Wednesday 14 August 2013

Top 14: For Beginners

Just like with the Currie Cup, and the ITM Cup, I'll be following the Top 14 which kicks off this weekend.

My knowledge of the french league comes from viewing the top teams in the Heineken Cup, viewing the players in their internationals, and the fantastic coverage from Murray Kinsella. The strength of the competition is evident, with even the more passing rugby followers, familiar with the top 10 teams.

There is a huge amount of finance behind the french teams, with a whole host of world class players like Bryan Habana, Rene Ranger and Jonny Sexton now plying their trade in the Top 14.

I'm not going to do a proper preview, as the aforementioned Murray Kinsella has done a fantastic in depth team by team guide for this season, but i'll be here every week with news, highlights and thoughts throughout the season.

Here are my predicted final positions for the season, with the players I'm looking forward to seeing most, and what will be key to each teams seasons.

1. Clermont - Preview not done yet, check back soon

Clermont Auvergne have been the best team in Europe by a distance the last two seasons. This is coach Vern Cotter's last year in charge, they will want to give him a proper send-off with some trophies. They will be hurting and come out firing. They've been quiet in the transfer market, and this could be the last chance for an ageing squad.

Key Player: Morgan Parra
Worry: Mental Strength, Ageing Squad.

2. Toulon - Preview not done yet, check back soon

I'm not a fan of Toulon. They never seemed especially good or talented in any game I watched them in last season, and stole the Heineken Cup from Clermont's hands. Much is reliant on Jonny Wilkinson, and if he can keep fit then they will be in contention. Strong signings like Habana and Mitchell may make them a little more attractive to watch, but their squad also has a few elder statesmen.

Key Player: Jonny Wilkinson
Looking forward to seeing: Drew Mitchell

3. Montpeiller

One of the teams I'm most excited about and for one big reason, Rene Ranger. He was magnificent and entertaining in Super Rugby this year. Where he is played will be a crucial factor, it's immediately apparent that when he's not involved in games he doesn't put in as much effort. His workrate had been questioned, so a big season for him at thirteen will be vital to Montpeiller's fortunes. Francois Trinh Duc is criminally underrated in France, and Antony Floch and Robert Ebersohn are smart signings. Some smart transfer activity and this XV looks formidable;

15. Floch, 14. Nagusa, 13. Ranger, 12. Ebersohn, 11. Dupont, 10. Trinh-Duc, 9.Paillaugue, 8. Tulou, 7. Gorgodze/Bias, 6. Ouedraogo, 5. Hamilton/Tchale-Watchou,4. Timani, 3. Mas, 2. Bianchin/Ivaldi, 1. Nariashvili (Note: Gorgodze and Bianchin are expected to miss the first seven or eight games of the season through injury.)

Key Player: Rene Ranger
PS Check out Robert Ebersohn's interview in Murray's preview.

4. Toulouse

After their worst season in years, Hosea Gear and Chiliboy Ralepelle are brought in. It's a clear statement of intent from Noves, but will it be enough. Gear has the potential to be the best winger in the competition, and this XV looks daunting:

15. Huget 14. Matanavou, 13. Fritz, 12. Fickou, 11. Gear, 10. McAlister, 9. Doussain,8. Picamoles, 7. Nyanga, 6. Dusautoir, 5. Maestri, 4. Albacete, 3. Johnston, 2.Ralepelle, 1. Steenkamp

Key Player: Hosea Gear
5. Racing

Racing had a great second half to the season, ultimately moving from 11th to 6th to sneak into Heineken Cup qualification. They've uprooted almost all of their squad, and while they've brought in quality like Sexton and Lydiate, it could take time for them to settle in.

Key Player: Jonny Sexton

6. Castres

The current champions provided huge shocks to beat both Clermont and Toulon to win the Bouclier de Brennus. They have a settled squad augmented with the addition of Lion Richie Gray, but ultimately, to me at least, it looks like last year was a fluke.

Key Player: Rory Kockett

7. Stade Francais

The perennial underachievers, Stade always flatter to deceive despite a strong squad. This could be the year they finally crack the top 6, but more likely a 7th place finish is on the cards. Strong signings Digby Ioane and Morne Steyn should help, and the development of Scott LaValla, who was impressive against Leinster in last season's Challenge Cup final, should aid Sergio Parisse in the pack.

Key Player: Sergio Parisse

8. Perpignan

Not the team of old, that prevented Leinster from reaching a dream Heineken Cup final in Dublin in 2003, Perpignan should still be strong enough to avoid the bottom feeders. A team featuring Lifemi Mafi, James Hook and Devalt Duvenage will pose a threat to everyone. Will be worth watching solely for the character of Sona Taumalolo, of Tongan and former Chiefs prop, whose smile is infectious and refreshing.

Key Player: Taumalolo

9. Biarritz

A team still overly reliant on ageing Imanol Harinorduoy and Dmitri Yachvili will finally get some help with Joe Pietersen and Raphael Lakafia. Pietersen, like Trinh-Duc, is hugely underrated in South Africa, and should be the Springbok fullback ahead of Zane Kirchner by a distance.

Key Player: Joe Pietersen; Crucial that he takes pressure of the two stalwarts, and can allow Biarritz to have a good season.

10. Bayonne

Possibly more known on these shores for punching Brian O'Driscoll's checkbone in a RWC 2007 warm up match, Bayonne will be under a lot of pressure to survive this season. Key signings like the ramaging Opeti
Fonua, the talented Kiwi Stephen Brett and JC van Ranseburg compliment current stars like Mike Philips, Niemi Tialata and Joe Rokocoko.

Key Player: Stephen Brett

11. Grenoble

Grenoble are the team with the most Irish connections, despite Sexton's move to Paris. Peter Kimlin, Dan Palmer and Olly Barkley arrive to give them some steal, and that should be enough to keep them up, although their form in the second half of last season is extremely worrying.

Key Player: Peter Kimlin

12.  Brive

After losing Mike Blair and Julien Caminati, only Alfie Mafi comes in to improve the team of any talent. With explosvie finishing, Mafi also comes after being released from his Western Force contract after ill-discipline. He'll be key to their survival chances, and needs to reign in his attitude. On his best he should be a starting Wallaby.

Key Player: Alfie Mafi

13. Bordeaux

The main relegation battle will be between Bordeaux and Oyannax, and with key players like Jean Baptiste Poux, Ole Avei, and Heini Adams, Bordeaux Begles will just have enough about them to sneak into second last.

Key Player: Ole Avei

14. Oyannax


The Champions of Pro D2 are my favourites to go straight back down. Damien Browne just moved from Leinster will be the sole player that most Irish will recognise, although they have former Toulon flanker Joe El-Abd, who will be crucial with his leadership.

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