French Top 14: Season Preview

The 2017/18 French Top 14 gets underway in late-August. Our rugby writer takes a look at how the season may pan out and who’s likely to claim top honours. 

The European domestic rugby season is fast approaching with the French Top 14 set to get underway on the 26th of August. Last year’s tournament provided great entertainment and there was almost a Leicester-esque fairytale with serious underdogs La Rochelle topping the log in the regular season. It wasn’t to be for the plucky team from southwestern France, however, as they went down to Toloun by virtue of a late drop goal in the semi-final encounter between the two sides.

That result saw Toulon take on Clermont in the final, and while Toloun did give a decent account of themselves, they were ultimately outplayed by Clermont who ended their seven-year title drought.

As is always the case in the Top 14, there have been sweeping personnel changes made by the sides during the off-season. And while most of these switches have seen players come and go, there’s also been a lot of turnover when it comes to head coaches with Jake White’s tumultuous tenure at the helm of Montpellier coming to an end and French legend Fabien Galthie taking over the head coaching reigns at Toulon.

We’ll take a look at some of the best Summer signings, who’s likely to compete for top honours this term and who was promoted from the Pro D2 and who was relegated from the Top 14.

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New Kids on the Block
Both Oyonnax and Agen will mark their returns to the French top tier this season with the two sides bouncing straight back from their 2015/16 relegation. They will take the places of Bayonne and Grenoble who were relegated last season. Oyonnax were promoted as Champions while Agen won their promotion play-off.

Special Summer Signings

Aaron Cruden – Waikato Chiefs to Montpellier
This was a really smart piece of business by Montpellier as Cruden will give a lot more guile to this backline than Demitri Catrakillis did. The All Black veteran will help Montpellier’s transition to a more attacking brand of rugby. He will link up with South Africans Jan Serfontein and Ruan Pienaar who were also recruited by Montpellier during the off-season.

Chris Ashton – Saracens to Toulon
Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal has once again dug into those deep pockets of his in a bid to buy the Top 14 trophy. The French businessman has certainly splashed the cash bringing JP Pietersen, Malakia Feikitoa and Facundo Isa to the French capital. His most astute signing, however, is English winger Chris Ashton. While Ashton is never far from a scandal, he is a devastating finisher who was vital to Saracens claiming back-to-back European Rugby Champions Cup titles. Ashton has also retired from international rugby, which is a massive coup for Toulon as the top 14 season runs right through the Six Nations.

Greg Laidlaw – Gloucester Rugby to Clermont
Veteran Scotsman Greig Laidlaw is the type of player who will fit this Clermont side like a glove. The diminutive scrum-half is a brilliant tactical kicker as well as a deadly accurate goalkicker. His distribution is crisp and he’s a master when it comes to marshaling a pack. And while he’s likely to play second-fiddle to Morgan Parra, having a player of Laidlaw’s ability in reserve will only bolster Clermont’s title chances.

Cheslin Kolbe – Stormers / Western Province to Tolouse
I simply couldn’t do this list without including a South African. Kolbe has been a mainstay for the Stormers and Province for over half a decade now but he seems to have taken his game to a new level over the past three months, running in a plethora of tries for the Stormers near the back-end of their Super Rugby campaign. The diminutive winger has a blistering turn of pace and is one of the most agile rugby layers to have ever taken to a field. I fully expect him to tear through opposition defences during this season’s Top 14.

Title Contenders

This season looks to be a three-horse race between Montpellier, Toulon and Clermont, although, I wouldn’t discount the chances of an underdog sneaking into equation – I think Pau may actually be able to mix it with the big boys this term.

Clermont
Clermont, on paper, look the side to beat. They played an electric brand of rugby last term and they’ve made some shrewd acquisitions while retaining most of their key players. The signing of Greig Laidlaw is a massive coup while Rabah Slimani and Loni ‘The Tongan Bear’ Uhila will only strengthen what was already a very powerful pack.

Toulon
While Clermont have managed to retain their core, Toulon have had no such luck losing Matt Giteau, Liam Gill, Juan Smith and Leigh Halfpenny. And while they have made some shrewd signings, I think it may take some time for this side to gel.

Montpellier
If there was a trophy for best transfer window performance then Montpellier would take it hands down. Not only have they managed to bring in wold class international talent but they’ve also captured the signatures of French international loose forwards Louis Picamoles and Yacouba Camara. If they can be a bit more decisive on attack than they were last year – I expect they will be with Aaron Cruden now steering the ship – then I think this could be Montpellier’s season.

Betting Angle
I think the smart mover here is to back Montpellier to claim the title as they are likely to open up at a big price. Toloun are likely to endure another slow start to the season, so you can always cover on them come late October. 

Clermont will be priced as favourites and rightly so. They have the best squad in the league, but it must be remembered that it took the seven years to win another title after they captured the trophy in 2010. And while I don’t think they’ll have to wait that long this time around, I can’t see them going back-to-back.

Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets.net

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