The new Top 14 season kicks off in a little over a week and we’ve picked out the ten players to look out for over the coming campaign
The Top 14 isn’t quite the global draw it was a couple of seasons ago but despite the emergence of the Aviva Premiership as a serious rival in the galactico stakes, the French championship boasts not just some of the world’s top talent but an increasing number of gifted home-grown youngsters. With the new season kicking off on Saturday week, we’ve picked out ten players to keep tabs on between now and the final on 4 June 2017…
1. Leigh Halfpenny, Toulon
Last season was a nightmare for the Welshman. The knee injury sustained in the World Cup warm-up against Italy wrote off most of the season for Halfpenny. He returned in June, kicking 28 points in the semi-final and final of the Top 14, but Halfpenny will want to put 2015-16 behind him. So too, Toulon, who sorely missed the accuracy of the full-back’s boot and finished the regular season with a kicking success rate of barely 70%.
Halfpenny started last Friday’s friendly against Stade Francais, slotting a couple of conversions, before hobbling off on the hour mark. A knock to the shin was the official explanation with Toulon quick to reassure their fans that it was nothing serious.
2. Yoann Huget, Toulouse
The Toulouse winger tore the cruciate ligament in his right knee in France’s World Cup opener against Italy, a cruel blow for a player in prime form last year. The 29-year-old Huget finally made his return in Friday’s warm-up win against Racing 92 and he even had the thrill of marking his comeback with a try in a 35-21 defeat of the Top 14 champions. With Vincent Clerc and Clement Poitrenaud no longer with Toulouse, Huget’s experience – as well as his eye for the line – will be more valuable than ever in their back-line.
3. Loick Jammes, Grenoble
Grenoble coach Bernard Jackman knows a thing or two about hooking, having worn the No 2 jersey for Leinster and Ireland, and the fact he gave Jammes his debut last season shows the potential of the 21-year-old. He rewarded his coach’s faith with a string of eye-catching performances in the loose and scored two tries last week in Grenoble’s friendly against Agen. Still learning his trade in the set-piece, Jammes was one of three Grenoble players named in France’s 30-man development squad in July.
4. Judicaël Cancoriet, Clermont Auvergne
Signed by Clermont on a three-year deal in the summer of 2015, the Parisian flanker first played the game with the Sarcelles club in one of the tough districts of the French capital. His development has continued apace in the Auvergne and the 20-year-old, who stands 6ft 4in and weighs 16st, is cherished by Clermont coach Franck Azema.
Describing Cancoriet as “probably the most promising flanker in French rugby”, Azema gave Cancoriet five games in last season’s Top 14 and his performance in the victory at Bordeaux earned him a place in Midi Olympique’s XV of the Week.
5. Francois Trinh-Duc, Toulon
For so long the darling of Montpellier, the 29-year-old fly-half left the club in the summer and moved up the Mediterranean coast to Toulon as a replacement for Frédéric Michalak. The pair have much in common other than their position and strong media profiles; both have talent but throughout their careers have failed to find the consistency at the top level.
Too often in the high-pressure games, Trinh-Duc’s temperament has let him down and his move to Toulon will make him or break him. If he learns from the likes of Giteau, Nonu, Habana and Mitchell, then he could finally mature into the fly-half France so desperately need.
6. Alipate Ratini, Stade Francais
It took the Fijian winger just nine minutes to score his first try for his new club, touching down for the Parisians in last Friday’s friendly defeat by Toulon. Club and player will hope it marks the start of a new chapter in the turbulent life of the 25-year-old. His talent isn’t in question: during the 2014-15 season he scored ten tries in 15 Top 14 appearances for Grenoble.
Off the pitch, however, Ratini’s behaviour eventually led Grenoble to terminate his contract in June 2015. Simon Raiwalui, the former Fiji lock and now Stade forwards coach, came to Ratini’s rescue and for six weeks took him under his wing. In offering Ratini a contract, club president Thomas Savare admitted it was “a gamble” but one Stade believe will pay off.
7. Fabien Sanconnie, Brive
Had it not been for a fierce tackle by Grenoble’s Nigel Hunt last March, Sanconnie may well have been selected for France’s summer tour to Argentina. As it was the 21-year-old Brive loose forward spent the summer recovering from a fractured elbow, but few in France doubt that it will be long before he’s wearing the blue of the senior national side.
Since making his senior debut for Brive two years ago against Gloucester in the Challenge Cup, the 6ft 4in Sanconnie has fine tuned his game for France U20 under the expert eye of coach Olivier Magne. He was a great presence in the French back row of the late 1990s and Sanconnie is tipped to follow in Magne’s footsteps.
8. Arthur Iturria, Clermont Auvergne
Named this summer in the FFR’s development squad, the 22-year-old Iturria was overshadowed last season by the emergence of team-mate Paul Jedrasiak. A year younger than his fellow second-row, the 6ft 4in and 17st 7lb Iturria shares the same dynamic athleticism as Jedrasiak.
Last season he made one start and ten appearances from the bench for Clermont, but with Jamie Cudmore gone and Jedrasiak and Sébastien Vahaamahina likely to be away for long stretches on international duty, this could be Iturria’s breakthrough season.
9. Ian Madigan, Bordeaux
Irish eyes will be on the former Leinster fly-half this season as he looks to relaunch his career at Bordeaux. Madigan, who won his 30th cap against South Africa in June, was warned by the IRFU that moving to France would leave him at a “disadvantage” when it came to national selection but he’s gone all the same.
In an interview with L’Equipe last month he explained why he’s signed a two-year deal: “I’m 27 now and I believe that this opportunity arrives at the ideal time for me, and that my best years are to come and will be with Bordeaux. The club’s is going to see the best of me.”
Madigan has prepared well for his new challenge, undergoing an intensive language course, and working with a backs coach like Emile Ntamack will surely give the Irishman a valuable insight into French threequarter play.
10. Leone Nakarawa, Racing 92
The loss of two locks as high class as Luke Charteris (Bath) and Juandré Kruger (Toulon) would, in normal circumstances, have been a heavy blow for Racing 92. But the Top 14 champions can console themselves with the imminent arrival of Fiji second-row Leone Nakarawa, who’ll be in Paris just as soon as he’s finished rampaging around Rio in the Olympic Sevens.
A supremely gifted footballer, as adept at offloading as he is at pilfering ball at the breakdown, Nakarawa nonetheless doesn’t neglect the bread-and-butter of second-row play and for that reason Gregor Townsend was spot on when he said of Nakarawa that “there is no other lock in the world like him”. Glasgow’s loss is Racing’s gain and Midi Olympique recently bracketed him in the same class as Sonny Bill Williams and Israel Folau.
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