James Harrington talks us through all the clubs in the French top flight ahead of the big kick-off
Top 14 team guide 2022-23
On Saturday, 3 September, ten weeks and a day after Montpellier won their first-ever Top 14 title on a warm Friday evening in June, the new race for the Brennus kicks off in France, as Racing 92 host last season’s losing finalists Castres at La Defense Arena.
Before the new season gets under way, Rugby World has the definitive list of arrivals and departures from every club in the top flight of French men’s professional rugby, and takes a look at their chances in the campaign.
At the time of writing, Francis Saili’s future remained uncertain – despite numerous reports linking him to Stade Français. Officially, he was still on Biarritz’s books. Meanwhile, Toulon had yet to make a decision on the future of Matthieu Bastareaud, who spent pre-season training with the club as he recovered from serious injuries to both knees. The outlook was positive, according to reports, but staff remained cautious.
Here, then, in alphabetical order, is a club-by-club preview of the 2022-23 Top 14 season.
In: Maxime Machenaud, Camille Lopez, Mateaki Kafatolu, Riko Buliruarua, Thomas Acquier, Pascal Cotet, Pieter Scholtz, Quentin Bethune, Facundo Bosch, Jason Robertson, Thomas Ceyte, Geoff Cridge, Manuel Leindekar, Pierre Huguet, Guillaume Martocq, Bastien Pourailly, Kamineli Rasaku.
Out: Luc Mousset, Ugo Boniface, John Ulugia, Maxime Delonca, Mariano Galarza, Mat Luamanu, Filimoni Taofifenua, Asier Usarraga, Ioane Iashaghashvili, Shaun Venter, Maxime Lafage, Manuel Ordas, Theo Costosseque, Joe Ravouvou, Guillaume Bouche, Hugo Fourquet (loan)
Staff: Gregory Patat, Gerard Fraser, Joel Rey, Antoine Battut, Eric Artiguste.
Key signing: Maxime Machenaud.
Promoted ProD2 champions Bayonne gambled early last season that Yannick Bru would guide them back to the Top 14 at the first attempt, and set about recruiting accordingly.
They’re now under new management, with Bru leaving for a short stint with URC’s Sharks, but that bet looks to have paid off.
Bayonne have brought in plenty of experience, with that ‘rookie’ half-back pairing of Machenaud and Lopez tasked with giving Bayonne a puncher’s chance of making their return to the French top flight last longer than one season. It won’t be easy. Expect to see them in the relegation dogfight as the ‘matches played’ number ticks towards 26.
Meanwhile, Gregory Patat has taken charge for his first stint in the managerial hotseat after a year out of the game following his departure from La Rochelle, where he was forwards coach.
In: Christopher Voatoa, Ugo Boniface, Madosh Tambwe, Antoine Miquel, Sipili Falatea, Zack Holmes, Tani Vili, Pablo Dimcheff (loan return).
Out: Cameron Woki, Thierry Paiva, Joseph Dweba, Louis Picamoles, Alexandre Roumat, Francois Trinh-Duc, UJ Seuteni, Ben Lam, Lasha Tabidze, Ma’ama Vaipulu, Nathanael Hulleu (loan).
Staff: Christophe Urios, Frederic Charrier, Julien Lairle, Heini Adams, Jean-Baptiste Poux, Laurent Cardona, Mourad Abed.
Key signing: Madosh Tambwe.
Bordeaux head into the 2022/23 season under a cloudburst of questions after a season that won’t necessarily be regarded well, despite a Top 14 semi-final and qualifying for the Champions Cup.
The ambitious club’s campaign ended with a run of 10 losses in 14 matches and an apparent dressing room schism, as manager Christophe Urios publicly rounded on key players including Cameron Woki and Matthieu Jalibert.
Woki has since left for Racing 92 – and has gone on the record as saying the boss’s outburst had nothing to do with his decision. But Urios has had plenty of bridges to rebuild before the new season kicks off.
Word from pre-season is the manager has learned a lesson. The first day of pre-season was devoted to clearing the air. “I have rethought the way I work with my staff,” Urios told Midi Olympique. “I want the guys to be committed, authentic, to speak the truth. This will be my big challenge.”
The lightning bolt question in the cloudburst is: will it be enough?
In: Marcel van der Merwe, Malino Vanai, Lucas Da Silva, Abraham Papali’i, Julien Delannoy, Rodrigo Bruni, Sammy Arnold.
Out: Soso Bekoshvili, Cody Thomas, Simon-Pierre Chauvac, Thomas Acquier, Peniami Narisia, Victor Lebas, Steevy Cerqueira, So’otala Fa’aso’o, Kitione Kamikamica, Otar Giorgadze, Tedo Abzhandadze, Seva Galala, Pierre Tournebize.
Staff: Jeremy Davidson, Goderdzi Shvelidze, Jean-Baptiste Pejoine, Arnaud Mela, Philippe Carbonneau.
Key signing: Marcel van der Merwe.
Less than a month out from the start of the Top 14 season, prop Hayden Thompson-Stringer had surgery on a foot injury and will be out of action for the opening months of the new campaign.
Thompson-Stringer, who has become a mainstay in the front row since joining from Saracens in 2019, joins Mitch Lees, Wesley Douglas, Retief Marais and captain Saïd Hirèche on the sidelines for the opening rounds.
It’s far from the best news for the scrappy club or its manager Jeremy Davidson, who routinely masterminds limited resources very well. And it all leads to the unavoidable conclusion that Brive face a difficult start to their season. If they can keep their heads above water early on, they will bank on themselves to stay away from trouble at the far end of the season. It may be another close-run thing, however.
In: Leone Nakarawa, Aurelien Azar, Asier Usarraga, Gauthier Doubrere, Adrien Seguret, Gauthier Maravat, Loïs Guerrois, Simon Benoist, Dorian Clerc (loan return).
Out: Rory Kockott, Julius Nostadt, Loic Jacquet, Tudor Stroe, Jack Whetton, Simon Meka (loan), Mateaki Kafatolu, Stephane Onambele, Pierre Aguillon, Bastien Guillemin.
Staff: Pierre-Henry Broncan, David Darricarrere, Karena Wihongi, Yannick Caballero, Rory Kockott, Cedric Clave.
Key signing: Leone Nakarawa.
Despite reaching their fourth final in ten years and – a little fortuitously – finishing top of the table for the first time ever after a season in which they were in the top six for 24 of 26 weeks, Castres are still determinedly playing that well-used underdog card.
Until the surprise unveiling of Leone Nakarawa on a budget one-season World Cup-prepping deal, they had recruited entirely from the ProD2 on potential, unashamedly avoiding players likely to be on international coaches’ radars.
And they have landed some promise. Notably in world u20 champions Adrien Seguret, from Grenoble, and Gauthier Maravat, from Agen. Watch out, too, for unknown Lois Guerrois – coach Pierre-Henry Broncan reckons he could be a future Top 14 star.
In: Loic Godener, Jules Plisson, Anthony Belleau, Julien Heriteau, Irae Simone, Bautista Delguy, Alex Newsome.
Out: Peni Ravai, Sipili Falatea, Wesley Fofana, Clement Lanen, Morgan Parra, Camille Lopez, JJ Hanrahan, Tani Vili, Bastien Pourailly, Kotaro Matsushima.
Staff: Jono Gibbes, Xavier Sadourny, Davit Zirakashvili, Benson Stanley, Jared Payne, Julien Ledevedec.
Key signing: Bautista Delguy
A seventh-place finish, climbing from ninth on the last day thanks in part to results elsewhere, was enough to get Clermont into this year’s Champions Cup, where they will face Leicester and Stormers. But it was, at best, a sigh-of-relief end to a disappointing first campaign under Jono Gibbes.
The inconvenient truth is Clermont were too easily beaten on the road and former fortress Marcel Michelin was too often breached for them to be considered serious contenders last season.
Enter ‘projet Clermont 2025′. It covers everything from finances to fan engagement, the ecole de rugby and the academy to the senior squad. Clermont plan to be back in the Top 14 title mix this season, and to have a European star by 2025. So, now we know the best-laid plan of Michelin Men. Gibbes can’t afford for them to gang aft agley.
In: Thierry Paiva, Ultan Dillane, Georges-Henri Colombe, Quentin Lespiaucq, Yoan Tanga-Mangene, Antoine Hastoy, UJ Seuteni, Teddy Thomas.
Out: Ramiro Herrera, Dany Priso, Guram Papidze, Facundo Bosch, Mathieu Tanguy, Victor Vito, Wiaan Liebenberg, Ihaia West, Jules Plisson, Jeremy Sinzelle, Kavekini Tabu, Arthur Retiere, Riko Buliruarua.
Staff: Ronan O’Gara, Donnacha Ryan, Gurthro Steenkamp, Romain Carmignani, Sebastien Boboul, Philippe Gardent.
Key signing: Antoine Hastoy.
A lot of the signings talk at La Rochelle focuses on Teddy Thomas, UJ Seuteni or Ultan Dillane. And it’s valid. But it misses a point. The fact is La Rochelle won last season’s Champions Cup without a consistent goal-kicker.
New Toulonnais Ihaia West turned up on the day in Marseille, but was hit-or-miss for much of the season, while Jules Plisson never recovered from a crowd-mauling in Brive and is now looking for a reset in Clermont.
It’s why head coach Ronan O’Gara started searching for a kicking fly-half early. And he quickly bagged France international and 250-plus points-a-season merchant Antoine Hastoy from Pau.
Hastoy, more than flair backs Thomas or Seuteni or his pack-boosting other signings, will be key to O’Gara’s plans to add a Top 14 title to the European crown he won in his first season in charge at Marcel Deflandre.
In: Paulo Tafili, Liam Coltman, Arno Botha, Maxime Gouzou, Theo William, Kyle Godwin, Josiah Maraku, Fletcher Smith.
Out: Pierre-Louis Barassi, Mickael Ivaldi, Mathieu Bastareaud, Romain Falcoz, Colby Fainga’a, Charlie Ngatai, Clement Laporte.
Staff: Xavier Garbajosa, Kendrick Lynn, Julien Puricelli, Didier Bes.
Key signing: Kyle Godwin.
Losing Pierre-Louis Barassi to Toulouse was long expected, but Charlie Ngatai’s decision to swap Lyon for Leinster was a late-season surprise that new manager Xavier Garbajosa could have done without.
But Lyon moved quickly, bringing in former Baby Black Josiah Maraku from Narbonne, and ex-Connacht centre Kyle Godwin to plug the gaping midfield hole. The latter’s more-than-useful left boot will also be a welcome addition for the 2022 Challenge Cup winners as they look to compete on two fronts again this season.
But it’s Garbajosa – out of management since his difficult stint as a first-time head coach at Montpellier ended prematurely – who is under the greatest pressure. He insists he’s learned from that period at the GGL and in the likes of Lynn and Puricelli, he has adjuncts who get the Lyon philosophy. But he will be under close scrutiny in the early post-Pierre Mignoni months.
In: Karl Tu’inukuafe, Simon-Pierre Chauvac, Clement Doumenc, Leo Coly, Louis Carbonel, Ben Lam.
Out: Malik Hamadache, Misha Nariashvili, Yannick Arroyo (loan), Robert Rodgers (loan), Guilhem Guirado, Fulgence Ouedraogo, Kelian Galletier, Benoit Paillaugue, Mickael Capelli, Handre Pollard, Martin Doan.
Staff: Philippe Saint-Andre, Olivier Azam, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Alexandre Ruiz.
Key signing: Louis Carbonel.
Champions Montpellier were the last Top 14 side to return to pre-season, hitting the training ground at the beginning of August after lifting the Brennus for the first time in their history on June 24.
This post-championship shortened timeframe is an occupational hazard for Top 14-winning sides, and one that shouldn’t bother a club with this level of talent.
‘Interim’ manager Philippe Saint-Andre – who along with coaches Azam, Elissalde and Ruiz has signed a new deal through to 2025 in April, having taken over from Garbajosa on a temporary basis nearly two years ago – has ridiculous halfback strength to call on. They’ve got Cobus Reinach, Leo Coly and Gela Aprasidze at nine, and Paolo Garbisi, Louis Carbonel and Louis Foursans at ten.
He has quality throughout the squad, from international props Mohamed Haouas and Karl Tu’inukuafe, through to Arthur Vincent and Ben Lam in the backs. But it won’t be straightforward. The season after a championship-winning campaign never is.
Yer Saint-Andre has every reason to expect another decent tilt at the title this season.
In: Guram Papidze, Paul Tailhades, Romain Ruffenach, Sacha Zegueur, Mickael Capelli, Rayne Barka, Emilien Gailleton, Clement Laporte.
Out: Antoine Hastoy, Quentin Lespiaucq, Daniel Ramsay, Kevin Yameogo, Julien Delannoy, Giovanni Habel-Kueffner, Alexandre Dumoulin, Marco Zanon.
Staff: Sebastien Piqueronies, Thomas Domingo, Geoffrey Lanne-Petit, Antoine Nicoud, Thomas Choveau.
Key signing: Sacha Zegueur.
In play-off and relegation terms, Pau’s last campaign was over after 23 of 26 weeks. But manager Sebastien Piqueronies insisted the last three games had value as his first full season in charge drew to a close.
He won’t have been impressed as his side convincingly lost all three, including two at home.
But Piqueronies, with his successful France under-20 background, is staying true to himself. Hooker Romain Ruffenach, 27, who joins from Biarritz, is the oldest of the new intake at Stade du Hameau. Only eight players in the wider squad have hit 30, as club and coach go all-in on youth. Sacha Zegueur, from Oyonnax, is a particularly good signing, while keeping Jordan Joseph for another season on loan is great news for the club.
Much, however, will depend on the experience of Zack Henry, who like his coach is entering his second ‘difficult’ season at the club. Following the departure of Hastoy to La Rochelle, he will have more of a playmaking role at ten after splitting his duties between fly-half and fullback last time around.
And he’s up for it: “I am not at Pau to play at the bottom of the table,” he told Midi Olympique in pre-season. “I want to take the team as high as possible. For that, we need to win more games. It’s up to us to be more demanding (of ourselves).”
Of course, walking the walk is harder than talking the talk.
In: Will Witty, Victor Moreaux, Kelian Galletier, Jake McIntyre, Vakhtang Jintcharadze (loan return), Boris Goutard, Ma’afu Fia, Dorian Laborde.
Out: Melvyn Jaminet, Bautista Delguy, Davit Kuriashvili, Sami Mavinga, Killian Taofifenua, Tevita Cavubati, Nafi Ma’afu, Damien Chouly, Jean-Bernard Pujol, Martin Landajo.
Staff: Patrick Arlettaz, David Marty, Perry Freshwater, Gerald Bastide, Guillaume Vilaceca.
Key signing: Kelian Galletier.
Ten wins, including the crucial one against ProD2 side Mont-de-Marsan in the promotion-relegation play-off, were enough to ensure Perpignan manager Patrick Arlettaz kept a 2020 promise to club president Francois Riviere that the club would secure and maintain promotion to the Top 14 in two years.
Consolidation follows survival in the French rugby lexicon. Arlettaz told Midi Olympique in early August, “the objective (for 2022/23) is revised a little upwards, but we are nonetheless cautious.”
But the ambition, and the model, is clear. In the same Midol piece, Riviere said: “We want to lay all the foundations for (Perpignan) to be an elite club. La Rochelle is an excellent example of that.” That’s the plan, then.
On the pitch, Perpignan have lost key players in Bautista Delguy, Melvyn Jaminet and Damien Chouly but have recruited cannily. They’ve filled gaps in their workforce with players they consider ‘Top 14-ready’, while a shift-around in staff has seen Arlettaz move ‘upstairs’, with David Marty stepping into the head coach role.
This has all the hallmarks of another difficult season at Aime-Giral, but it’s not entirely fantastical to believe Perpignan are setting themselves up not to fall.
In: Cameron Woki, Regan Grace, Gia Kharaishvili, Peniami Narisia, Janick Tarrit, Veikoso Poloniati, Kitione Kamikamica, Martin Meliande, Asaeli Tuivuaka, Warrick Gelant.
Out: Georges-Henri Colombe, Kevin Le Guen, Teddy Baubigny, Victor Moreaux, Yoan Tanga-Mangene, Maxime Machenaud, Mitch Short, Jean Chezeau, Teddy Thomas, Kurtley Beale, Baptiste Pesenti.
Staff: Laurent Travers, Yannick Nyanga, Dimitri Szarzewski, Didier Casadei, Rory Teague.
Key signing: Cameron Woki.
August deals for France international Cameron Woki and Super League winger Regan Grace (who later suffered an injury that will keep him out for some months) added late spice to Racing’s recruitment drive for this season at the end of what had, until then, been a relatively quiet foray into the market this year, Springbok fullback Warrick Gelant notwithstanding.
A Top 14 title and three European Cup finals since 2016 aren’t enough for Racing, or their sporting director Laurent Travers, who is set to move into the president’s chair at the far end of the season as Jacky Lorenzetti takes a backseat in club matters. It’s, frankly, scant reward for some big investment from Lorenzetti, who’s brought in a roster of stars from Dan Carter to Kurtley Beale.
Travers will want to end his sidelines period with more silverware. On paper. with Woki, Le Roux, Diallo, Kamikamica, Le Garrec, Russell, Fickou, Vakatawa on the books, they have the squad to challenge again for the top six. But they’ll want to get to at least one final this season. Anything less will be regarded as a failure.
In: Morgan Parra, Mickael Ivaldi, Lucas Peyresblanques, Baptiste Pesenti, Sione Tui, Giovanni Habel-Kueffner, Giorgi Tsutkiridze, Julien Ory, Mathieu Hirigoyen, Theo Dachary, Stephane Ahmed, Louis Druart, Nadir Megdoud.
Out: Ngani Laumape, Waisea Nayacalevu, Tolu Latu, Quentin Bethune, Lucas Da Silva, Yoann Maestri, Antoine Burban, Talalelei Gray, Loic Godener, Charlie Francoz, Will Percillier, Adrien Lapegue.
Staff: Gonzalo Quesada, Paul Gustard, Kobus Potgieter, Julien Arias, Laurent Sempere, James Kent.
Key signing: Morgan Parra.
Stade Francais missed their self-imposed top six target by five places and 20 points last season, while star signing Ngani Laumape left after just one season because he and his family struggled to settle in Paris.
That failure (it was a dismal season at Jean-Bouin) hasn’t stopped billionaire owner Hans-Peter Wild publicly setting the same goal for the misfiring club, admitting in an interview that he had been impatient in his ambitions when he took over in 2017, and pointing out that Montpellier’s Mohed Altrad had to wait more than a decade for his first Brennus.
Morgan Parra, who moved to the capital after 13 years at Clermont, will bring some much-needed on-pitch leadership, but the driver of the biggest change is in the dugout, where ex-England coach Paul Gustard has been poached from Benetton to fill the holes in a porous defence, while James Kent moves up from the academy set-up to join the senior side’s coaching staff.
Time isn’t on their side, but the coaches really need to get Stade’s expensively assembled squad playing as a team.
In: Dany Priso, Teddy Baubigny, Waisea Nayacalevu, Mathieu Tanguy, Benoit Paillaugue, Ihaia West, Jeremy Sinzelle, Maelan Rabut, Sitaleki Timani.
Out: Michelangelo Sosene-Feagau, Quinn Roux, Leone Nakarawa, Eben Etzebeth, Lopeti Timani, Julien Ory, Anthony Belleau, Louis Carbonel, Julien Heriteau, Petero Tuwai, Theo Dachary, Dorian Laborde, Harrison Obatoyinbo.
Staff: Pierre Mignoni, Franck Azema, James Coughlan, Romain Poite, Jocelino Suta, Maxime Petitjean, Frederic Michalak.
Key signing: Waisea Nayacalevu.
Three words: Toulon are back.
One double-down: yes, despite that exodus list.
One caveat: almost. They’re going to have to manage with a makeweight fly-half position this season. On-and-off Ihaia West is the only specialist ten on their books.
Despite what fans may tell you about talented 22-year-old Mathieu Smaili, also listed on the club website as a fly-half, he has only played nine times in that position out of his total 32 professional matches and has never started a Top 14 game at half-back.
Coaching dream ticket of sporting director Pierre Mignoni and manager Franck Azema will use Baptiste Serin and new arrival Benoit Paillaugue to plug the ten hole as needed. But don’t be surprised to see reports linking the club and Lyon’s Leo Berdeu sooner rather than later.
In: Maxime Duprat, Alexandre Roumat, Paul Graou, Pierre-Louis Barassi, Arthur Retiere, Ange Capuozzo, Melvyn Jaminet.
Out: Paulo Tafili, Joe Tekori, Rory Arnold, Antoine Miquel, Zack Holmes, Baptiste Germain (loan), Maxime Medard, Alexi Bales.
Staff: Ugo Mola, Clement Poitrenaud, Jean Bouilhou, Laurent Thuery, Virgile Lacombe, Jerome Kaino, Jerome Cazalbou.
Key signing: Paul Graou.
There are bigger names than former Agen scrum-half Paul Graou on Toulouse’s recruitment list – but, arguably, none as crucial.
Arriving fullbacks Melvyn Jaminet and Ange Capuozzo give Toulouse (who have also extended Thomas Ramos’ contract to 2027) a surfeit of riches at 15, suggesting the latter will play more at ten, to give Romain Ntamack a break. It all seems that Ernest Wallon will be a very exciting venue to visit… When everyone’s available.
But when they’re all away on international duty in November and February-March 2023, along with Ntamack, Antoine Dupont, Mathis Lebel, Peato Mauvaka, Anthony Jelonch, Thibaud Flament, François Cros, Julien Marchand, the currently injured Cyril Baille, and possibly props Dorian Aldegheri and Rodrigue Neti, and touring No 8 Selevasio Tolofua, new boy Graou will be one of those filling in.
Things were not helped by a Covid outbreak at Christmas, but last season Toulouse made a mistake managing the playing load of their stars. As a result, they were exhausted at the business end of the season, as the defence of both their European and domestic titles founded.
Here’s hoping manager Ugo Mola gets it right this time. He has the squad. He needs to use it.
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