James Harrington guides you through all the clubs in the French top flight

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Top 14 team-by-team guide 2021-22 season

The 2021-22 Top 14 season kicks off on 4 September, with Biarritz entertaining Bordeaux-Begles in the opening match. That first weekend also features a Paris derby, as Racing 92 travel to Stade Francais, and a repeat of last season’s Top 14 and Champions Cup finals between La Rochelle and Toulouse.

But, how will the season unfurl in France? We run the rule over the clubs and their recruitment for the new campaign.

Top 14 team-by-team guide 2021-22 season

Biarritz

Ins: James Cronin, Zakaria El Fakir, Quentin Samaran, Josh Tyrell, Antoine Erbani, Elliot Dixon, Clemont Darbo, Tomas Cubelli, Brett Herron, Tevita Kuridrani, Vincent Martin

Outs: Thomas Synaeghel, Adam Knight, Steven David, Gauthier Doubrere, Willie Du Plessis, Gaetan Robert, Lucas Lebraud, Benoit Lazzarotto

After beating neighbours Bayonne to win promotion in dramatic penalty shootout fashion, Biarritz were understandably flashy about their recruitment wins for their return to the Top 14.

Australian international Tevita Kuridrani is the big-name summer arrival – and his partnership with Francis Saili is likely to define their big top-flight comeback, while Antoine Erbani and James Cronin are both smart captures.

First seasons back are all about survival. The Basque Country side should have the squad to do that – but they’ll have to quickly come to terms with the step up in standards.

Bordeaux-Begles

Ins: Pablo Dimcheff, Federico Mori, Bastien Vergnes-Taillefer, Francois Trinh-Duc

Outs: Laurent Delboulbes, Alexandre Flanquart, Scott Higginbotham, Marco Tauleigne, Beka Gorgadze, Ben Botica, Bautista Delguy

Christophe Urios trod a route familiar to a number of Top 14 sides in the transfer market, focusing on keeping new arrivals to a minimum to ease into an established squad. Just four senior players have joined the club, with another four signing academy deals, while he tied 16 current players to longer contracts.

After a season marked by a first Top 14 play-off appearance and a first Champions Cup semi-final, ambitious Bordeaux will expect better this time around. They’ve a shot at the knockout phase in Europe again, as they meet Leicester and Scarlets in the pool stage, while they should be confident – but not arrogant – about another domestic top-six finish.

Brive

Ins: Tevita Ratuva, Andres Zafra, Enzo Sanga, Paul Abadie

Outs: Mesake Doge, Badri Alkhazashvili, Peet Marais, Dan Malafosse, Brandon Nansen, Irakli Tskhadadze, Julien Blanc, David Delarue, Baptiste Dubreuil, Riko Buliruarua

Brive routinely punch above their weight – president Simon Gillham is never shy about pointing out that the 100th largest town in France has one of the 14 best sides in the country. The club doesn’t have a sugar-daddy owner, and operates on one of the smaller budgets among the French top flight.

Ambitions are, in Top 14 terms, relatively modest, but head coach Jeremy Davidson has done impressive things with what he has. The few new faces at the club were well sourced – Zafra, Ratuva and Abadie, in particular, are criminally undervalued. Sadly, this looks like it will be a difficult season, unless Brive can turn Stade Amedee-Domenech back into a fortress.

Castres

Ins: Antoine Guillamon, Quentin Walcker, Brice Humbert, Theo Hannoyer, Nick Champion de Crespigny, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Feibyan Cornell Tukino, Ben Botica, Pierre Aguillon, Antoine Zeghdar, Josaia Raisuqe, Thomas Larregain

Outs: Daniel Kotze, Lucas Pointud, Marc-Antoine Rallier, Dorian Clerc, Ma’ama Vaipulu, Anthony Jelonch, Yann David, Florian Vialelle, Armand Batlle

It was a season of two halves at unfashionable Castres – from a starting point of 13th at New Year they were six minutes from making the end-of-season Top 14 play-offs.

They look to have made some smart, typically Castrian, signings – young centre Antoine Zeghdar and former Highlanders back-row Teariki Ben-Nicholas could be gems – and have persuaded 16 senior players to stay on a while longer.

They’ve the square root of no chance in the Champions Cup, but an assault on the Top 14 play-offs is possible. Importantly, they’ve strengthened their coaching set-up, bringing back former players Karena Wihongi and Yannick Caballero as scrum and lineout coach respectively.

Clermont Auvergne

Ins: Tomas Lavanini, JJ Hanrahan

Outs: Reinach Venter, Joel Everson, Rory Jennings, Peter Betham, Tim Nanai-Williams

Franck Azema’s departure after ten years was the long-running saga of last season at Marcel Michelin. It was confirmed in February but still wasn’t completely resolved at the start of pre-season, when Jono Gibbes returned to his former club from La Rochelle as his replacement. But his job won’t be simple.

On the face of it, there’s been little squad movement – Lavanini and Hanrahan in, with five senior players departing at the end of the season, on top of six who exited during the campaign. But that hides something of a bonfire of the academy.

No fewer than 20 players left the club at the end of last season – and there’s going to be plenty of pressure on those still there to step up when needed in a squad that does look thin in places.

La Rochelle

Ins: Joel Sclavi, Guram Papidze, Remi Picquette, Pierre Popelin, Jonathan Danty, Riko Buliruarua

Outs: Arthur Joly, Loni Uhila, Marcel van der Merwe, Lopeti Timani, Zeno Kieft, Pierre Aguillon, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Gabriel Lacroix, Darren Sweetnam

Newly installed in the club’s managerial hotseat, Ronan O’Gara – a coach with a rugby IQ that’s orders of magnitude greater than almost all of us – won’t want a repeat of last season’s Champions Cup and Top 14 final defeats.

And he’s using fundamentally the same disappointment-forged squad, importantly retaining the services of Will Skelton, Raymond Rhule, Dillyn Leyds, Remi Bourdeau as well as France U20 flanker Matthias Haddad.

Of the few arrivals at Stade Marcel Deflandre, Jonathan Danty and Riko Buliruarua could turn out to be as inspired as signing Brice Dulin was last season.

Lyon

Ins: Sebastien Taofifenua, Jerome Rey, Guillaume Marchand, Romain Taofifenua, Tavite Veredamu, Beka Saghinadze, Lima Sopoaga

Outs: Clement Ric, Jeremie Maurouard, Virgile Bruni, Izack Rodda, Alex Tulou, Gillian Galan, Jonathan Wisniewski, Remi Grosso

Lyon owe their fans an apology. After a clutch of top-six finishes and Champions Cup rugby, last season’s ninth – and a return to the Challenge Cup – was a shock to the system. Some of it was down to Covid issues, but fans had got used to better and will demand an immediate improvement.

Head coach Pierre Mignoni, who is on record admitting the ship ‘pitched but did not capsize’ last season, has brought the Taofifenua boys, Sebastien and Romain, to Stade de Gerland. He’s also signed Lima Sopoaga from Wasps and, in what appears to be a season-long loan move of some substance, hooker Guillaume Marchand, younger brother of France’s Julien, from Toulouse.

Montpellier

Ins: Malik Hamadache, Jeremie Maurouard, Brandon Paenga-Amosa, Marco Tauleigne, Zach Mercer, Paolo Garbisi, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Pierre Lucas, Joshua Vici, Masivesi Dakuwaqa

Outs: Antoine Guillamon, Bismarck Du Plessis, Youri Delhommel, Jacques Du Plessis, Caleb Timu, Alex Lozowski, Vincent Martin, Gabriel Ibitoye, Johan Goosen, Henry Immelman

Last season, Montpellier got rid of their starting head coach, flirted seriously with relegation, finished tenth, and won the Challenge Cup. Interim coach Philippe Saint-Andre, who agreed to one more year away from his suited-and-booted sporting director role at the club after efforts to land Franck Azema from Clermont collapsed, inherited a squad and created a team in a matter of weeks.

Now, he has to build on those foundations. Expect things to be different this season – though the club could quickly find themselves focusing on the domestic league, as they are down to meet Leinster and Exeter in the pool stage of the Champions Cup.

Pau

Ins: Siate Tokolahi, Remi Seneca, Kevin Yameogo, Youri Delhommel, Steven Cummins, Guillaume Ducat, Beka Gorgadze, Reece Huwat, Zack Henry, Daniel Ikpefan, Jack Maddocks, Mathias Colombet

Outs: Lourens Adriaanse, Malik Hamadache, Geoffrey Moise, Mohamed Boughanmi, Omar Odishvili, Denis Marchois, Matt Philip, Baptiste Pesenti, Antoine Erbani, Pierrick Gunther, Matthieu Ugena, Samuel Marques, Elton Jantjies, Watisoni Votu, Julien Fumat, Atila Septar, Jesse Mogg, Hugo Bonneval, Charly Malie

Former France U20 coach Sebastien Piqueronies joined Pau from the FFR in May, when the club was in the relegation play-off spot, engineered their final-day great escape a month later, and set about reforming his playing pool.

The result: a new-look Pau, under a young coach who knows how to win, having guided the men’s international U20s to two World Championship titles in 2018 and 2019.

Similar to Toulouse’s Ugo Mola, he’s now working to create a squad in his own image, that will play to his style and tempo; that will play for him. Like Mola, it may take some time to get where he wants to be – and there could be some pain along the way.

Perpignan

Ins: Arthur Joly, Sami Mavinga, Giorgi Tetrashvili, Mike Tadjer, Tevita Cavubati, Andrei Mahu, Matthieu Ugena, Martin Landajo, Tristan Tedder, Brayden Wiliame, Eddie Sawailau, Bautista Delguy

Outs: Quentin Walcker, Kevin Tougne, Charles Geli, Alban Roussel, Michael Faleafa, Pierre Reynaud, Ugo Mas, Ben Volavola, Quentin Etienne, Pierre Lucas

Perpignan lost just five matches on their march to last season’s ProD2 title, but while the club have bolstered key areas, the staff seem content to trust the side that won promotion comfortably… And why not?

Top 14 team-by-team guide

Perpignan celebrate their victory in last season’s French ProD2 (AFP/Getty Images)

Two of their number – Melvyn Jaminet, in just his first full season as a professional, and Quentin Walcker, who has signed for Castres – won international caps with France on the July tour of Australia after impressive performances in the second tier.

Bringing in former Catalans Dragons player Brayden Wiliame for the new campaign looks a smart move, too, while Arthur Joly and Mike Tadjer add much-needed top-flight experience. There’s no denying this will be a tough season – first ones back usually are – but that level of trust from coaches to players is powerful motivation.

Racing 92

Ins: Baptiste Pesenti, Ben Volavola

Outs: Andy Bordelai, Donnacha Ryan, Dominic Bird, Antonie Claassen, Francois Trinh-Duc, Emiliano Boffelli, Simon Zebo

Just two senior new arrivals at a club that makes a feature of its home-grown credentials. Racing tried the Galacticos approach – and it worked in 2016 – but have decided its future lies with French youth.

Despite its wealth, the club has pretty much pulled out of the overseas megastars market, and has just five non-JIFF senior players on its books for the new season. The heavy reliance on academy cover will likely be tested during international periods, but the coaches and players at Le Plessis-Robinson have dealt with this sort of thing before.

There’s little doubt Racing will be involved at the business end of the season domestically and in Europe, but another season without silverware would be bitter.

Stade Francais

Ins: Nemo Roelofse, Clement Castets, Romain Briatte, Ngani Laumape, Harry Glover

Outs: Stephane Clement, Sami Mavinga, Dylan Smith, Luke Tagi, Gerbrandt Grobler, Pablo Matera, Jonathan Danty

The Top 14 signing of the year – Ngani Laumape – heads to a Stade Francais side that has been rejuvenated in just one season under Gonzalo Quesada.

The Paris side were 14th in the league when the 2019-20 French rugby season was halted after 17 rounds, without promotion or relegation, because of the pandemic.

Quesada guided them to the play-offs and the Champions Cup in his first season back, after lifting the Brennus and the Challenge Cup in his first stint at Stade Jean Bouin – proof, if it were needed, that coaches need to understand the clubs and the players they are in charge of. Quesada does, and that means the style and the steel are in harmony at Stade once again.

Toulon

Ins: Kieran Brookes, Leone Nakarawa, Quinn Roux, Cornell du Preez, Lopeti Timani, Julien Blanc, Atila Septar, Jiuta Wainiqolo, Thomas Salles, Aymeric Luc, Cheslin Kolbe

Outs: Jeremy Boyadjis, Sebastien Taofifenua, Luka Tchelidze, Romain Taofifenua, Levi Douglas, Thomas Hoarau, Anthony Meric, FC Du Plessis, Ma’a Nonu, Rudi Wulf, Isaia Toeava, Daniel Ikpefan, Masivesi Dakuwaqa, Ramiro Moyano

Patrice Collazo’s side were in the top six for 20 of the 26 weeks of the regular season, but paid for a poor second half of the campaign and ultimately missed out on the play-offs on the final day, and the Champions Cup, with a big loss on the last weekend of the season.

There’s been some heavy recruiting – Leone Nakarawa, Quinn Roux, Cornell du Preez and Lopeti Timani will boost the pack, the under-valued Aymeric Luc should enjoy better times after leaving Agen and Cheslin Kolbe will join from Toulouse once this year’s Springboks commitments end.

A return to the top six is the obvious target, but this Toulon side, with its self-avowed and loudly trumpeted home improvement policy, is far from the untouchables of old.

Toulouse

Ins: Anthony Jelonch, Tim Nanai-Williams

Outs: Clement Castets, Guillaume Marchand, Jerome Kaino, Louis-Benoit Madaule, Theo Idjellidaine, Simon Renda, Yoann Huget, Maxime Marty, Cheslin Kolbe

He needed some good fortune early on at Stade Ernest Wallon, but Ugo Mola has made Toulouse great again, by mining the riches at the academy and recruiting cleverly – an old trick other sides are now shouting about.

 

The vein of talent is such that he’s loaned out hooking Marchand junior, U20 scrum-half Theo Idjellidaine and 21-year-old centre Simon Renda this season.

France’s summer tour captain Anthony Jelonch has Jerome Kaino-sized boots to fill following his move from Castres, while Tim Nanai-Williams adds cover in several back positions, but the club have already proved there’s plenty in the academy tank to fill most concerns, having won the Champions Cup and Top 14 last season with a makeshift back-line.

And that’s two years after winning the 2019 French championship with a patched-up scrum.

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