The 2011-12 Season
will be quite interesting for all European teams due to the Rugby World Cup schedule in New Zealand. Some will be missing key players from their lines, which could ultimately change the makeup of the final standings. In France, there seems to be a line drawn based on how competitive so many teams have become.
In terms of talent, Toulouse
is the only five-star team in the country, but that gap is closing fast. Last season in the Top 14 we seen Racing Métro
close in on the powerhouse from the southwest and Castres
surprised a lot of critics with their resiliency.
has been splashing the cash in the transfer market for some time now under Mourad Boudjellal. With new additions over the summer they will look to challenge for a fourth Brennus Shield (Bouclier de Brennus) after a disappointing season which cost them a Heineken Cup spot.
There have been plenty of interesting stories to follow leading up to the start of the new season, but none more so than that of Stade Français. The Parisian club faced a financial crises and possible relegation to Fédérale 1 (top amateur division of France) when an affiliated advertising company failed.
Club president Max Guazzini announced in the coming weeks that an investor had been in place through a foundation based in Canada, but the deal collapsed in scandal. Still facing relegation in the face on the deadline set by the LNR (Ligue Nationale de Rugby); Guazzini was forced to sell a majority stake in the club to Jean-Pierre Savare, chairman of French security systems company Oberthur Technologies.
In the following days Guazzini stepped down as president in favor of Savare’s son, but still remains with the club as honorary president.
With scandals behind us now we look forward to the future with new faces arriving to shake up the league, the return of a former powerhouse to the professional ranks, and plenty of clubs looking for a fresh start.
Agen has a rich history and winning tradition that dates as far back as 1930 when they won their first Brennus Shield. In recent times however the club has lacked the players and funds needed to compete in professional rugby. It all came crashing down in 2007 when the club was forced to sell some of their top talent to their rivals as they sunk into the second division.
After spending a few seasons in Pro D2 they were finally able to make their way back into the top flight and brought with them some inspiring new talent. Unfortunately, the club lost Yoann Huget to Bayonne and not long after was forced to release Rupeni Caucaunibuca due to work-related issues with the player. The club avoided relegation their first season back, but have not solidified themselves.
Even though Agen has not dipped into the transfer market much this summer it doesn’t seem to have their supporters worried. However, Jean-Francois Coux is likely the only new player that may be able to give them a boost offensively. The French winger joined from recently relegated Bourgoin after spending most of his career there and will be looking for a fresh start.
Another key signing is prop Martín Scelzo who joins from Clermont. Scelzo’s age is a factor down the road considering that he is 35, but his experience should be useful. However, the Argentine will not play for his new club at the start of the season as he has been called up for the Rugby World Cup.
Looking forward Still recovering from financial woes this leaves little wiggle room to sign new players and the club will continue to try avoiding relegation until things look brighter. They have the support behind them, but this season it may not be enough. From the opening match we could see as many as 6 new forwards make their debuts for the club. There aren’t enough reliable weapons on offense either, but if some players can break through and have good seasons it would push the club right out of the relegation battle.
Eyes will be on young centre Benjamin Petre as he is yet to produce the numbers expected of him. American centre Kevin Swiryn had a good first season with the club scoring 4 tries in 12 matches. As he settles at the club he should be able to double his production this upcoming season. Brice Dulin is another player that will have to step up for Agen. At 21-years-old, the homegrown fullback has developed well and has been a regular in the starting XV since the age of 19. This upcoming season could be big for Dulin as he strives to earn his first international cap.
Projected finish 12th
Over the past decade, Bayonne has competed in the shadow of their Basque neighbor and biggest rival Biarritz. Bayonne struggled for years to avoid relegation in Top 14 and at their lowest point 2 seasons ago the club actually finished second from bottom of the table. They were given a reprieve due to Montauban ultimately filling for bankruptcy, which sent them down to Fédérale 1.
The following season, Bayonne signed winger Yoann Huget from Agen and fly-half Benjamin Boyet from Bourgoin. Both players would prove to be invaluable assets with their contributions to turning the club around as Huget finished second among top try scorers, and Boyet finished in the top ten among point scorers. This lifted the club to a seventh place finish and only one point out of competing in the playoffs and earning Heineken Cup spot. With such a turnaround, the club decided to spend well this summer and take some chances.
The first major move the club made was bringing in winger Josevata “Joe” Rokocoko from the Blues. Rokocoko is well known for his speed and physicality and had been a staple with the All Blacks from 2003 to 2010. His test try scoring rate is phenomenal, currently ranking sixth all-time and third among active players in the world today. Joining Rokocoko at Bayonne are fellow Kiwi recruits Sione Lauaki, a flanker from the Chiefs, and prop Neemia Tialata from the Hurricanes. All three players should prove to be valuable compensation for losses such as flanker Rémy Martin and winger Jean-Baptiste Peyras-Loustalet who both moved to Montpellier during the summer transfer window.
However, the Basque club’s spending spree did not end there. Bringing in Welsh scrum-half Michael Phillips and aging French fullback Cédric Heymans, both current world cup representatives for their respective nations, has bulked up their backs significantly. Former Wallaby Mark Chisholm, who has signed from the Brumbies in Australia, should strengthen the second-row.
Looking forward Last season, former Secretary of State for Sports Bernard Laporte arrived at the club as an adviser to then president, Francis Salagoïty. When a dispute between the two led to Laporte’s and major sponsor Alain Afflelou’s departures only a few months later, this ultimately led to Salagoïty being forced to resign by the board. Michel Cacouault was then elected president. Following this decision, Alain Afflelou stated that his company will continue to sponsor the club through the season and will again this upcoming season.
With some major spending and risk taking this summer, Bayonne may be taking steps in the right direction. Many years of disappointment turned into hope last season with the emergence of rising stars. With the league becoming more and more competitive, even with these new signings the club may only get as far as they were last season. I’m sure they will be hoping that seventh position Heineken Cup place will go to France because that may very well be what they’ll be fighting for.
Projected finish 9th
Biarritz won their first Brennus Shield in 63 years back in 2002 and shortly after improved their squad to include current stalwarts Dimitri Yachvili, Harinordoquy and Damien Traille among others. With a powerhouse squad the Basque club took two more domestic titles in 2005 and 2006. Biarritz has remained a constant presence in the top half of the table, but they have fluctuated up and down due to changes within the club and poor team morale.
Things have changed over the past two years under new president Serge Blanco with hot young talent arriving to help the aging squad. Wenceslas Lauret established himself with the club at a young age through their youth system. Although the young flanker has not been selected by France for the 2011 Rugby World Cup, he is being looked at as a future star. His exclusion is due to inexperience and a stockpile of talent at his position. His teammate Raphaël Lakafia on the other hand will represent France during the cup. The number eight was selected by national team coach Marc Lièvremont over crowd favorite Sébastien Chabal despite his inexperience internationally as he has been a revelation for his club side.
Biarritz is often busy during the offseason transfer market moving players in and out and this year was no exception. Centre Benoît Baby has been brought in from Clermont on a three year contract to help out with the loss of Damien Traille and Marcelo Bosch during the Rugby World Cup. Laurent Tranier was originally tagged to be a backup as he had been waiting for more playing time, but ultimately decided not to take that route and signed with newly promoted Lyon instead.
Perhaps the most interesting signing is wing Daniel Caprice from Blackheath. The young sevens star trained full time with the Saracens Academy before moving to south-east London. It will be interesting to see how he adapts to playing at such a high level of rugby union.*Another signing to note is hooker Arnaud Héguy, who arrives from fierce Basque rivals Bayonne.*Biarritz also let go of backs Yann Fior and Arnaud Mignardi due to conflicts with playing time and young prop Alexandre Barozzi since the club has so much talent at his position. All three players have been signed by Brive.
Looking forward With the 2011 Rugby World Cup around the corner, Biarritz has been a bit desperate to fill in any holes that called-up players leave behind. The club will likely be missing 8 players during the cup including club captain Imanol Harinordoquy who was nominated for the IRB Player of the Year award in 2010. Although Biarritz has a fairly deep squad they may struggle out of the gate if they have to rely on young players to carry the offensive load. Management will be hoping for good signs since age is not on their side with some of their top players already on a slow decline.
Zimbabwe born American international Takudzwa Ngwenya would eventually resolve the club’s inconsistencies at wing when he arrived following the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Gifted with quick moves and powerful acceleration, Ngwenya has improved every season with Biarritz, helping the club reach their second ever Heineken Cup final in 2010, which they narrowly lost. He will be sorely missed at the beginning of the season, but has a bright future ahead of him.
Projected finish 6th
The city of Bordeaux was once a hotbed for rugby union in the country as one of the first major clubs in France to compete domestically outside of Paris was Stade Bordelais. The club won 7 titles over the span 13 years, but following their last Brennus in 1911, they no longer challenged the league. It would take 58 years before the city would win again, but it was suburban rivals CA Bordeaux-Bègles Gironde that would claim their first Brennus instead.
Stade Bordelais would remain in amateur rugby through the new millennium while CABBG eventually dropped to Pro D2 in 2003. Two years later a merge was proposed between the two clubs which received strong opposition by both sides’ supporters. The merge of the two clubs came to fruition in 2006, but to this day, both sides still have separate youth teams under their previous names. It took a while for the city’s new team to gain promotion to Top 14, but last season they finally broke through by earning their place through the playoffs.
After finishing fifth in Pro D2 last season, the club knew coming into the top flight that they would have to make improvements. Bringing in Thierry Brana from Toulon was a good move to start. The powerful French winger had a dismal time last season after his move from Montpellier, where two seasons ago he played very well. The club also signed veteran Kiwi fullback and former Northampton Saints captain Bruce Reihana. Further additions to their offense include young centres Michel Denêtre, who arrives from Albi, Félix Le Bourhis, arriving after a good season at Carcassonne, and Argentine Nicolás Sánchez.
Spanish international Fabien Rofes has been brought in to strengthen the club’s forwards. The athletic hooker is known for being a reliable and very active teammate during spells with Montpellier and Narbonne. Laurent Delboulbès may be one of their best signings this summer. The prop is the club’s second signing from Carcassonne, but is also known for his time with Montauban where he eventually became an important part of their squad leading up to their forced relegation to Fédérale 1 a few years ago.
Looking forward Union Bordeaux Bègles still look like a Pro D2 squad, but the future does look bright. Both youth teams have some interesting young players and UBB may look to both for future stars of French rugby. Fly-half Camille Lopez should be watched very closely this season as he plays in the shadow of Gerard Fraser. Lopez is a powerful and tactical 21-year-old with tremendous raw talent that is just waiting to be unearthed. With adequate playing time at this level, he could develop into an incredible player.
It may take some time before Union Bordeaux Bègles is able to adapt to life in Top 14, which could likely be their downfall this season. However, if the club were to be relegated it wouldn’t be that bad as they would likely contend for promotion again the next season. Top 14 will be very difficult to crack over the next couple of seasons for newcomers and UBB may be one of many victims over that time.
Projected finish 14th
Last season most people had Castres placed out of reach of a Heineken Cup place, so it may have came as a bit a bit of a shock when the club finished third in the final standings. Despite not having the large crop of talent that other top teams have, Castres still managed to go undefeated at home up until they bowed out in the playoffs against eventual finalists Montpellier.
When Castres lost their captain Lionel Nallet in 2009 it seemed that they would lose a lot more and eventually fade away. Castres did make some changes by bringing in plenty of new names before the new season and stuck with their stalwarts. Romain Teulet, known as Robocop, or the Gnome due to his height, has been with the club since 2001. Going completely under the radar as a premier kicker, he has scored well over 2000 points in over 200 matches for Castres. Forwards Yannick Forestier and Rodrigo Ortega are two other players that have stuck with the club for years and remain solid contributors.
This summer Castres have made some moves and didn’t lose too much talent other than hooker Benjamin Kayser, who jumped ships to Clermont, and scrum-half Sébastien Tillous-Borde, perhaps the only major loss, to Toulon. Looking to replace the one time Barbarian Kayser, they have brought in club hopper Brice Mach from Agen. More importantly, they have retooled their offense by bringing in Max Evans from Glasgow and Rémi Lamerat from Toulouse. Lamerat is still young and could make strides with more playing time.
Bringing in Pierre-Gilles Lakafia from Toulouse may be the most interesting move. After signing a two-year contract, the wing will be looking for more playing time in order to improve and compete with the French national team alongside his younger brother, rising star Raphaël Lakafia.
Looking forward Following a fantastic season as one of the top three defensive sides in the country, Castres will likely push very hard for big wins early on. They may only be losing three players during the Rugby World Cup whereas their biggest rivals for the title could be worse off shorthanded for some time. This will be the perfect opportunity to force some significant distance ahead of the pack as Castres do have the talent. We’ll see how the new signings fit in over time, but the rest gel together quite well.
Although they don’t have many superstars they do have quality players that get the job done at every position. Management has done a wonderful job evening out the squad over the past two seasons and it has truly paid off. However, with the loss of their captain Tillous-Borde and the Heineken Cup on schedule, this looks more likely to be a season of adjustment instead of advancement.
Projected finish 8th
It took Perpignan 54 years to win their seventh Brennus Shield in 2009. The club had been building a strong team piece by piece for years and was finally able to reach the top with patience and excellent coaching. Before then most of the team’s championship successes had spanned, though not so distantly, between 1914 and 1955 where they picked up 6 Brennus Shields and a slew of other domestic titles that are no longer contested for.
The following season the club made another final appearance, but lost to the same opponent that they had defeated previously. It is unknown if this took any considerable effect on the players, but last season the club took a bit of a downfall by dropping well below a playoff position and ended up ninth in the standings. Frustrations were clearly visible, most notably in a match against Bayonne where several players from both sides fought and were dealt adequate suspensions.
With a new season ahead, Perpignan will be looking for a fresh start. The club did not turn to the transfer market as much as other clubs in the league have, but they did make one particularly interesting move that could give them a major boost by picking up Welsh international James Hook from the Ospreys. The versatile back is currently viewed as one of the best young players in the sport and will definitely give the team a new look going forward. Hook is joining a club already packed with two solid fly-halves, but that shouldn’t be an issue since he can play multiple positions.
Argentine lock Rimas Álvarez Kairelis has also been brought back to the club shortly after announcing his retirement. The veteran decided to hang up his boots after last season, but has been called back for three months as a “World Cup Joker” to temporarily fill in for players called up to represent their nations in New Zealand. As I mentioned, the club did not spend much this summer as the only other signing to report is centre Rudi Coetzee, who arrives from recently relegated Bourgoin.
Looking forward Following their dismal season the club will be looking to bounce back quickly. They will be missing many of their best players with the world cup around the corner, but they do have enough quality left over to stay with the rest of the pack until their stars return. With other clubs becoming stronger it could be that Perpignan will just have to continue making changes down the road in order to compete for another Brennus Shield. Bringing in James Hook was an excellent start, though it remains to be seen whether or not he will be successful in France. In a good way, the upcoming season looks to be a transitional one for the Catalan club.
French internationals representing the club in New Zealand such as hooker Guilhem Guirado and centre Maxime Mermoz are still young and will continue to get better. Club captain and prop Nicolas Mas and winger David Marty still have solid years ahead of them. Both players have been with Perpignan for over a decade and remain loyal. Meanwhile, youngsters such as flanker Antoine Loubière, lock Yohann Vivalda, and scrum-half Florian Cazenave, who has represented France at several youth levels, show that the club will continue to have success in the future.
Projected finish 7th
Five years ago Toulon was relegated from Top 14 after one of the worst seasons in club history. They finished bottom of the table with only 3 wins and a dismal 21 points differential from Pau, who finished second from bottom. Not everything looked bad however as before the end of that season, Mourad Boudjellal took over as president of the club and would quickly change everything.
Boudjellal made it clear that he would turn the club around and it wouldn’t take long to see exactly what he was intending. The new president’s out of pocket spending brought in veteran high profile players such as Jean-Jacques Crenca, Dan Luger and former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga among others, but Toulon still failed to advance in the playoffs. The following season the club signed several more high profile players, which led to a title at the top of the table and automatic promotion after only 2 seasons in Pro D2.
Since returning to Top 14, the spending spree has continued and this summer was no different. After last season’s disappointment of finishing eighth in the final standings, Boudjellal has been looking to bulk up his team. Alexis Palisson was one of the first major signings when the winger arrived from Brive. Centre Matt Giteau, once considered to be one of the five best players in the world, signed from the Brumbies in Australia. The club also signed former Castres captain Sébastien Tillous-Borde. The scrum-half arrives after a fantastic season with his previous club helping them finish third.
Perhaps the most interesting signing is centre Mathieu Bastareaud. The player is well known for the speculation he created during his time with the French national team in New Zealand where he claimed to have been assaulted by four or five men. Following an investigation, Bastareaud came clean that he was drunk and had hurt himself by accident. Recently, the player had caused a headache for his previous club Stade Français by claiming he was depressed playing for the financially unstable club and wished for a move to Toulon, which he was eventually granted. Other key signings include Steffon Armitage, who joins from the London Irish, and Springbok lock Bakkies Botha, who joins from the Bulls.
Looking forward When Jonny Wilkinson joined from Newcastle in 2009 after spending 12 years with club, many speculated that the injury prone fly-half and 2003 Rugby World Cup hero was a risky signing. Successions of serious injuries hampered his career, preventing him from playing for England again following the cup for nearly 4 years. Since moving to Toulon, Wilkinson has felt rejuvenated and has been playing well for both his club and country. His leadership and precision kicking have become invaluable.
Toulon has built a team for the future with their young French internationals, but they also have the talent to win the Amlin Challenge Cup and their fourth Brennus Shield this season. With a stacked team they could be looking at a few unhappy players that originally joined looking to prove their worth with more playing time. Strength in your substitutes can prove be invaluable, but continuing to let players go, such as Felipe Contepomi, Gavin Henson and Romain Barthélémy, that have technically already been replaced or likely would have been is a better idea to avoid frustrations in the locker room.
Projected finish 4th