmes from Western Force and full-back Benjamin Lapeyre from Racing 92.
The reign of coach Fabien Galthie came to a messy end last season as he was axed in mid-season and replaced by Jake White. The man who coached South Africa to World Cup glory in 2007 struggled to turn things around with the squad he inherited and Montpellier finished eighth, missing out on the Champions Cup for the first time since 2010. Not surprise that White has taken an axe to the squad, offloading nearly 20 players including Alex Tulou (Castres), Na’ama Leleimalefaga (Worcester Warriors) and Jonathan Pelissie (Toulon). Among the many new signings are a raft of South Africans, including Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis brothers, Pierre Spies, Frans Steyn and Schalk Van der Merwe, not forgetting two Aussies in Nic White and Jesse Mogg. There’s also a new backs’ coach in Scott Wisemantel and installed as manager is former France captain Abdel Benazzi.
The surprise of last season, Oyonnax (with a population of 23,000 it’s the smallest town in the Top 14) finished sixth and will make their first appearance in the Champions Cup next season. The loss of coach Christophe Urios to Castres is a setback, and the pressure will be on his successor, former Gloucester hooker Olivier Azam. He’ll have to do without fly-half Benjamin Urdapilleta, who’s joined Castres, but Azam’s English connections are evident in the players he signed. George Robson (Harlequins), Piri Weepu (London Welsh), Nicky Robinson (Bristol), Fetu’u Vainikolo (Exeter Chiefs) and Eamonn Sheridan (London Irish) all make the trip over the Channel, while Fabrice Metz joins from Racing 92 and former Toulon flanker Pierrick Gunther is also a new signing.
The runaway winners of the ProD2 – they were crowned champs a month before the last game of the season – Pau have had longer than usual to prepare for the challenge of the Top 14. Coach Simon Mannix, formerly backs- coach at Racing 92 and Munster – has landed two huge catches in All Blacks’ Colin Slade and Conrad Smith, while the experience of lock Julien Pierre and former Scotland prop Euan Murray will be crucial. Munster pair Paddy Butler and Sean Dougall also arrive and scrum-half Thierry Lacrampe will be hoping for more game time than he got at Clermont.
Dropping the ‘Metro’ from their name, Racing 92 have also a new look to their squad after a major overhaul following their disappointing fifth place. After their failure of Jonny Sexton, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate to adapt to the Top 14, Racing have brought in a raft of players well familiar with the rigours of French rugby. France internationals Yannick Nyanga and Remi Tales arrive from Toulouse and Castres respectively, while Martin Castrogiovanni and Chris Masoe make the journey from Toulon. Oh, and there’s some other bloke who’s supposed to be able to play a bit. That’s it, Dan Carter. Along with the Celtic trio, the other notable departure is Camille Gerondeau, a talented flanker who struggled to get regular game time at Racing and has decamped to Clermont.
What a season for the Parisian club, who last season failed to qualify for the Champions Cup. Crowned champions for the first time since 2007, Stade took the title with one of the most French squads in the Top 14. Two of those players, stalwarts Jerome Fillol and Pierre Rabadan, have retired, while Digby Ioane is heading to Japan after an average couple of seasons in Paris. One of his former Wallaby teammates, scrum-half Will Genia, joins after the World Cup, as does Springbok flanker Willem Alberts. One young name to watch is France U20 flanker Sekou Macalou, who moves to the Stade Jean Bouin from ProD2 club Massy. The departure of backs coach Jeff Dubois to join the national set-up under Guy Noves is a blow for Stade but one the head coach Gonzalo Quesada should be able to overcome.
Crowned European champions for an unprecedented third successive season, Toulon nonetheless failed to reach the final of the Top 14 for the first time since 2011. The loss of four world-class forwards in Ali Williams, Bakkies Botha, Carl Hayman and Chris Masoe will challenge the mettle of their replacements, notably Salesi Ma’afu, Paul O’Connell, Duane Vermeulen, Samu Manoa and Matt Stevens. All fine players but will they create the same winning chemistry as their predecessors? Watch out for the progress of the exciting young No 8 Charles Ollivon, who arrives from Bayonne, while in the backs the excitement will be provided by Quade Cooper (most probably), Ma’a Nonu, Jonathan Pelissie and the return of James O’Connor. With Pierre Mignoni having vacated his position as backs’ coach to take up the role of head coach at Lyon, Australian Steve Meehan will have the task of continuing the Frenchman’s success.
A new era dawns for Europe’s most successful club in the professional era following the departure of coach Guy Noves after 22 years at the helm. The last three seasons have not been successful for the four-times European champions with the squad looking stale and short of ideas in failing to reach the final of any competition. Nonetheless Toulouse – who have been beset by financial difficulties recently – have barely dabbled in the transfer market over the summer with just three signings, including scrum-half David Mele from Leicester (to replace Jano Vermaak, who returns to South Africa) and prop Gert Muller from Bayonne. But Toulouse already have the squad, what they’ve lacked in recent years is the coaching and so much will be expected of new manager Ugo Mola and sporting director Fabien Pelous, along with existing coaches William Servat and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde.