Rugby Union: Top 14 opening weekend preview
It is incredible to think that the tears of joy shed by Aurelien Rougerie and his Clermont side are now nearly three months old, but the new French champions already begin their title defence this weekend, up against the side whom they defeated at the end of May.
Clermont will start their season against Perpginan at Aime Giral, a ground where they have not won in eight years. They have signed former All Black Sione Lauaki to bolster their back row, and the temperamental number 8 has the potential to make a big impact in the Top 14.
Several clubs have shown a lot of ambition over the close season with some major new signings coming to the top flight of French rugby. Toulon will be hoping to improve on their heartbreaking semi final loss last year, and with Carl Hayman and George Smith, they have brought in two world class forwards.
In the backs, the loss of Sonny Bill Williams will be a big blow, but a fully fit Felipe Contepomi, as well as new signing Paul Sackey, should offset that to keep them competitive. The team from the South coast open up against Bayonne, another side who have recruited heavily over the summer.
Having lost their international starlet Benjamin Fall to Racing, the Basques have gone for a blend of youth and experience with Julien Audy and Benjamin Boyet providing a new half back pairing, and Troy Flavell and Clement Baiocco providing a little more grunt up front. The other player to watch out for is Yoann Huget, a young winger from Agen who showed lots of promise at age group level.
The other side to have spent big before the new season are Racing-Metro, who in addition to Fall, signed Argentine star Juan Martin Hernandez, Italian international Mirco Bergamasco and Perpignan scrum half Nicolas Durand, in order to challenge in both the Top 14 and the Heineken Cup. They begin away to Brive, a side who have also seen a lot of changes, but should struggle to make the playoffs.
Perennial favourites Toulouse will begin at home to new boys Agen. The most successful team of French rugby have not made many changes over the summer, but the retirement of Jean Baptiste Elissalde will be a huge blow. In contrast, their opponents have brought in several young players, and will hope that veteran fly half Valentin Courrent can lead them to safety.
The remaining matches will see Biarritz take on Montpellier, with both sides happy to have kept hold of their star players over the summer, rather than recruiting too heavily. Stade Francais will hope to bounce back from last season’s disappointment, and their biggest arrival should be former Leinster coach, Michael Cheika.
They begin at home to a Bourgoin side who still have huge financial worries and will almost certainly face another relegation battle this season. Finally, last year’s surprise package Castres will travel to relegation favourites La Rochelle with new signings Benjamin Kayser and Seremaia Bai to bolster last season’s squad.