Monthly Archives: July 2013

Top 14 Preview: Stade Francais

Stade_Francais_logo The History

Stade Français was founded in 1883 by a group of Parisian students, with their first meeting taking place in the esteemed Le Procope café-restaurant in the 6th arrondissement. The club were part of the first-ever French championship final in 1892, where they were beaten 4-3 by Racing. Undeterred, Stade Français went on to win eight titles between 1893 and 1908. After that initial rush of success the club went into decline for the following 80 years.

In 1992, radio mogul Max Guazzini bought in and began relaunching Stade to former glories. Bernard Laporte joined as coach in ’95, with the club in the third division. His impact was immediate, with Stade Français winning back-to-back promotions before being crowned champions of France in 1998. Laporte moved on to the national team but under John Connolly the success continued in Paris, with another league title in 2000 as well as a Heineken Cup final in 2001 (an incredible game).

Nick Mallet was next in and won championships in ’03 and ’04, with another success under Fabien Galthie in ’07. But in 2011 Stade Français came close to collapse when a major sponsor folded. Relegation to Fédérale 1 was imminent after a messy attempted bail-out deal with a Canadian company. However, Jean-Pierre Savare, chairman of technology company Oberthur, made a significant investment to save the club. His son Thomas took over as president of the club, with Guazzini moving to an honourary position.

The Setting

Stade Jean Bouin

Stade Francais return to their natural home at the Jean-Bouin after three years of exile. (c) Yohan Zerdoun.

Much to the relief of all involved, Paris will be back in their Stade Jean-Bouin home this season, with rebuilding complete. Pascal Papé calls it the “soul of the the club.” The last three seasons were spent at Stade Charléty, which failed to capture the imagination. The new stade is a 20,000 all-seater with club shop, brasserie and all the modern extras you would expect. Solar panels and a system that captures rain for watering the pitch are laudable features. Jean Bouin was an Olympian for France, killed in World War 1.

Last Season

Since taking over in 2011, the Savare family have sunk €20 million of their money into Stade Français, with little return. Last season, the Parisians finished 10th despite having targeted Heineken Cup qualification. They did enjoy a run to the final of the Challenge Cup, where they were outplayed by Leinster. At this stage it’s probably a blessing in disguise that Stade aren’t in the H Cup, as their focus needs to be on the Top 14.

Last season the main problems were poor form away from home and weak defence. Over the past three years, Paris have won just six of their 42 away fixtures in the league. They will need to win more games on their travels if they want to finish in the top six. Only Agen and Mont de Marsan, both relegated, conceded more points than Stade last season. That is certainly an area that needs to be improved.

Ambitions

Stade Toulouse

Stade Francais are still behind the likes of Toulouse but are aiming for sixth. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Club president Thomas Savare couldn’t have made it any clearer in Midi Olympique last month: “I want Stade Français to finish in the top six.” It is exactly what he has said since taking over in 2011, but the impression is that Stade are now in a better position to back it up. Behind the quintet of Toulon, Clermont, Toulouse, Racing and Montpellier, sixth place in the league looks up for grabs. Under new coach Gonzalo Quesada, Stade Français could finally be set for a return amongst the elite.

The Coach

Quesada won 38 caps for Argentina at outhalf, scoring 486 points. His club career in France took in Narbonne, Béziers, Stade Français, Pau and Toulon. All of that was sandwiched between spells with Hindú in his hometown of Buenos Aires. After retiring in 2008, Quesada joined the French national backroom team as kicking coach. Three years later, he signed for Racing Metro as backs coach under Pierre Berbizier, before taking over as head coach last season.

Quesada had barely been in the job a day when news spread that Lorenzetti had  lined up Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers as coaches for the following season. With that lack of security hanging over him, Quesada got off to a poor start. However, form changed post-Christmas when the Argentine led the club on a nine-game winning streak to make the play-offs and qualify for the H Cup. Quesada joins Stade Français with a reputation for being popular amongst his players and technically excellent.

Transfer Activity

2012-03-31 Stormers vs Bulls

Springbok outhalf Steyn has signed from the Bulls. (c) Paul Barnard.

The two big-name signings are Morne Steyn and Digby Ioane. Capped 45 times for South Africa, Steyn’s list of honours include a Tri-Nations win, three Super Rugby titles, two Currie Cups and an U21 World Cup. The 29-year-old’s reliable kicking game will be a crucial asset for Stade Français. Unfortunately for Quesada, Steyn doesn’t arrive in Paris until November, by which time Stade will have played 10 or 11 games.

Ioane at his best is one of the most explosive attacking players in the world. Stade Français have rewarded that ability by making Ioane one of the highest paid players in the world, on around €840,000 a year. The 28-year-old will come under fierce pressure to make an instant impact. Unfortunately for Stade, the Wallaby won’t be fit until December following shoulder surgery.

Richard Kingi, the versatile Wallabies-capped back, joins from the Rebels, while Ioane’s nephew Marty, also a winger, is another new face. Stade have made three impressive signings in the front-row in the shape of Davit Kubriashvili, Heinke Van der Merwe and Sakaria Taulafo. Kubriashvili had been frustrated by the lack of games at Toulon, but remains a destructive tighthead. Taulafo arrives from Wasps to add to the existing prop stock of David Attoub, Rabah Slimani and Zurhab Zhvania.

With lots of depth in the front-row, Stade’s scrum should be a powerful weapon this season. (c) Marie-Lan Nguyen.

In the backs, Meyer Bosman, 28, joins from the Sharks. The outhalf has been capped three times for South Africa, and has played much of his most recent rugby in the number 12 shirt. 18-year-old Fijian back Andrea Cocagi signs for the academy from Italian side L’Aquila, where he is joined by Irishman Peter Lydon. Amongst the players who have left Stade Français this summer are Paul Warwick, Felipe Contepomi, Stan Wright and Paul Sackey.

Key Players

Sergio Parisse’s reputation grows with every game. His skills and work-rate are reason alone to watch Stade Français, and he will continue to be a vital player. Captain Pascal Papé has been out injured for the last six months with a serious back injury. The French international lock is hoping to be fit for the start of the Top 14 next month. Aled de Malmanche is set to move to hooker after excelling at loosehead last season. The All Black is phenomenally strong, reputedly bench pressing 220kg.

At scrumhalf, French international Julien Dupuy is a playmaker for the Parisians. His form can be inconsistent, and the 29-year-old needs a good season if Stade are to push for the top six. Jules Plisson, 21, emerged as a real talent last season and will have a big part to play at outhalf prior to Steyn’s arrival. In the centre, Geoffrey Doumayrou’s pace is a handful for defenders, while fullback Hugo Bonneval, 22, is a promising talent.

Irish Connection

Lavalla

Scott Lavalla joined Stade Francais in 2011. (c) Jean-Marc CpaKmoi.

Peter Lydon, 21, joined Stade Français’ academy last month having impressed at outhalf for Seapoint in the Ulster Bank League. The Kilkenny man featured for Leinster’s underage teams up to U20. Lydon benefited from club coach Nigel Osborne’s extensive French connections, and now has the chance to impress in Paris.

Scott Lavalla goes into his third season with the club. The American international played for Trinity while studying there, and also represented the Ulster Ravens. His athleticism is deployed from lock or the back row.

Also of interest to Irish supporters will be the progress of loosehead Heinke van der Merwe. After three seasons of excellent service to Leinster, the Springbok will look forward to the scrummaging test of the Top 14. Under ex-Pumas prop Patricio Noriega, Stade Français’ mêlée should be a strength and may well drive them up the Top 14 table.

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Photos: Paul Barnard, Yohan Zerdoun, Jean-Marc CpaKmoi, Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Top 14 Preview: Grenoble

LOGOTYPE_FCG

The History

Football Club de Grenoble Rugby is one of the few French clubs whose origins lie in the 19th century. In 1892, students of the Lycée Champollion founded the Association Athlétique du Lycée and in 1911, that club merged with three others to form FCG. By 1918 the club had reached the final of the Coupe de l’Espérance, which replaced the French championship during World War 1. Unfortunately, FC Grenoble lost to Racing Club de France, who would later become Racing Metro.

FCG had to wait until 1954 to become champions of France for the first (and only) time. They beat US Cognac 5-3 in the final, inspired by legendary scrumhalf Jean Liénard. The next period of success for the Isère-based club came in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In 1987, the club won the Challenge Yves du Manoir and the club were regular challengers for the league title during that period. In 1993, powered by a pack nicknamed Les MammouthsFCG reached the final but lost 14-11 to Castres due to a controversial try by All Black Gary Whetton.

In 1999/00, FCG made an appearance in the group stages of the Heineken Cup and beat Northampton, who went on to win the tournament that season. By 2005/06, Grenoble had been relegated to the Fédérale 1 due to a €3.6 million deficit in their accounts. FCG went straight up to the Pro D2 that season and spent the next six years steadily improving in the second tier. At the end of 2011/12, Grenoble were crowned champions and promoted to the Top 14.

The Setting

Tribune Liénard

Stade Lesdiguières with mountains in the background. The stand in view is named the ‘Tribune Liénard’ after the club’s legendary scrumhalf and coach. (c) Wiki Commons.

Grenoble sits in the mountainous Isère department, within the Rhône-Alpes region in the south-east of France. The city has a population of close to 157,000. FCG’s home is the Stade Lesdiguières, with a capacity of 11,900. For the bigger games, FCG use the Stade des Alpes, home to Grenoble Foot 38 and which holds 20,000. In February, FCG announced plans to build a new stand at the Stade Lesdiguières, which will feature training facilities, offices and VIP boxes. The construction will boost the stade’s capacity and work is expected to commence next summer.

Last Season

On their return to the Top 14 last season, Grenoble got off to a scintillating start. After putting down a strong pre season, les Isèrois picked up wins over the likes of Stade Francais, Racing Metro, USAP and Toulouse in the aller phase of the league before Christmas. Up until match day 18, FCG were sitting sixth in the table before finishing the season with a bad run of form. Seven losses in eight games saw Grenoble end the season in 11th, but they were 23 points clear of relegated Agen in 13th.

FCG’s defence, under the watch of Bernard Jackman, was ninth-best in the league in terms of points conceded, with their attack 11th overall. Whatever about the stats, it was a case of job done for Grenoble last season. The single objective had been to stay up following promotion and their excellent form in 2012 ensured that was achieved.

Ambitions

Grenoble are built around a strong team spirit. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Grenoble will be aiming to repeat the effort of last year. Of most importance is avoiding relegation but if FCG can get off to as strong a start as last season, they can work towards mid-table solidity. President Marc Chérèque understands the need for the club to grow each year, and with that in mind Grenoble should be targeting a finish in the top 10. Head coach Fabrice Landreau decided to bring his squad back for pre season earlier than any other team in the Top 14, hoping that extra fitness base will prevent another collapse in the retour phase of the league.

The Coach

Having begun his playing career in the lower leagues with his native Angoulême, Landreau joined Grenoble in 1992 and became part of the Mammouths de Grenoble pack who almost won the French championship in ’93. The hooker left FCG in ’97 and had brief spells with Neath RFC, Bristol and Racing Metro. In ’99 Landreau joined Stade Francais and helped them to the French championship alongside the likes of Diego Dominguez and Christophe Dominici. Following that success, he earned his first French cap at the age of 31, going on to win four in total.

After retiring in 2003, Landreau only had to wait a year for his first coaching job. Fabien Galthié was appointed head coach at Stade Francais and asked Landreau to look after the forwards. Over the next five seasons, the ex-hooker helped the club to a Top 14 trophy, a H Cup final, and three Top 14 semi-finals. In 2009, Grenoble made the shrewd move of offering Landreau his first head coaching position. Since then, the 44-year-old has led FCG to consistent improvement: 6th in the Pro D2, semi-finalists the next year, Pro D2 champions in 2012 and 11th in the Top 14 last season.

Transfer Activity

Olly Barkley

Barkley joins after a unsuccessful spell at Racing. (c) Pierre-Selim.

The most familiar name to have joined l’effectif at Grenoble this summer is Olly Barkley. The 31-year-old signed for Racing Metro as a medical joker last season, but failed to impress in 11 starts. Rather than return home, the 22-times capped Englishman has taken up the challenge of aiding FCG’s rise. Landreau will hope to see Barley at his goal-kicking, strong-running best. Another place-kicking option will be Julien Caminati, recruited from Brive. The fullback/wing was superb in the Pro D2 last season and is relishing the chance to prove himself in the Top 14 again.

The two most important additions Grenoble have made are Peter Kimlin and Dan Palmer from the Brumbies. Kimlin (27) impressed in the Australian side’s win over the Lions, and has been superb in this year’s Super Rugby. His ability to cover the back row and lock will be vital. Palmer (24) is considered among the best scrummaging tightheads in Australia, but his intro to the Top 14 will help him discover exactly what it means to scrummage every single weekend.

Amongst the other new faces are centre Geoffrey Messina, who is something of a Top 14 veteran with previous spells at Clermont, Stade Francais and Toulon. Halfback Nicolas Bézy (23) signs from Stade Francais, hoping to finally fulfill his potential. The biggest loss for FCG this summer is Jonathan Pelissié, a lively halfback who has joined Montpellier. Talented winger Lucas Dupont (23) also leaves les Grenoblois for Montpellier.

Key Players

Dan Palmer

New tighthead Dan Palmer success at adapting to the scrummaging demands of the Top 14 will be key. (c) Brumbies Rugby.

FCG are captained by Andrew Farley, born in Australia but capped for Ireland ‘A’ during his five seasons with Connacht. Since moving to Grenoble in 2009, Farley has been almost ever-present in the team and at 32, shows no signs of slowing down. Scrumhalf Valentin Courrent is as experienced as they come in the Top 14 but will come under pressure from Bézy and Mathieu Lorée this season.

In the back row, Jonathan Best has been a stalwart for the club since joining in 2006 and has the ability to play 6 or 7. Generally, Grenoble are as far from a team of stars as you will get, and team work is a big part of their make-up. That’s likely to be the case again this season, although the new signings will be expected to make a match-winning difference.

Irish Connection

TOM CLIFFORD PARK

Mike Prendergast during his playing days for Young Munster. (c) Liam Coughlan.

Farley is not the only Irish player on the books at Grenoble. 21-year-old James Hart is going into the second year of his espoirs contract after making an impact last season. The ex-Leinster U20 halfback made six appearances including two starts in the Top 14. He also proved himself to be a tidy goal-kicker with three penalties and three conversions. Hart will be hoping for further opportunities with FCG this season, despite plenty of competition at scrumhalf.

Bernard Jackman is also moving into his second year at the club. His role at FCG has been expanded this season to include working on collision skills as well as defence. It’s encouraging to see the ex-Ireland international involved in such a technical position, where he is joined by another Irish coach in Mike Prendergast. The former Munster scrumhalf joins the club as a skills coach, following several seasons as Director of Rugby with Young Munster.

Also joining from Young Munster is outhalf/centre Shane O’Leary. The Munster U20 cap made his Ulster Bank League debut under Prendergast last season, as well as playing for Canada U20s at the Junior World Rugby Trophy. O’Leary joins Grenoble’s academy, and is one worth keeping an eye on.

With such a strong Irish influence, Grenoble will surely have many supporters on these shores for the upcoming season.

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Photos: Liam Coughlan, Pierre-Selim.

Who Is Gerhard Van Den Heever?

Van den Heever

Gerhard Van den Heever. (c) Stomers Rugby.

Born in Bloemfontein, van den Heever traveled the 425 kilometres to Pretoria for his schooling at the famous Affies high school. With an alumni including Fourie du Preez, Pierre Spies and Leinster’s Quinn Roux, Affies offers one of the best rugby educations in South Africa.

Van den Heevers’s rugby potential was spotted by the Blue Bulls and he represented them at the U16 Grant Khomo week in 2005. The following two years saw Van den Heever making the natural progression to the Academy Week (U18 secondary National competition) in 2006 and finally the 2007 Craven Week, which represents the peak of South African schools rugby. The Bloemfontein flyer didn’t make the international schools team, but his future with the Bulls was secure.

Van den Heever finished out 2007 out by playing for the Bulls in the ABSA U19 competition. 2008 was spent playing Varsity Cup rugby for the University of Pretoria (‘Tuks’), earning him selection for the inaugural World University Championship Rugby Sevens in Spain. He furthered his reputation at the Bulls with another outstanding campaign in the ABSA U19 competition.

2009 was an important developmental year in Van den Heever’s career. In February, he made his first Vodacom Cup appearance for the Bulls, starting on the wing. Two weeks later, a broken hand for Bryan Habana catapulted Van den Heever into the Bulls’ Super Rugby team for their derby with the Stormers. Still only 19, the pacy winger acquitted himself well and went on to make two more starts before Habana returned. Van den Heever scored his first senior try for the Bulls in a 36-12 loss to the Highlanders.

Habana’s recovery meant the youngster dropped out of the match day squad, but his star had been marked. In June, he traveled to the Junior World Championship with a CJ Stander-captained South Africa, scoring three tries in four games as the Baby ‘Boks finished third. Van den Heever was an unstoppable boulder of form at this stage and returned home to be a star of the 2009 Currie Cup, scoring 11 tries in 13 starts on the wing.

(c) SA Rugby.

The Bulls won the Currie Cup that season, but Van den Heever was unlucky to be benched for the knock-out stages as the big names of Habana and Francois Hougaard were drafted in. Instead, Van den Heever dropped back to the Bulls U21 side for their Currie Cup final against Western Province. The 6ft 3ins wide man scored two tries with practically his only touches of the game to round off an incredible year.

Habana’s move to the Stormers at the start of 2010 meant that there was finally a spot in the Bulls’ Super 14 team for the wonderkid. Van den Heever began the season as he intended to go on, scoring a try in a 51-34 win over the Cheetahs. From then on he was undroppable, starting all but two of the Bulls’ 15 games en route to winning the competition. Van den Heever’s eight tries (including this spectacular effort) left him just one behind top scorers Joe Rokocoko and Drew Mitchell.

The 21-year-old’s excellent form continued in the Currie Cup, with 15 starts and 5 tries as the Bulls relinquished their title in a semi-final loss to Natal. Overall, it was an incredible season for the young winger and, amidst the hype, Van den Heever was being talked about as a possible Springbok. Another good season in 2011 would possibly have led to an international call-up.

But after the peak of 2009 and 2010 has come something of an extended trough for Van den Heever. His nickname at the Bulls was ‘Shadow’ due to his extreme pace but ironically his form has gradually become a shadow of that 2010 season.

In 2011, he made 14 appearances but only scored three tries as the Bulls failed to make the play-offs in the re-structured Super Rugby. It was far from a vintage season for Frans Ludeke’s side and despite starting with a bang, Van den Heever’s form suffered. In that season’s Currie Cup the Bulls struggled again, missing out on the playoffs. Van den Heever made seven starts but managed just one try. The Bulls style of play in 2011 meant Van den Heever saw less of the ball, and his form dropped away.

Van den Heever in action for the Stormers. (c) Paul Barnard.

After a year in which he and the Bulls hadn’t sparked, Van den Heever decided to make a move to the Stormers in Cape Town on a two-year deal. A strange transfer, considering that Habana and Gio Aplon were already established there as first choice wingers. Van den Heever had to be content with warming the bench for much of the 2012 season. He played 15 times (7 starts) and scored a solitary try in round 16. In the Currie Cup, he started all 12 games as Western Province won the competition, but dotted down just twice.

That brings us to the 2013 season, where Van den Heever made 11 appearances (3 starts) as the Stormers missed out on the Super Rugby playoffs. He began the season on the bench again, but an injury to Habana saw him start twice in March before suffering an injury himself. After recovering, Van den Heever was back riding pine. He scored one try in the 2013 Super Rugby season.

I watched Van den Heever in the games he started against the Brumbies in round six, and the Crusaders in round seven. The first thing that struck me was the size of the 24-year-old. At 6ft 3ins and around 100kg, he is in the George North-mould of large wingers. At that size, he’s obviously strong and he often beat the first defender when in possession. He has quick feet for a tall guy and that means he doesn’t run directly into defenders too often.

Van den Heever looked to be solid under the high ball. He has a good leap and with his height advantage he can win attacking kicks and re-starts. Against the Crusaders, the Stormers looked for Van den Heever from the re-starts and he won possession back twice. However, those were the occasions when the winger was in the right place. His reactions and anticipation can be slow. Great players are always in the right place, but Van den Heever wasn’t consistently well positioned.

He was forced to kick twice over the course of the two games and looked uncomfortable doing so. That looks like an area where Munster will need to do some work. Also, his technique at the breakdown is likely to be addressed. Van den Heever looked happy to just add his weight to the ruck, rather than clearing past the ball or counter-rucking. Obviously this is not a winger’s priority, but it’s a necessity for every player.

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Off the bench against the Blues in 2012. (c) Paul Barnard.

Van den Heever’s greatest asset is his searing pace. He is one of the quickest wingers South Africa has produced, and a quick search on Youtube will tell you all you need to know. That speed combined with his footwork make him a threat whenever he gets the ball, but I felt that he could have been far more involved. Pacy players are the ones you look to for a spark, but Van den Heever didn’t provide that in either game.

The 24-year-old scored against the Brumbies from an intercept, but apart from that only touched the ball when it was kicked to him or spread wide to his wing. He never came off the touchline looking for work. Having spoken to a few journalists in South Africa, this would be their main concern about Van den Heever. The perception is that he can be one-dimensional and unwilling to get himself involved at crucial times in games.

Defensively, Van den Heever is a good one-on-one tackler. He didn’t miss a tackle in either of the games I watched, but neither did he make a dominant tackle. If he’s going to replace Doug Howlett with conviction, he will need to use that huge frame of his to make an impact on defence. Again, the feeling is that Van den Heever is happy to just do enough to get by. He didn’t go looking for a big defensive play, or to use his power to smash attackers.

With his pace, size, strength, ability in the air, and still being just 24, Van den Heever can definitely offer Munster something they don’t have in the back three. He is not the finished article but the move to Ireland could be just the motivation he needs to start showing that incredible form of 2010 again. His size and speed make him an exciting prospect and it will be fascinating to watch his progress at Munster.

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Photos: Paul Barnard.

Top 14 Preview: Brive

logo_twitterThe History

Club Athlétique de Brive was created in 1912 but had to wait until 1957 for its first national title, when they won the French Second Division. In 1965, led by a backline nicknamed l’attaque ricochet (which included Pierre Villepreux), Brive reached their maiden First Division final but were beaten by Agen. The Limousin-based club lost finals again in 1972 and 1975, as well as later in 1996. Brive did manage to claim a trophy in ’96, winning the Challenge Yves du Manoir.

In 1997, CAB won the second-ever Heineken Cup by beating Leicester, before dramatically losing to Bath (worth a watch) in the following year’s final. That was the end of the glory days, with Brive relegated from the Top 16 in 2001. By 2003, they were back in the top-flight where they established themselves as mid-table regulars and Challenge Cup hopefuls for the remainder of the decade. In 2005, the club altered its name to the current CA Brive Corrèze Limousin. At the end of the 2011/12 season, they found themselves once again relegated to the Pro D2.

The Setting

Brive-la-Gaillarde is situated in the Corrèze département, within the Limousin région. The Limousin is a largely rural area in south-central France. Clermont is the derby game in terms of proximity. Brive itself has a population of around 50,000. The club play their rugby at the 15,000 capacity Amédée-Domenech, named after Brive’s legendary prop. Domenech helped the club to their 1957 Second Division glory and won 52 caps for France. After retiring, he became a politician and was even part of French Prime Minister Edgar Fauré’s cabinet.

Last Season

Brive finished second in the regular season Pro D2 table, meaning they had to negotiate the play-offs in order to secure promotion. That challenge posed no major problems as les Brivistes overcame Aurillac in the semi-final, and comfortably beat Pau in the final. Having been relegated from the Top 14 in 2011/12, Brive had worked hard to retain as much experience in the playing staff as possible, and the scheme worked.

On top of that effort, the recruitment of international players like Mike Blair, Georgian prop Goderzi Shvelidze, and Fijian Dominiko Waqaniburotu added quality to the squad. Despite an attack which was only the eighth-strongest, Brive’s excellent defence (2nd-best) and a superb run of form in the second half of the season helped them to bounce straight back up.

Ambitions

Brive feel that their natural home is amongst the elite clubs in France. While some figures involved with the club have spoken about a top 10 finish this season, the realistic aim for Brive is staying up, le maintien. Having lost several key players, Brive will need their direct replacements to integrate rapidly. Head coach Nicolas Godignon will hope to carry the form from the tail-end of last season into this one. The fear for les Brivistes is becoming a club who bounce between the Top 14 and Pro D2 each season.

Brive Huddle

Brive did well to bounce straight back up last season. Staying up is the next challenge. (c) Pauline Lacoste.

The Coach

Godignon’s playing career as a flanker with Brive was severely limited by serious injuries including a broken tibia and torn cruciate ligaments. He dropped down the divisions to play Fédérale rugby with Malemort and then Gourdon XV Bouriane, before retiring and turning his hand to coaching. After learning the ropes with Malemort, Tulle and Gourdon, he returned to Brive to take charge of the Crabos side (under 19s).

Godignon’s potential as a coach was evident as he led the team to a national title in 2011. That success saw him promoted to the position of defence coach with Brive’s first team, where he once again impressed with his attitude and technical proficiency. Following relegation in 2012, head coach Ugo Mola quit the club and Brive decided to promote from within. The board gave Godignon two seasons to return to the Top 14, but he needed only one. A promising coach.

Transfer Activity

Try me...

Julien Caminati is a big loss for Brive. He scored 255 points last season, including 8 tries. (c) Patrick Mollema.

The marquee signing is wing Alfie Mafi, capped at U19 level by Australia. The 25-year-old made an explosive start to this year’s Super Rugby, with five tries in nine games for the Force, before being released amid accusations of ill discipline. Mafi adds finishing ability to a side which has struggled for tries in recent years. Another signing from Super Rugby is Kevin Buys of the Kings. The 27-year-old tighthead prop previously had a two-year stint with Brive between ’07 and ’09. Buys offers Brive 120kg of scrummaging power.

A controversial addition is that of Sisa Koyamaibole, the ex-Sale Sharks No. 8. At Bordeaux last season, the Fijian received a 12-week ban for biting, but a refusal to even travel to his own disciplinary hearing saw UBB wash their hands of him. The 33-year-old subsequently pitched up at Fédérale 3 side Libourne with the intention of staying fit. Koyamaibole can be devastating with ball in hand, but his discipline is equally as destructive.

The biggest loss for Brive this summer is Julien Caminati, a goal-kicking, try-scoring wing/fullback, who has moved to Grenoble. Hoping to fill the gap is Gaétan Germain, who joins on loan from Racing Metro. The 22-year-old fullback/wing is a powerful presence at 6ft 3ins and 97kg, and a reliable kicker. Back row Poutasi Luafutu (joining Bordeaux) and loosehead Davit Khinchagishili (Racing Metro) are further losses from last season,. The rest of Brive’s recruitment is made up of excellent Pro D2 players like Karien Asieshvili (loosehead) and Simon Pinet (lock) from Aurillac.

Mike Blair and Jamie Noon are two of the more familiar names in the list of 15 players who have left Brive this summer. Blair has joined Newcastle, with Noon retiring. Amongst the 13 arrivals, Kieran Murphy should be known to Pro12 fans.

Brive Blair

Scottish scrumhalf Mike Blair has left the club to join Newcastle in the Premiership. (c) Pauline Lacoste.

Key Players

Germain’s ability to replace Caminati will be crucial to Brive’s season. Caminati was particularly irrepressible during the play-offs, scoring 37 points in the two games. Outhalf Romain Sola made one Top 14 appearance for Toulouse as a youngster before spending the rest of his career in the Pro D2. His success in adapting to the top tier of French rugby will be important. Outside him, South African centre Riaan Swanepoel’s experience with the Sharks and Clermont will be helpful.

In the back row, Waqaniburotu will be the one tasked with replacing Luafutu’s powerful running game. At lock, Arnaud Mela is 33, but has buckets of Top 14 experience as well as four French caps (including one against Ireland). Last season’s top try-scorer was winger Guillaume Namy, with eight in 20 games. The 24-year-old scored two Top 14 tries during Brive’s last spell at the top table. He will need to be at his most prolific to help les Brivistes avoid relegation.

Irish Connection

Kieran Murphy is a player who has faced Irish teams on at least eight occasions for the Scarlets. The 25-year-old has been a solid presence at No. 8 over the last two seasons, having joined the professional game at a relatively late stage. His no-nonsense, intelligent play will go down well in France, and he appears the type of player who will integrate into the group with ease. Brive will need every ounce of team spirit to come to the fore if they are to stay up. Their previous history in the Top 14 is an advantage, but it’s still a huge challenge to avoid relegation.

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Photos: Patrick Mollema, Pauline Lacoste.

Top 14 Preview: Bordeaux

UBBThe History

Union Bordeaux Bègles (UBB) were formed in 2006, when two clubs in the city of Bordeaux merged. One of those sides was Stade Bordelais (founded 1889), winners of seven French championships between 1899 and 1911. The other part of the amalgamation was Club Athlétique Bordeaux-Bègles Gironde (founded 1907), French champions in 1969 and 1991. By the mid-2000s, Stade Bordelais were playing in the Pro D2, with Club Athlétique Bordeaux-Bègles Gironde a step lower in Fédérale 1 following financial problems.

Having two mediocre clubs in the city was proving counter-intuitive to success and local businesses found it difficult to decide which club to back financially. In the summer of 2006, the clubs merged to form the ridiculously-named Union Stade Bordelais – C.A. Bordeaux-Bègles Gironde (USBCABBG). Neither club wanted to give up their name, and other teething problems included arguments over whose stadium to use. The new club took Stade Bordelais’ place in the Pro D2, and in 2008 changed their name to Union Bordeaux Bègles.

The early ambition was to see UBB return to the Top 14 swiftly. In 2011, the club finished 5th in the Pro D2 and beat Albi in a promotion play-off final. Under current USAP coach Marc Delpoux, les Bordelais surprised everyone by finishing eighth in their first season in the Top 14. Club president Laurent Marti has been in place since the beginning, and has worked hard at attracting partners to the club in order to increase the budget each year. Heading into this season, UBB are working off a figure in the region of €12.5 million.

The Setting

Stade Chaban

The Stade Chaban-Delmas is where UBB play their big games. (c) UBB.

Bordeaux is the ninth largest city in France with a population of around 240,000. It’s the capital of the Aquitaine region in the South-West of France. UBB’s first home is the Stade André Moga, with a capacity of 9,600. The ex-stade of CABBG is sometimes referred to as Stade Musard, after the field it was built upon.  For their bigger games, UBB use the Stade Chaban-Delmas, with space for 34,700. This stadium is also home to Bordeaux’s football team.

Last Season

After helping UBB to eighth place on their return to the Top 14 in 2011/12 despite the lowest budget in the league, Marc Delpoux jumped ship to Perpignan. In his place, Marti appointed French rugby legend Raphaël Ibañez. UBB were always likely to suffer from ‘second-album syndrome’ and they finished the season in 12th. That might look perilously close to relegation, but UBB finished a comfortable 16 points ahead of 13th-placed Agen.

Ibañez’s side won many fans (including myself) for their exciting, ambitious style of play and they finished fifth in the Top 14 try-scoring stakes overall. However, six home losses and just one victory on their travels didn’t help. UBB lost many matches by very small margins, highlighted by their nine losing bonus points and a points difference of just -23.

Ambitions

UBB Supporters

UBB are an ambitious club under Laurent Marti. (c) UBB.

UBB are an ambitious club, but under Marti they are realistic too. Their aim this season will be simply to win more games, with a finish in the top 10 the target. Marti’s three-year plan ideally sees UBB pushing for a Heineken Cup spot, but he insists that “the sole ambition for this season consists of doing everything possible to ensure staying up with as much comfort as possible.” Marti is a firm believer that first team success is the best way to grow the club and its budget year-on-year, so the pressure is on Ibañez to improve on last season’s 12th.

The Coach

Ibañez took over at UBB last summer, in what was his first appointment as a head coach. During his playing career, the hooker earned 98 caps for France (34 as captain), winning two Grand Slams, two Six Nations and finishing runner-up of the 1999 World Cup. In club rugby, his honours included a Heineken Cup, Premiership and Anglo-Welsh cup with Wasps. Ibañez is a genuine legend of rugby. The 40-year-old admits to having learned from coaching mistakes last season and told Midi Olympique: “I hope to be more clear-headed in the decisions I have to make throughout the season.”

Transfer Activity

33-year-old prop Jean-Baptiste Poux joins UBB after 11 trophy-laden seasons at Toulouse. Capped 37 times for France, he can play on both sides of the scrum and will add grunt to the front row. Samoan back row Taiasina Tui’fua joins from Newcastle. His 115kg ball-carrying strength is likely to be used at No. 8, but a place is the first team is no guarantee. Poutasi Luafutu is another versatile new back row option. The 25-year-old Australian helped Brive to promotion from the Pro D2 last season. Luafutu’s power in open play makes him an exciting addition.

Ibanez and Worsley

Raphaël Ibañez is head coach at UBB, with Joe Worsley in charge of defence. (c) UBB.

In total, UBB have brought in 19 new players, with 16 leaving. By far the biggest loss is last season’s superb outhalf Camille Lopez, who has left for USAP. The task of replacing him is given to Pierre Bernard, who joins from Castres. At 24, Bernard is seen as a player of great potential. He was first-choice outhalf at Castres in 2011/12 but fell behind Rémi Tales last season. UBB need him to fulfill his early promise. France-capped centre Thibault Lacroix signs from Bayonne hoping to resurrect his career, while France U20s No. 8 Marco Tauleigne joins from Bourgoin, and looks promising.

Key Players

Samoan hooker Ole Avei is quite possibly the best hooker in France. He has become a true fans’ favourite since joining for their promotion season in 2010/11. His power in contact and pace in attack make the 30-year-old a vital part of the team. UBB are captained by England-born Kiwi Matthew Clarkin (32). He moved to Bordeaux in 2010 after five seasons with Montauban, where he was also captain. The No. 8’s leadership will be important again this season, but he faces competition for his place in the first team.

South African scrumhalf Heini Adams is a lively, tempo-setting presence. The 33-year-old played Super Rugby with the Bulls and came close to being capped for the ‘Boks before joining UBB in 2010. At 5ft 6ins and 77kg, Adams is hardly physically imposing, but he is brave and provides rapid service. Likely to start the season at fullback is Bruce Reihana, the ex-Northampton stalwart and twice-capped All Black. Despite being 37 now, Reihana still stands up to the Top 14’s demanding physical standards.

On the wing, Metuisela Talebula can be a lethal presence. The 22-year-old Fijian international’s pace and finishing ability were developed on the sevens circuit before joining UBB at the start of last season. He scored eight tries in 22 appearances and will be confident of improving on that.

Talebula

Talebula celebrates one of his eight tries last season. (c) UBB.

Irish Connection

He’s an Englishman but he did play for the British and Irish Lions: Joe Worsley. During 78 caps for England and one Test start for the Lions, the flanker made an art form of tackling. He was the Dan Lydiate of the 2000s. The 36-year-old retired in 2011 and last summer Ibañez, his ex-teammate, came calling with the position of defence coach at UBB. Worsley’s first season in charge was successful, with les Bordelais having the 8th-best defence in the Top 14. However, UBB were 2nd in terms of both penalties conceded and yellow cards. Discipline is one of the areas they need to tighten up, but there is plenty of cause for optimism in Bordeaux this season.

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Photos: UBB.

Top 14 Preview: Oyonnax

grd_logo_oyonnaxThe History

Union Sportive Oyonnax’s history stems back to 1909, when Jules Verchere founded a club in the town for the first time. In 1940, the club took on its current guise, having already established the Stade Charles Mathon as their home. Between 1967 and 1972, Oyonnax played the majority of their rugby in the top division of French rugby before a long spell in the lower leagues over the following 30 years.

In 2003, les rouges et noirs finished runners-up of the Fédérale 1 and earned promotion to the Pro D2, where they’ve spent the last 10 years, often seen as over-achievers thanks to making the final in 2009 and semi-finals in 2010. Alongside Montpellier and Brive, les Oyonnaxiens are the only Top 14 team never to have won the French championship. So far trophies have proven elusive for Oyonnax, with just a Coupe de l’Espérance, a Nationale 1 title, and last season’s Pro D2 plaque occupying the trophy cabinet.

The Setting

Oyonnax, in the Ain department, has a population of around 23,000. Their closest Top 14 rivals are Grenoble, who also inhabit the Rhône-Alpes region in the east of France. Capacity at the Stade Charles Mathon has been expanded to 12,000 in recent months and the stadium has a fantastic reputation thanks to the level of support from the rugby-obsessed town. The man whom the stade is named after was an Oyonnax-born player, later killed in the Second World War.

Last Season

Champions

Oyonnax powered to the 2012/13 Pro D2 title. (c) Michel TREUILLET.

Oyonnax began the campaign as 66/1 outsiders for the Pro D2, but aided by intelligent recruitment and the fortress that is Stade Charles Mathon (they won all 15 home games), the Ain-based side romped to the title. In the end, Oyonnax finished 17 points clear of second-placed Brive. Their attack was ruthless all season with 86 tries in 30 games, 20 clear of the next best. In defence, they were the third most solid in the Pro D2. The comfort provided by that dominance allowed Oyonnax to plan early for their maiden appearance in the Top 14.

Ambitions

The most important thing for the club is le maintien, staying up. It’s a huge ask for a club with such little Top 14 history but as Bordeaux and Grenoble have shown in recent seasons, it is possible. It’s an exciting time for Oyonnax as a club. As well as increasing the capacity of their stadium, they have improved the changing rooms and facilities, and it will need to be as reliable a stronghold as last season. The club are well aware of their status as relegation favourites, and have been preparing with the attitude of having nothing to lose.

Club president Jean-Marc Manducher told Midi Olympique“We’re already winners. This rise into the Top 14 will allow us to solidify the presence of Oyonnax in the world of professional rugby.” Head coach Christophe Urios added: “We wanted promotion. We fought for it. It offers us the opportunity to experience a new challenge. We must approach it with humility, passion, ambition and especially without any complex.” Oyonnax will be the archetypal plucky underdogs.

The Coach

As a player, Urios won a French championship with Castres in 1993. His first coaching job was with the same club, as forwards coach from 2002 to 2005, when he took up his first head coaching job at Bourgoin. In 2007, he dropped down to the Pro D2 with Oyonnax and has been there since. Urios values the “human” aspect of coaching: “I strive daily to ensure that everyone is able to answer fundamental questions: what his place in the group is, what is expected of him, what he brings. That exchange with the players is at the heart of our work.” His movements in the transfer market over the last number of seasons has been extremely effective.

Transfer Activity

Damian Browne Takes

Browne joins from Leinster. (c) Martin Dobey.

With a first European campaign in the Challenge Cup ahead, as well as the Top 14 to contend with, Oyonnax have added no less than 16 new players to their squad this summer. That is tempered by 11 departures, including last season’s excellent scrumhalf Julien Audy. Among the more notable signings are Guillaume Boussès, Silvère Tian and Damian Browne.

32-year-old Boussès is a centre with almost 12 full seasons of Top 14 experience, and one French cap from 2006. After two years of limited opportunities at Racing Metro, he will be desperate to prove himself. Tian joins for his second spell at Oyonnax after leaving relegated Agen. The 32-year-old Ivory Coast international fullback/wing is capable of moments of magic and his experience will help too. 31-year-old English hooker Neil Clark joins from the Exeter Chiefs.

Key Players

Oyonnax are captained by Englishman Joe El-Abd. The 33-year-old flanker spent three seasons with Toulon before becoming an Oyonnaxien last season. His leadership and know-how will be crucial. Outhalf Benjamín Urdapilleta is the on-pitch heartbeat of the side. The 6-times capped Argentine provides inventiveness in attack, as well as being accurate with the boot. The 27-year-old scored 232 points in the Pro D2 last season, and looks at home in Oyonnax after two years with Harlequins.

10

Urdapilleta is the key man at outhalf. (c) Michel TREUILLET.

At fullback, Florian Denos was the Pro D2’s top try-scorer last season with 17 in 28 games. The 27-year-old has previously played Top 14 rugby with Bourgoin and Castres, after developing at Toulouse. His assurance and leadership at the back will be valuable. At inside centre, Hemani Paea is 112kg of Tongan ball-carrying and big-tackling power. Having started his professional career down in Fédérale 1, this will be entirely new territory for Paea.

Denos and El Abd were both part of the Pro D2 Team of the Season for 2012/13, as was loosehead prop Antoine Tichit, a former France U19 and U20 international. At 24, there are high hopes for Tichit who has all the skills needed to play at the highest level. The Top 14, where the mantra is “no scrum, no win”, will truly test Tichit. Elsewhere, No. 8 Chad Slade (31) is a Samoan international, tighthead Clément Baïocco (33) is capped for France, and flanker Scott Newlands (27) has played for Scotland.

Irish Connection

Damian Browne is back in the Top 14 for the second time, having spent three years with Brive from 2008 to 2011. After two frustrating seasons with Leinster, the 33-year-old will expect to play every weekend. Head coach Urios will value Browne’s Top 14 experience highly, and the Galway native will be expected to smash rucks, provide power in the scrum and generally put his 126kg frame to good use. Browne will need be well motivated for what is likely to be a testing season and a relegation battle at Oyonnax.

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Photos: Martin Dobey, Oyonnax Rugby, Michel TREUILLET.

Rebels Ditch Beale and O’Connor

For hire: Utility back (not outhalf) who can run fast, sidestep, tackle, pass long off both sides and has superb hair. (c) WP Photography Geelong.

The majority of the reaction to the Rebels’ decision not to offer Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor new deals at the club for 2014 has focused on the duo’s off-field issues. That attention is justifiable and those problems were definitely a powerful motivating factor behind the Rebels’ call. However, the most important aspect of rugby is still the actual games on the pitch. The Rebels would certainly have studied whether or not Beale and O’Connor’s performances in Super Rugby meant it was worthwhile putting up with the off-field problems.

James O’Connor

After joining the Rebels in 2012, O’Connor played 21 of a possible 32 games. Just one of those 21 appearances came from the bench, incidentally his last. The 23-year-old stared nine times at outhalf, six times at fullback and five times at inside centre (second five-eight). The most consecutive starts he had in one position was five at outhalf. That movement between positions highlights one of the problems of O’Connor’s playing career so far: no one knows his best position.

Over the last two seasons, the Queenslander scored 201 points for the Rebels, including three tries. With O’Connor possessing the pace and footwork he does, one might expect his try-scoring rate to have been higher than 0.14 per game, especially when compared with a rate of .25 per game over four seasons at the Force. In terms of place kicking, O’Connor scored 44 penalties and 27 conversions, at an accuracy rate of just over 78%.

James O'Connor

JOC played 10, 12 and 15 for the Rebels. (c) Jesse Fanthorpe.

In 2012, O’Connor was involved in just one of the Rebels’ four wins. That victory was at home to the Blues, when he played at outhalf. In the minutes that the Rebels had O’Connor on the pitch in 2012, they were 236-113 aggregate losers to the opposition. To sum it up, with O’Connor on the pitch in 2012, the Rebels’ record read: Played 8, Won 1, Lost 7, with a points difference of -123.

Without O’Connor, the Rebels record was more impressive: Played 13, Won 6, Lost 5, Drew 2. The aggregate score on those occasions was 303-277 in favour of the opposition, a much improved points difference of -26. It must be noted that these records include the spells when O’Connor was substituted off the pitch, but that only serves to highlight the main point. Without JOC on the pitch, the Rebels were statistically a better team in 2012.

In 2013, the Wallaby played more often for the Rebels, but the stats tell a similar story. With O’Connor on the field, the Melbourne club had a record of: Played 13, Won 3, Lost 10. The aggregate score was 368-270 against, a points difference 0f -98. Without JOC on the pitch, the Rebels were numerically better: Played 6, Won 3, Lost 3, with a combined score of 147-113, a points difference of -35. That said, O’Connor was involved in three of the Rebels’ five wins, starting both victories against the Force and making a telling impact off the bench last weekend versus the Highlanders.

Kurtley Beale

Rugby

For hire: Outhalf/fullback with vision, searing pace, creative playmaking skills and footwork from another planet. (c) Graham MacDougall.

Beale also joined the Rebels for the start of the 2012 season, but played even less than O’Connor. Over the last two seasons Beale made 14 appearances, all but one of them in the starting team. He was selected at outhalf on 7 occasions, and fullback the remaining 7 times. Just like JOC, there are still differing opinions on Beale’s best position. Interestingly, of the four times Beale tasted victory in a Rebels’ jersey, he was wearing number 10 in three of them.

Beale’s scoring impact for the Rebels was understandably lower than O’Connor’s, given that he played less and was not the front-line place kicker. The 24-year-old contributed a total of 50 points, including four tries. That puts Beale at a try-scoring rate of .31 tries per full game at the Rebels, better than his .21 rate at the Waratahs. From the tee, Beale kicked 6 conversions and 14 penalties, with an accuracy rate of 87%.

In 2012, Beale was involved in three of the Rebels’ four wins. With the Sydney man on the pitch, the Rebels’ record read: Played 10, Won 3, Lost 7. The total scoreline was 300-208 to the combined opposition, a points difference of -92. Without Beale out on the field, the Rebels were: Played 8, Won 2, Drew 1, Lost 5. On those occasions the aggregate score was 220-154, an improved points difference of -66.

In 2013, the fact that Beale played just four times means the stats cannot be relied upon as heavily as above. However, it is important to note the difference in the Rebels’ performances when Beale did play. With him involved, the Rebels were: Played 4, Won 1, Lost 3. But the key stat here is a points difference of -12 in those 4 games. Without Beale, the Rebels’ record in 2013 was: Played 14, Won 4, Lost 10. The aggregate score was 431-331, a vastly inferior points difference of -100.

Combination

Kurtley Beale for the Wallabies

O’Connor (left) ready to choose exactly the line Beale wants him to. The Rebels didn’t get enough from this combination. (c) richseow.

To the naked eye, O’Connor and Beale combine well on the pitch. They appear to read each others attacking intentions instinctively and usually pick ideal lines off each other when the chance arises. Rebels fans haven’t had too many opportunities to see the pair playing together though. Over the last two years, Beale and O’Connor have been on the pitch together only 10 times for the Rebels.

In 2012, the combination didn’t bring success, with the Rebels winning just once of the six occasions, with an aggregate scoreline of -88. In 2013, the combination showed signs of improvement, but unfortunately only had four chances to do so. The Rebels won twice, and actually had a points difference of +3 overall. The great shame is that Beale’s personal issues prevented us from seeing more of the combination that looked so promising in brief glimpses.

Cutting Losses

All of the above should be processed with the reminder that the Rebels are still a weak team. That’s entirely natural, given that they have only finished their third season in Super Rugby. Over the last two years, the Rebels have won just nine games. On four of those occasions neither O’Connor nor Beale, the club’s ‘best’ players, were involved. At times it has looked as though the Rebels squad have been liberated by the star duo’s absences. It will be interesting to see if that effect can last into next season now that the club has decided to ditch their two marquee players.

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Photos: WP Photography Geelong, Jesse Fanthorp, Graham MacDougall, richseow.