James Harrington takes a look at all of the runners and riders ahead of France's domestic rugby season kicking off again. Who are you backing?
Top 14 2020-21 Season Preview
There is a reckoning coming in the Top 14, due to kick off with Stade Francais versus Bordeaux on 4 September. And it’s not just because the clubs are tightening their belts and cutting salary budgets.
The reckoning is on the pitch in a highly competitive league. Eight or nine clubs have their eyes on the six-team play-offs and Champions Cup rugby for the 2021-22 season.
Related: The wild life of the Bouclier de Brennus Top 14 trophy
Meanwhile, the extended end-of-year internationals, with up to six games pencilled-in, followed by five more in the 2021 Six Nations, leave the likes of Toulouse, Toulon, Montpellier and Racing facing a large portion of their campaigns without key players for the second year in a row.
Here, we do our best to predict the prospects of each of the sides. Just don’t bet the mortgage on any of it…
In: Tapu Falatea; Kevin Yameogo; Victor Moreaux; Corentin Vernet; Camille Gerondeau; Yoan Cottin (loan); Jean-Marcellin Buttin; Noel Reid; Gabriel Ibitoye
Out: Jeronimo Negrotto; Kamaliele Tufele; Mickael De Marco; Tom Murday; Adrian Motoc; Xavier Chauveau; Leo Berdeu; Thomas Vincent (loan); Alban Conduche; Benito Masilevu
Ibitoye, Reid and Buttin are the eye-catching signings in a decent summer of recruitment at Agen. Second row Moreaux, too, was a clever snap-up after his sudden departure from Castres, while scrum-half Cottin, on loan from Toulon, will be out to impress as he seeks much-needed game time. They might just be enough to ensure Agen improve on their 13th-place finish in the curtailed 2019/20 Top 14 season.
In: Sam Nixon; John Ulugia; Hugh Pyle; Asier Usarraga; Izaia Perese; Joe Ravouvou; Gaetan Germain, Alexandre Manukula (loan)
Out: Census Johnston; Aretz Iguiniz; Maxime Lamothe; Pieter Jan Van Lill; Adam Jaulhac; Edwin Maka; Antoine Battut; Benjamin Collet; Armandt Koster; Emmanuel Saubusse; Julien Tisseron; Setariki Tuicuvu
Bayonne surprised more than one ‘bigger’ side in the early skirmishes of last season. That good start saved them, because they then lost eight in a row to finish ninth. Yannick Bru’s done some clever recruitment work – Germain, Perese and Pyle, in particular, are good signings, while All Blacks Sevens star Ravouvou should add excitement from the wing. But you should probably look on the Basque side as a relegation favourite.
Related: Meet rugby cult hero Ben Tameifuna
In: Ben Tameifuna; Joseph Dweba; Guido Petti; Ben Lam
Out: Peni Ravai; Leonardo Ghiraldini; Adrien Pelissie; Florian Dufour; Masalosalo Tutaia; Lucas Meret; Semi Radradra; Blair Connor
It was Bordeaux’s season. It was not Bordeaux’s season. A first campaign under Christophe Urios ended prematurely with the Begles eight points clear at the top of the table with 13 wins and a draw out of 17 Top 14 games and five wins and a draw in the Challenge Cup pool phase. Losing Semi Radradra to Bristol was a blow – but Bordeaux have recruited and retained well to challenge for at least one title in the hybrid 2019/20/21 campaign.
In: Pietro Ceccarelli; Florian Dufour; Wesley Douglas; Brandon Nansen, Valentin Tirefort; Setariki Tuicuvu
Out: James Johnston; Karlen Asieshvili; Francois da Ros; Joe Snyman; Dan Malafosse; Richard Fourcade; Jan Uys; Alex Dunbar; Franck Romanet; Guillaume Namy; Rory Scholes
Jeremy Davidson’s Brive – thanks in no small part to the fine form of playmaker Thomas Laranjeira – beat Clermont, Toulon, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Pau, and Stade Francais at home in a solid return to the Top 14 after a season in the ProD2. Brive don’t have the riches of other clubs and aren’t likely to trouble the upper echelons next season, but sticking around in the top flight will be the least they deserve.
In: Julius Nostadt; Gaetan Barlot; Tyler Ardron; Ryno Pieterse; Semi Kunatani; Stephane Onambele; Kevin Kornath; Santiago Arata; Adrea Cocagi; Vilimoni Botitu; Bastien Guillemin
Out: Marc Clerc; Paea Fa’anunu; Tapu Falatea; Morgan Phelipponneau; Jody Jenneker; Paul Sauzeret; Rodrigo Capo Ortega; Christophe Samson; Victor Moreaux; Alex Tulou; Camille Gerondeau; Kevin Gimeno; Ludovic Radosavljevic; Robert Ebersohn; Julien Caminati; Taylor Paris
Plenty of experience has walked out of Castres’ door this year as coach Mauricio Reggiardo made good on his promise to build a younger squad. Despite the clearout, Castres’ senior team looks more balanced on paper – certainly, in Arata and Fortunel there’s talented and youthful additional cover for long-in-the-tooth halfbacks Kockott and Urdapilleta. If Reggiardo can make this squad work, there’s excitement to be had at Stade Pierre Fabre. Just expect it to take a year or so to gel.
In: Peni Ravai; Christian Ojovan; Adrien Pelissie; Etienne Fourcade; Sebastien Bezy; Kotaro Matsushima; Bastien Pourailly; Tavite Veredamu
Out: Davit Zirakashvili; Loni Uhila; Beqa Kakabadze; Mike Tadjer; Julien Ruaud; Greig Laidlaw; Charlie Cassang; Isaia Toeava; Remy Grosso; Nick Abendanon; Donovan Taofifenua
Interesting times at Clermont, and an interesting campaign in store. Change is afoot after a season that, despite reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, fell below expectations. Head coach Franck Azema is taking a strategic step back, as Clermont look to regain lost ground. Bezy was always too good to play second-fiddle to Dupont at Toulouse and will push Parra for the nine shirt, while Matsushima should fit well into a backline with quicksilver pace.
In: Will Skelton; Jules Le Bail; Raymond Rhule; Pierre Boudehent; Brice Dulin; Dillyn Leyds
Out: Sila Puafisi; Mike Corbel; Jean-Charles Orioli; Jone Qovu; Thomas Jolmes; Alexi Bales; Brock James; Brieuc Plessis-Couillaud; Marc Andreu; Eliott Roudil; Valentin Tirefort; Kini Murimurivalu; Vincent Rattez
Neither a fifth-place finish nor Jules Plisson’s return to form after his November move from Stade Francais can paper over the cracks of a chaotic 2019/20 season at La Rochelle, marked by the bizarre case of international-standard lock Thomas Jolmes – he was clearly unhappy at the club. Jono Gibbes and Ronan O’Gara would probably readily admit they were fortunate to finish in the Champions Cup places. Should do better.
In: Joe Taufete’e; Izack Rodda; Mathieu Bastareaud; Colby Fainga’a; Gillian Galan; Leo Berdeu; Remy Grosso; Alex Tulou
Out: Hendrik Roodt; Julien Puricelli; Carl Fearns; Liam Gill; Tanginoa Halaifonua; Sam Hidalgo-Clyne; Jean-Marcellin Buttin
Lyon’s rise from perennial yo-yo side to Top 14 remainers and, lately, play-off contenders, matches head coach Pierre Mignoni’s stewardship. No wonder Lyon were keen to sign him to a five-year deal in 2017. One thing Mignoni hasn’t managed to get a handle on is the Champions Cup, as just one win in two tournaments proves. Lyon are better than that and the boss will be out to improve on that record when European rugby returns in December.
Related: My life in pictures with Mathieu Bastareaud
In: Enzo Forletta; Titi Lamositele; Yannick Arroyo; Florian Verhaeghe; Mickael Capelli; Alexandre Becognee; Cobus Reinach; Vincent Rattez; Alex Lozowski; Julien Tisseron
Out: Johannes Jonker; Konstantine Mikautadze; Julien Bardy; Lucas de Coninck; Kevin Kornath; Kahn Fotuali’i; Enzo Sanga; Francois Steyn; Nemani Nadolo; Timoci Nagusa; Benjamin Fall
Montpellier’s 39-player senior squad for 2020/21 boasts 27 JIFF-qualified players and 15 academy graduates. More importantly, perhaps, coach Xavier Garbajosa, after an underwhelming first season with an inherited squad, has a roster increasingly of his own making, into which he is retro-fitting the sexy rugby Montpellier used to play. They should be firmly back in the top-six mix this season and they’ll look much better getting there.
In: Matt Philip; Tamua Manu; Aminiasi Tuimaba; Eliott Roudil; Hugo Bonneval; Mike Harris
Out: Dominiko Waqaniburotu; Colin Slade; Tom Taylor; Pierre Nueno; Ben Smith; Bastien Pourailly
Since climbing up to the Top 14 in 2015, Pau have not finished higher than eighth. It needed a gritty 19-15 win over Montpellier on what turned out to be the final day of the 2019/20 season on February 29 – ending a run of seven straight defeats – to move them off the foot of the table into 12th. Despite the arrivals of the experienced Harris and Bonneval, it’s hard to see them anywhere other than the lower reaches this time around.
In: Luke Jones; Kurtley Beale
Out: Vasil Kakovin; Ben Tameifuna; Issam Hamel; Johnny Dyer; Ben Volavola; Brice Dulin
Beale is the Top 14’s headline signing for 2020/21 – but the story of Racing’s campaign will be its French core, with only eight non-JIFF senior players currently on the books. This is how future French club sides will look. What’s terrifying is that Racing, under rugby eggheads Laurent Travers and Mike Prendergast, have improved quality in their quest for greater Gallic-ness. Expect a serious challenge on all fronts.
In: Vasil Kakovin; Gerbrandt Grobler; Marcos Kremer; Telusa Veainu
Out: Thierry Futeu; Sione Anga’aelangi; Hugh Pyle; Joketani Koroi; Clement Daguin; Lionel Mapoe; Alexis Palisson; Ruan Combrinck
Another season, another new beginning for Stade, who were 14th of 14 when coronavirus halted the 2019/20 season. This restart may be different, with Gonzalo Quesada – who took them to the French title in 2015 – back at the helm. Under him are Julian Arias and Laurent Sempere, who rediscovered Parisian joie de vivre after that dour Heyneke Meyer spell. Some decent, targeted, late transfer moves hint that, maybe, good times aren’t far away.
In: Jeremy Boyadjis; Thomas Jolmes; Isaia Toeava
Out: Marcel van der Merwe; Mamuka Gorgodze; Corentin Vernet; Liam Messam; Stephane Onambele; Yoan Cottin (loan); Mathieu Smaili (loan); Hugo Bonneval
The difficult third season for Toulon boss Patrice Collazo kicks off with plenty of promise and a much-changed philosophy from the conspicuous consumption of the early Mourad Boudjellal years. New president Bernard LeMaitre is pushing homegrown youth development over buy-ins, though there are still plenty of overseas gems in the squad. Galacticos disassembling, but contenders again, Larry.
In: Richie Arnold; Alexi Bales
Out: Maks Van Dyk; Richie Gray; Florian Verhaeghe; Gillian Galan; Pierre Pages; Sebastien Bezy; Tristan Tedder (loan); Maxime Mermoz; Theo Belan
Expect more of the same joyous, unrestrained power-and-pace combo rugby that has become a hallmark of head coach Ugo Mola’s second Toulousain empire. The club’s once-forgotten academy is open again for business and much rests on young shoulders, as Mola sets his sights firmly on a return to European glory while building a new dynasty from within.
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