Top 14 Preview: Castres

CastreslogoThe History

Founded in 1906, Castres Olympique were a dominant force in French rugby in the late 1940s. After picking up their first silverware in 1948 in the Coupe de France, les Castrais were crowned league champions in 1949 and 1950. All three winning sides were captained by goal-kicking second row Jean Pierre-Antoine, who tragically died at the age of 35 following a match against Montréjeau in 1956. Castres’ glory years were over and in the ’60s they dropped into the second division.

1989 was a crucial year in CO’s story as Pierre Fabre, the Castres-born founder of Laboratoires Pierre Fabre, bought into the club. The pharmaceutical tycoon bankrolled Castres into the top flight and in 1993, powered by the kicking of Laurent Labit and benefiting from a controversial try, les Castrais were once again champions of France. CO have been competitive in the Top 14 ever since, making a final, three semis, and five quarters. Fabre passed away last month, leaving behind a powerful legacy.

The Setting

Castres sits in the Tarn department, within the Midi-Pyrénées region of the south of France. The population of the town is under 45,000, with Laboratoires Pierre Fabre providing employment for many. CO’s home is the Stade Pierre-Antoine, named after their double title-winning captain. One of the stands bears the name of Francis Rui, a champion of France in ’93 with CO who later died in a car accident. The Stade Pierre-Antoine holds just over 10,000 people.

Last Season

Kockott

The final of last season’s final, Rory Kockott, holds aloft the Bouclier de Brennus. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

A magnificent shock, as CO won their first title in 20 years. Having finished fourth in the regular season log, les Castrais took advantage of a home barrages game to beat Montpellier. In the semi-finals, a powerful Castres pack took a tired Clermont to the cleaners, before Rory Kockott and Rémi Talès inspired their side to a fully deserved victory over Toulon in the final. Much of the credit went to the coaching duo of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers.

While CO were by no means purveyors of champagne rugby, they managed to rack up points throughout the season through the boot of Kockott. The Stade Pierre-Antoine is a fortress for Castres, with just three losses there in four years in the Top 14. Under les deux Laurents, the Tarn men were never interested in the Heineken Cup, with all their effort concentrated domestically. The fact that CO don’t have any stars has also helped with their togetherness.

Ambitions

ASM vs CO

If CO are to retain their title, the scrum will be vital again. Clermont couldn’t handle Castres’ pack in the semi-final last season. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

The goal now is to retain their title. Understandably, most predictions of the Top 14 have focused around Toulon, Clermont, Racing, Toulouse and to some extent Montpellier. There has been little mention made of Castres’ chances of repeating their exploits of last year, and to be honest it is difficult to see them doing so. However, les Castrais are the proof that predictions in a league where the team who finish sixth can be champions is a foolish game.

The Coach(es)

The loss of the two Laurents is a major blow. In their place come Serge Milhas (forwards) and David Darricarrère (backs). Milhas was a scrumhalf for Auch and Colomiers, while Darricarrère played outhalf for Narbonne and Mont de Marsan. The pair first worked together at La Rochelle from 2007 until 2011, guiding them to promotion from the Pro D2 in the ’09/10 season before being relegated a year later.

In the summer of 2011, Milhas (48) moved to Biarritz but was sacked before Christmas and has been out work since. Darricarrère (42) spent a season with Dax, and then took charge of relegated Agen’s forwards last season. The duo are well aware of the challenge they face, but hope to pay homage to Pierre Fabre with a strong season. They will rely heavily on Castres’ excellence at the set-piece and hope Kockott can repeat his goal-kicking feats.

Transfer Activity

Gray

Richie Gray claims a lineout during Castres’ 42-31 win over Connacht on Friday. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

Richie Gray is the marquee signing for CO. The 23-year-old lock will be expected to add a touch of class and has the task of replacing Matthias Rolland (now manager) as a pillar of strength in the squad. The Scot adds a powerful ball-carrying element and should adapt to the Top 14 well. The other addition likely to impact on the starting XV is Rémy Grosso from Lyon in the Pro D2. The 24-year-old’s 6ft 3 ins, 104kg frame is built for the Top 14 and he scored nine tries last season.

Julien Tomas (28) joins from Montpellier to replace the departed Thierry Lacrampe as back-up to Rory Kockott. The thrice-capped French international had played for MHR for his entire career, so the change of scenery may reinvigorate him. Spanish international Cédric Garcia (30) has moved from Bayonne to provide further depth at scrumhalf. The other two newcomers are promising wing Geoffrey Palis (22) and prop George Marich (21).

The key losses to for Castres are Marc Andreu and Joe Tekori. Both had their weaknesses, but Andreu’s tries and Tekori’s power will be missed.

Key Players

Co vs MHR 2012 - 2013

Scrumhalf Kockott is a fiery customer and Castres’ chief points-scorer. (c) Mathile Bourel.

Kockott’s performance in the Top 14 final highlighted his importance. The scrumhalf’s 13-point haul helped him to a season’s total of 376, piping Jonny Wilkinson to the title of top points-scorer. A dip in form in April had seen the South African dropped by les deux Laurents, but he bounced back in spectacular fashion. Labit has highlighted Kockott as possessing the most mental strength he has ever come across in a player. Powerful and confrontational, Kockott will lead CO’s charge again this season.

Castres’ scrum was a crucial element of their title success last season, particularly in the semi-final against Clermont. Karena Wihongi (33) started his career down in Fédérale 1 before spells at Bourgoin and Sale. At 130kg, the Kiwi is an immovable slab of a tighthead. At loosehead, former All Black Saimone Taumopeau (33) seems to improve with age, while French international Yannick Forestier (31) will be aiming to usurp him after injury troubles last season.

After five years with Brive, No. 8 Antoine Claassen made such an impact in his first season at Castres that he became a French international. The South Africa-born 28-year-old provides power and leadership. In front of him, Christophe Samson (29) was just as crucial having joined from Toulon last summer. Capped five times for France, the 6ft 6ins lock is a Nathan Hines-in-the-making, capable of doing the dirty work but with a touch of elegance.

Co vs MHR 2012 - 2013

Dulin is a man we are likely to see far more of at international level. (c) Mathilde Bourel.

Fullback Brice Dulin is another who made a telling difference after joining last season from Agen. Having made his French debut last summer, the 23-year-old settled in Castres immediately. Unfortunately, Dulin will miss the start of the season with a broken jaw. At outhalf, Rémi Talès (29) was inspirational last season after an unremarkable career up until that point. The playmaker is now a French international having won two caps against New Zealand in June.

Irish Connection

Pedrie Wannenburg enjoyed two excellent years with Ulster before making the move to Castres last summer. Stifled by injuries and lacking in form, the South African made just five starts in the entire campaign. The 32-year-old will be back-up to Claassen once again, but will certainly hope to play a bigger role in Castres’ title defence.

Possible Starting XV

15. Dulin, 14. Martial, 13. Cabannes, 12. Bai, 11. Grosso, 10. Talès, 9. Kockott, 8. Claassen, 7. Caballero, 6. Bornman/Diarra, 5. Gray, 4. Samson, 3. Wihongi, 2. Mach, 1. Taumopeau

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Thanks to Mathilde Bourel for her permission to use the excellent photographs featured above. You can view more of her rugby photography on Flickr.

Top 14 Preview: Montpellier

montpellier-herault-rugby-logo-3449The History

Montpellier Hérault Rugby is a relatively new club having been formed in 1986, the result of a merger between Stade Montpelliérain and Montpellier Université Club. By 1991, the new outfit had reached the top division of French rugby and in ’93 won their first silverware in the Challenge de l’Espérance. A financial crisis in 1998 saw Montpellier drop to the second division, where they remained until 2003, when Didier Nourault coached the side to a Pro D2 title.

Montpellier have been slowly building ever since. 2007 was a significant year for the club, with Fulgence Ouedraogo becoming their first French international and also a move to the new Stade Yves-du-Manoir. 2011 saw Montpellier reach their first-ever Top 14 final, where they were beaten 15-10 by Toulouse. Another landmark in that season was the arrival of Mohed Altrad as president, a building materials tycoon whose personal fortune totals €600 million.

Last season, Montpellier reached the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time in their history. It is a relatively short history, but one which shows consistent progress. The likelihood is that there is more to come.

The Setting

Stade de rugby de montpellier

Stade Yves-du-Manoir, a little big stadium. (c) Marc Meynadier.

Montpellier is located on the Mediterranean coast in the south of France, the capital city of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The population of almost 260,000 is rapidly growing and Montpellier is also home to the 2011/12 Ligue 1 football champions. Les Héraultais play at the Stade Yves-du-Manoir, named after the same man Racing Metro honoured. Montpellier’s stade, which was the first stadium built after rugby turned professional, holds a maximum of 14,700 supporters.

Last Season

MHR finished fifth in the regular season, level on points with Racing Metro but with a better head-to-head record. That gave Fabien Galthié’s side an away barrages match against Castres, where poor discipline from Mamuka Gorgodze in particular cost them in a 25-12 loss. Indeed, yellow cards were a problem all season for Montpellier, with a total of 24. Their attacking and defensive records were in line with a fifth-place spot on the log, and Montpellier were just one point away from Castres in fourth.

Ambitions

Ensuring that Montpellier don’t miss out on the top four and a home game to start the play-offs is mission number one for Galthié this season. With Altrad augmenting the club’s wage budget by €2 million this year, the list of new playing personnel is impressive. If les Héraultais do earn a home fixture for the first knock-out round, then a first Top 14 trophy is a real possibility. In the Heineken Cup, a pool featuring Ulster and Leicester is not the kindest draw but Montpellier will be focused on repeating last season’s quarter-final.

The Coach

Galthie

Cool, sophisticated, and suave. (c) MEDEF.

Galthié’s playing career saw him win three Grand Slams, reach a World Cup final in 1999, claim IRB Player of the Year in 2002, earn a Top 14 title in 2003, collect two Oscar du Midi Olympique awards, and captain his country 24 times in 64 games. An intelligent, classy, observant player, Galthié is possibly the best scrumhalf France has produced. Fortunately for rugby in l’Hexagone, it appears that the 44-year-old has transferred his best traits as a player into his coaching career.

In his first season as a coach in 2004/05, Galthié guided Stade Français to the finals of the Heineken Cup and Top 16. An impressive start, and Galthié’s first silverware came in ’06/07 with Top 14 success, before he quit at the end of the following season to enjoy time away from the game. Taking over at Montpellier in 2010, he helped the club to the Top 14 final in his first season. MHR have lost in the barrages phase in the two campaigns since.

While Galthié backs his players to express themselves on the pitch, the former scrumhalf also appreciates the importance of a powerful set-piece. ‘Super’ Mario Ledesma is the man Galthié entrusts his forwards with. Regardless of the new players, Montpellier’s greatest asset is head coach Galthié.

Transfer Activity

Rene Ranger

It’s all in the beard. (c) Jason Milich.

Rene Ranger could prove to be the best signing in the Top 14 this season, despite the fact that the ITM Cup keeps him in New Zealand until late October. The 26-year-old’s highlight reels say everything that needs to be said about his explosiveness, but his defensive work-rate and breakdown expertise are equally important. Montpellier are getting a world-class player coming into his prime, and Galthié should back Ranger in the 13 shirt. If he does, les Héraultais will have the best outside centre in the league.

Of equal importance is the arrival of tighthead prop Nicolas Mas (33), in a league where “no scrum, no win” is the creed. Also an excellent cook, the former USAP stalwart adds technical expertise to Montpellier’s scrum. MHR have moved to cover the potentially unsettling loss of Argentine hooker Agustin Creevy to Worcester by bringing in Mickaël Ivaldi (23) from Toulon and Thomas Bianchin (25) from Racing Metro.

In the locking department there are three new options in 10-cap Wallaby Sitaleki Timani, Scottish lineout disruptor Jim Hamilton and Cameroonian giant Robins Tchale-Watchou. At 120kg, 123kg and 134kg respectively, that’s a whole lot of prime beef. There are also two new centres at Montpellier, making the choice of Ranger on the wing tempting. Springbok Wynand Olivier (30) is a solid option at 12, while Robert Ebersohn (24) showed intelligence and creativity for the Cheetahs this year.

Galthie has also added extra French influence to his squad. Anthony Floch (30) saw opportunities dry up at Clermont in recent times, but the international fullback remains an excellent counter-attacker. Winger Lucas Dupont (23) is a player of real potential, joining from Grenoble. Also moving to Montpellier from FCG is Jonathan Pélissié (25), a lively, spiky, goal-kicking halfback who is one to watch out for.

New Zealand-capped wing/centre Anthony Tuitavake (31) joins after three years in Japan, while 22-year-old South African centre ‘JP’ du Plessis is also on board.

Key Players

Despite Philippe Saint-André’s disinterest, François Trinh-Duc is a superb outhalf. The 26-year-old is the heartbeat of les Héraultais, with his intelligence and vision prompting the team around the pitch. PSA’s decision to omit Trinh-Duc from June’s tour of New Zealand meant the outhalf benefited from his first full pre-season in several years. With that fitness base, expect a strong start from the Montpellier-born star.

Francois Trinh-Duc

Trinh-Duc in the main man. (c) Martin Dobey.

Providing service to Trinh-Duc last season was Benoît Paillaugue (26). The place-kicking scrumhalf enjoyed the stand-out year of his career so far and will be confident of holding off the challenge of newcomer Pélissié

Montpellier’s back-row is an area of strength. Mamuka Gorgodze is a player of animal aggression, which does slip into ill-discipline. When he’s focused on playing rugby, ‘Gorgodzilla’ is a bullocking presence. Captain Fulgence Ouedraogo has an unmatchable work rate. Having joined the club at the age of 12 alongside Trinh-Duc, Ouedraogo’s passion is an inspiration. New Zealander Alex Tulou is a powerful ball-carrying No. 8 who had a majestic campaign in ’12/13. Johnnie Beattie of Scotland and the experienced Alexandre Bias add competition and depth.

Irish Connection

Ulster fans will remember the name Timoci Nagusa well, owing to the two seasons the Fijian winger spent at the province from 2008 to 2010. Since joining MHR the 26-year-old has scored 34 tries in 69 starts. Having a Fijian on the wing is something of a fashion in French rugby now, but Nagusa is certainly among the most valuable finishers in the league. His tries are likely to be vital as Galthié’s Montpellier look to create history.

Possible Starting XV

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.)

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Photos: Marc Meynadier, MEDEF, Jason Milich, Martin Dobey,

Top 14 Preview: Racing Metro

376_logo_racing_metro92.jpg,auto,630,405,90

The History

Racing Metro 92 was originally founded as an athletics club in 1882. Their list of honours includes five French championships (1892, 1900, 1902, 1959 and 1990), a Pro D2 title (2009), and one Coupe de l’Espérance (1918). For more on the club’s history, including the legendary Le Show Bizz generation, have a read of this article which featured on The Touchline back in February.

The Setting

Part of Jacky Lorenzetti’s ambitious plans for Racing include the building of a brand new stadium in Paris. However, construction work on the 40,000-seater Arena 92 has been continually delayed due to protests and funding issues. It now looks like work will start early in 2014, with the aim of being complete in late 2016. Racing’s current home is the 14,000-capacity Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir, known simply as Colombes to local supporters.

While there’s lots of history at Colombes, it is not the most attractive of stadiums, with the running track around the pitch an unwelcome feature. Lorenzetti likes to relocate some of les ciels et blancs home games, their first fixture of this Top 14 season being a prime example. With many Parisians still on holiday in mid-August, the home tie against Brive will be played in La Rochelle. Additionally, Racing’s H Cup fixture against Harlequins in round three will take place in Nantes’ Stade de la Beaujoire.

Last Season

Racing

A nine-game winning streak in the second half of the season helped Racing to sixth place in the Top 14 regular season table, before they lost to Toulouse in the play-offs. (c) Emilie Manchon.

Under Gonzalo Quesada les Racingmen had a rocky start to last season, before finishing strongly in sixth to qualify for the barrages phase of the play-offs. The return of outhalf Jonathan Wisniewski at the turn of the year launched Racing on a nine-game winning streak. In the play-off game Racing never truly looked like beating Toulouse, losing 33-19. The Parisians had trouble scoring tries all season, with their total of 32 the third-lowest in the league. The sheer firepower they have brought on board should be enough to remedy that.

Realistically, making assumptions about Racing based on last season would be foolish with so many new players involved, as well as the new coaching team.

Ambitions

Trophies, trophies, trophies. After six years of building the club into Top 14 mainstays under Pierre Berbizier and Quesada, it is time for Racing to start competing for silverware. The Parisians’ budget is now in line with the likes of Toulon and Clermont in the region of €27 million, allowing them to recruit spectacularly this summer. Lorenzetti understands that les deux Laurents need time to combine the ingredients into a championship-winning side, but he will also expect the club to compete in the Top 14 and Heineken Cup this season.

The Coaches

Laurents

Travers (left) and Labit have not encountered anything approaching failure in their shared coaching career so far. (c) Emilie Manchon.

Laurent Travers was a hooker with Brive when they won the Heineken Cup in 1997, while Laurent Labit was a fullback for Castres’ championship-winning side in 1993. The pair first came together at Montauban in 2004, leading the club from the Pro D2 to H Cup qualification in just four seasons. Castres signed them in 2009 after finishing in 12th the season before. Toto and Lolo‘s impact was superb as they made the play-offs in each of the fours years since, culminating in their shock Top 14 win last season.

The two Laurents have a reputation as being technically excellent and working closely with their players on specific rugby skills rather than simply selecting and motivating the team. Labit and Travers feel they work better as a duo as it allows them to interact with more of the squad on a day-to-day basis, while also giving the players two channels to communicate through. The new Racing coaches are very focused on the power of a strong group, which should work well with such a large number of new players.

Transfer Activity

La Star. (c) Emilie Manchon.

Racing have 15 new players in their squad this season, which is well balanced by the departure of 20. Jonny Sexton is obviously the star signing, but fellow Lions Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate aren’t far behind. Northampton’s propping duo of Brian Mujati and Sione Tonga’uiha are also part of the influx and may be the most important additions of all in a league where the scrum has a near-religious importance. Springbok second-row Juandré Kruger makes up the group of truly high-profile newcomers.

Beyond that, Racing have a new trio of French internationals in Adrien Planté, Marc Andreu and Wenceslas Lauret. Planté won his first two caps in June at the age of 28 after a slow-burning career on the wing for USAP. Andreu may not be the biggest winger, but his low centre of gravity and footwork make him a real try-scoring threat. He was part of Castres’ Top 14 success last season and has scored two tries in six French caps. Lauret joins from Biarritz, where the flanker had lost momentum after winning three international caps.

The remaining six new faces include back-up players like Georgian loosehead prop Davit Khinchagishvili from Brive and fullback Benjamin Lapeyre from Toulon, as well as some youthful promise in scrumhalf Laurent Magnaval.

Key Players

Szarzewski

Le Capitaine. (c) Emilie Manchon.

Dimitri Szarzewski is Racing’s captain despite only having joined at the start of last season from neighbours Stade Français. The 30-year-old hooker took over the leadership from Jacques Cronjé during the campaign after impressing with his work-rate and magnificent hair. At fullback, Juan Martín Hernández (31) is not the athlete he once was but ‘El Mago’ still has the vision and creativity that gave him that nickname. He will certainly look forward to playing outside the excellent passing of Sexton.

Scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud had a poor tour for France in New Zealand this summer, but remains important to Racing. The 24-year-old is surprisingly powerful for his size and at his best provides unfussy service to his outhalf. Perhaps the most impressive thing about les ciels et blancs‘ squad this season is its depth, giving the two Laurents the possibility to rotate their team and choose different players for varying tactical approaches.

Fijian no. 8 Sakiusa Matadigo is an intelligent player, whereas ex-captain Cronjé is all brawn. In midfield, Jamie Roberts’ explosiveness can be combined with the defensive leadership of Fabrice Estabenez or the energy of Henry Chavancy. Out wide, Andreu and Planté must compete with the magic feet of Juan Imhoff, the power of Benjamin Fall and the flair of Virimi Vakatawa. Behind Mujati and Tonga’uiha in the propping depth charts are French internationals Eddy Ben Arous and Luc Ducalcon, the experienced Khinchagishvili and one-time Munster man Julian Brugnaut.

Irish Connection

ROG and Sexton

The two lads have this one well under control. Allez Racing! (c) Emilie Manchon.

Sexton is the star attraction at Racing, and he looks made for the challenge. While it is true that French clubs approach play-off games conservatively, the regular season games are generally quite open. That will suit the Irish outhalf, who has so many talented players around him to conduct. As with any high-profile foreign player in France, the expectations on Sexton will be hugely demanding but the 28-year-old’s mental strength will allow him to overcome any teething problems.

Ronan O’Gara appears to be settling into his first coaching job with ease. His primary role is to work on kicking with Racing’s first team, but it is likely that he will also aid Labit in organising the backline. Kicking from hand is one of the weakest skills in the French game currently and O’Gara’s work in Paris will be closely followed by the other Top 14 clubs. For both Irishmen, an exciting and challenging season lies ahead.

Possible Starting XV

15. Hernandez, 14. Fall, 13. Chavancy, 12. Roberts, 11. Andreu, 10. Sexton, 9. Machenaud, 8. Matadigo, 7. Le Roux, 6. Lydiate, 5. Kruger, 4. Van der Merwe, 3. Mujati/Ducalcon, 2. Szarzewski, 1. Tonga’uiha/Ben Arous

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The excellent photos used with this article are all the copyrighted work of Emilie Manchon. You can see more of her photos of Racing on her Flickr page.

Top 14 Preview: Perpignan

USAPThe History

Union Sportive Arlequins Perpignanais (USAP) was founded in 1902 and just 12 years later the club won its first French championship. 19-year-old outhalf Aimé Giral was the hero after converting a late try by captain Félix Barbe to hand USAP an 8-7 win over Tarbes. 14 months later, Giral and six of his victorious teammates had been killed in World War One, but Perpignan managed to rebuild and won further French titles in 1921 and 1925.

After a turbulent spell which resulted in Perpignan taking on the USAP moniker, the club won the Challenge Yves du Manoir in 1935 and another French championship in 1938. Those sides were captained by international centre Joseph ‘Jep’ Desclaux, who also led the side to glory in 1944. Upon retiring, Desclaux moved into coaching and helped USAP to a Bouclier de Brennus and Challenge Yves du Manoir double in 1955. After that peak, Perpignan had to wait 54 years for another league title.

Following Challenge Yves du Manoir success in 1994, Perpignan gradually built towards a league title in 2009. They lost a Heineken Cup final along the way in 2003, but inspired by a group of home-grown players including David Marty, Jérôme Porical and Nicolas Mas, USAP beat Clermont in the ’09 final to claim their most recent trophy. A year later, that final was repeated but USAP came out on the losing side. Perpignan haven’t made the Top 14 play-offs since.

The Setting

Stade Aimé Giral USAP

USAP’s fans at the Stade Aime Giral are some of the best in France, colourful and loud. (c) LoKan Sardari.

Perpignan sits in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in southern France. With a population of around 120,000, the Catalan city is also home to a rugby league side, the Catalan Dragons. USAP play their home games at the Stade Aimé Giral, named after the outhalf who led them to their first ever French championship. The stadium holds just over 14,500 people and the USAP crowd is an extremely vocal one.

Last Season

Having finished 11th in 2011/12, USAP set their sights on H Cup qualification last season and succeeded. They benefited from an extra European spot for the French clubs after finishing 12 points off the play-offs in seventh. With new coach Marc Delpoux attempting to change USAP’s tactical approach, inconsistency was a problem. An increased focus on attack saw the Catalans score the fifth-highest number of points, but just two wins away from home prevented a genuine play-off push.

Ambitions

USAP, with a new president and a renewed energy, are aiming to finish in the top six this season. Over the last two years or so, the club has been in a somewhat precarious financial position. However, parking magnate François Rivière is set to be named president of USAP next week after committing to injecting €7.5 million into the club over the next five years. On the pitch, Perpignan look well equipped to make a strong challenge for the play-offs after some smart recruitment and with an ambitious style of play under Delpoux.

In the Heineken Cup, USAP will be working towards securing second place in the group. The Catalans will certainly provide a tough test for Munster, especially at the Aimé Giral in Round 4.

The Coach

A former No. 8 for Perpignan and Narbonne, Delpoux’s coaching career began with the latter club before three years with Calvisano, where he won an Italian championship. Having returned to France in ’09/10, Delpoux led Bordeaux to promotion the following season. On their return to the Top 14, UBB played an exciting style of rugby and surprised everyone by finishing eighth. USAP decided they needed to get their former back-row on board and signed Delpoux on a two-year deal.

On arriving at USAP, the 49-year-old stated that “the first ambition is not measured in terms of results, but rather performance.” Delpoux stresses handling skills, offloading and players running into spaces rather than defenders as key. With those aspects of play in place after last season, the USAP boss is now keen for his side to be more effective. If Sang et Or (Blood and Gold, the club’s colours) can add steel to their excellent skill set, they will be in good shape.

Transfer Activity

Outhalf Camille Lopez has joined from UBB in a move which may push James Hook to fullback this season. 24-year-old Lopez was superb for Bordeaux as he finished fourth-top points scorer (one place behind Hook), and earned his first international caps against New Zealand in June. Lopez is a creative attacking presence, with excellent spatial awareness. His qualities are similar to those of Hook, meaning USAP now possess two exciting playmakers.

Duvenage

Scrumhalf Dewald Duvenage joins from the Stormers. (c) Paul Barnard.

The loss of Nicolas Mas to Montpellier will be keenly felt, and the daunting task of replacing the French tighthead prop will go to Giorgi Jgenti (27) and Paulica Ion (30). Georgian international Jgenti had a limited amount of game time at Montpellier last season, while Romanian stalwart Ion joins from London Welsh. 20-year-old back row Karl Château is a promising new face, having developed at Toulouse.

In the backs, Italian international Tommaso Benvenuti (22) has signed from Treviso. With 28 caps to his name already, Benvenuti is a powerful and versatile addition. At scrumhalf, South African Dewald Duvenage and Nicolas Durand replace David Mélé, who has moved to Leicester. Duvenage (25) has five years of Super Rugby experience, while Durand (30) won the Top 14 with USAP in 2009 and signs from Toulon as a medical joker. Fijian wing Watisoni Votu (28) joins from Exeter, hoping to cover the loss of Adrien Planté to Racing Metro.

Key Players

James Hook is the star at Perpignan and he was superb last season, scoring 262 points in 18 games. More impressive than his ability to rack up points was the manner in which he directed USAP’s attacking play. Now 28, he is mature and decisive in his actions. Delpoux faces something of a dilemma in deciding where to play Hook now that Lopez has joined, with the centre also a possibility for the Welshman. The pair look like kindred spirits, and Lopez may spur Hook onto even greater things.

Perpignan are spoiled for choice in the second row, where Luke Charteris, Romain Taofifenua and Sebastian Vahaamahina will battle for the starting spots. Welshman Charteris made a strong start to life at USAP last season, before a knee injury in December ended his season. In his absence, the gigantic pairing of Taofifenua (22) and Vahaamahina (21) excelled. Both locks are now French internationals and Charteris will have to work hard to get back in the team.

In the back-row, former Gloucester man Luke Narraway (29) is a mainstay of this USAP side. Capped seven times for England, he is a powerful ball carrier and runs the lineout. Alongside him, Scottish international Alasdair Strokosch (30) provides aggression and a huge work-rate. Hooker Guilhem Guirado (27) becomes more of a leader each season, and has improved all aspects of his game. At loosehead, former Chief Sona Taumalolo is explosive, although his place is under threat from Sebastian Taofifenua (21).

Irish Connection

Lifeimi Mafi has adapted to life in Perpignan with ease, and looks a better player in his new surroundings than he did at Munster. At the end of last season, The Touchline featured a detailed report on Mafi’s exploits with USAP, which you can read here. This year, he must compete with David Marty, Sione Piukala and Benvenuti for a place in the centre, but realistically it should be Mafi plus one of the others.

Lifeimi Mafi copy

Mafi is settled at USAP and looks a better player in his new surroundings. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Following the departure of Mas, USAP have a new captain in Bertrand Guiry, who is just 25. The openside flanker spent the ’07/08 season playing for Terenure College RFC in Dublin. With his hometown club in Perpignan, he mixes technically excellent tackling with intelligent attacking support play. Guiry’s contributions will be vital as USAP strive for a top six finish.

Possible Starting XV

15. Hook, 14. Michel/Benvenuti, 13. Marty/Piukala, 12. Mafi, 11. Votu, 10. Lopez, 9. Duvenage/Durand, 8. Narraway, 7. Guiry, 6. Strokosch, 5. Taofifenua, 4. Vahaamahina, 3. Jgenti, 2. Guirado, 1. Taumalolo/Taofifenua

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Photos: LoKan Sardari, Ivan O’Riordan, Paul Barnard.

Top 14 Preview: Bayonne

bayonne_logoThe History

Aviron Bayonnais was founded in 1904, the result of a falling out between members of La Société Nautique rowing club. They won their first French championship in 1913, led by Welsh outhalf Harry Owen Roe. A Part Talbot man by birth, the Penarth RFC outhalf befriended Jules Forgues, a founding member of Bayonne who spent a season with Penarth. Roe was convinced to move to France as player/coach, where he introduced a style of total rugby that thrilled the French, and led to Bayonne’s first title.

World War 1 took the lives of five of that league-winning side, and it was 1934 before Bayonne would win another trophy. With Roe still involved in a coaching capacity and inspired by 22-year-old wing Maurice Celhay, l’Aviron beat their fierce rivals Biarritz 13-8. There was more glory in 1936 as the club won its first Challenge Yves du Manoir. Seven years later, Bayonne were champions of France again after beating Agen 3-0. In that 1943 side, Celhay was once again inspirational, while the classy centre Jean Dauger was equally as vital.

Bayonne reached the final in 1944 again, but were well beaten by Perpignan. A barren period followed until 1980, when another Challenge Yves du Manoir trophy was claimed. In ’82, Bayonne reached the final of the French championship but Agen got some long-awaited revenge with an 18-9 victory. L’Aviron have had no successes or finals since.

The Setting

La vachette

The Fêtes de Bayonne took place last month, and is a special time to visit the city. (c) Eoze04.

Bayonne sits on the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers in southwestern France, just a few short kilometres from Biarritz and also part of the Basque Country. The town has a population in the region of 46,000. The club’s home ground is the Stade Jean-Dauger, named after Bayonne’s legendary centre who was part of the 1943 league-winning team. The stadium’s address is 1 Rue Harry Owen Roe. There’s a lot of history tied up in the 17,000-capacity stade and the derbies against Biarritz are a French rugby institution.

Last Season

With a new coaching duo of Christian Lanta and Christophe Deylaud in control, Bayonne’s season got off to a very poor start. Five of the first six league games were lost and it looked like les Bayonnais were heading for a season in the relegation zone. But gradually, Lanta and Deylaud’s ideas took hold and Bayonne improved to end the Top 14 season in eighth position. Indeed, l’Aviron finished the season with five wins in six games, including a memorable victory over Toulon.

Tries were something of a rarity for the Basque side during the 2012/13 campaign; only relegated Mont de Marsan scored fewer than Bayonne’s 32. The attacking side of the game was certainly where they struggled, with a total 467 points only better than Mont de Marsan and Agen (also relegated). For Lanta and Deylaud it was a season focused on building defensive systems and set-piece foundations. Now they must add an attacking edge.

Ambitions

Stade Jean-Dauger

Stade Jean-Dauger. (c) Aviron Bayonnais.

Despite finishing eighth, Bayonne were just four points away from H Cup qualification last season, and they want to go a step further this time around. But as Lanta explains, a top six finish is more of a hope than an objective for les Bayonnais: “We know that there are a few untouchables at the top of the table and it will be complicated to make our way into the top six. But we’re heading towards a more wary Top 14 than last season. And if teams are more careful, there might be surprises. Who would have thought that Castres would be champions?”

The Coach(es)

Unlike most coaching duos, there is an age gap of 13 years between Lanta (61) and Deylaud (48). As a former back row for Agen, Lanta takes control of the forwards. Deylaud was an international halfback who played for Toulouse, Toulon and Agen. He scored the first-ever five point try in 1992, and also played a major part in The Try From The End of the World in ’94. Lanta’s coaching career began at Racing Metro, with whom he won the French championship in 1990. At Treviso, he won Italian league titles in ’97 and ’98.

Deylaud’s coaching career started at Agen in 2000 when he was appointed as Lanta’s backs coach. After numerous narrow misses, the pairing finally enjoyed success in 2010, when Agen were promoted as champions of the Pro D2. Two solid 10th-place finishes followed in the Top 14 before Bayonne president Alain Afflelou came calling last season. While Lanta and Deylaud furthered their reputation with l’Aviron, Agen were relegated without them.

Transfer Activity

After the flashy recruitment of the likes of Mike Phillips, Joe Rokocoko and Neemia Tialata in 2011, last season saw a change of approach from Afflelou, with less focus on star names. This summer, outhalf Stephen Brett (27) is the key signing. The Kiwi has spent the last two years playing in Japan after spells with the Crusaders and the Blues in Super Rugby. Brett is an excellent attacking pivot and his vision, distribution and creativity should allow Bayonne to score more tries.

With Agen relegated, Lanta and Deylaud have taken advantage of their history at the club to sign five of their players. Opeti Fonua (27) made himself a YouTube sensation with his bulldozing of Jonny Wilkinson last season, and his 135kg+ frame offers extreme power. Fellow Tongan international Lisiate Fa’aoso (30) joins in the second-row, while Frenchman Jean Monribot (25) is a hard-working presence at blindside. South African tighthead prop Gert Muller (28) played Super Rugby with the Lions, while Fijian Saïmoni Vaka (26) adds flair out wide.

After a frustrating season of limited game time, Argentinian wing Martín Bustos Moyano has joined from Montpellier. The 27-year-old’s excellent place-kicking could take pressure off Brett in that area. Halfback Mathieu Bélie (25) is another who can perform that role, after joining from Racing Metro. Finally, South African loosehead prop JC Janse van Rensburg (27) adds depth to the front row.

Key Players

Rokocoko

Rokocoko has been repositioned in the centre. (c) Luton Anderson.

Mark Chisholm is Bayonne’s captain and his importance is underlined by the fact that he racked up the most minutes played of anyone in the Top 14 last season. With 58 caps for the Wallabies, the 31-year-old’s experience is key. Scott Spedding (27) was les Bayonnais’ best player over the course of the 2012/13 campaign. The former Lions and Sharks fullback is defensively solid and excellent on counter-attack. Going into his second year at the club, he is already a leader.

Tighthead prop Neemia Tialata began to look like a former All Black as he got to grips with the demands of the Top 14 last season. Still only 31, his power up front is crucial. Compatriot Joe Rokocoko (30) also took his time adapting to the French league but repositioned in the centre, the man who scored 47 tries for the All Blacks showed clear signs of rejuvenation in 2013. At hooker, David Roumieu (31) is a reliable thrower, powerful in the scrum and has a high work-rate.

Irish Connection

Mike Phillips is a man who has broken Irish hearts, but he was involved in the British and Irish Lions victory this summer so he has been on our side too. Heading into his third season with Bayonne, the 30-year-old still hasn’t shown his best form in France. While he cannot be absolved of all blame, Phillips is at his best behind a dominant pack and he just hasn’t had that at Bayonne.

With huge expectations remaining unfulfilled, Bayonne fans are hoping to see the real Mike Phillips. Perhaps a better collective effort from les Bayonnais will encourage him towards peak fitness, and the powerful game that brings from Welsh international.

Possible Starting XV

15. Spedding, 14. Vaka, 13. Rokocoko, 12. Lovobalavu, 11. O’Connor/Bustos Moyano, 10. Brett, 9. Phillips, 8. Fonua, 7. Puricelli, 6. Monribot/Bernard, 5. Chisholm, 4. Fa’aoso, 3. Tialata, 2. Roumieu, 1. Iguiniz/Van Rensburg

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Photos: Luton Anderson, Eoze04, Bayonne.

First Week Completed for Sexton

Sexton

Sexton attacks under the watchful eye of Laurent Labit at Racing Metro’s training centre in Plessis-Robinson. (c) Emilie Manchon.

Jonny Sexton completed his first week of training with Racing Metro today, having been omitted from the club’s opening friendly of the summer last night. The Ireland outhalf’s pre season schedule got underway on Monday, before an interview with Le Parisien, a popular daily newspaper, was published on Tuesday morning. Sexton took the chance to explain his reasons for joining Racing, as well as underlining that there was more to his decision to join the club than just the high wages on offer.

Racing had an open training session on Tuesday afternoon, which followed a more intense run-out behind closed doors earlier in the day. That afternoon, Sexton was involved in his first press conference as a Racing player, where he fielded questions about settling in Paris, his ambitions and his views on the Top 14. The remainder of the week involved a heavy pre season programme alongside fellow Lions Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate. Coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers wisely decided not to involve the trio in yesterday’s 14-6 loss to Toulon.

Sexton may play next Friday though, when Racing face Harlequins in a money-spinning exhibition game in Geneva. That contrasts greatly with how Mike Phillips is being eased in back at Bayonne. The Welshman is expected to miss the club’s first two Top 14 games, before re-entering the fray on the 31st of August against USAP. Conversely, Sexton is likely to be start Racing’s opening league fixture against Brive in La Rochelle on the 17th of this month. Racing have moved the game away from Paris due to the number of the locals who will still be on holidays.

Sexton is the type of player who likes to play as many games as possible, so he will have no problem being involved so soon after the Lions tour, but it could be five months down the line before he starts to feel the true effects of a relatively short break. That said, Racing president Jacky Lorenzetti isn’t paying Sexton to rest and in a year when the Top 14 will to be more competitive than ever, every single game is of importance.

Racing suffered defeat in their first game under the new coaching duo against Toulon, but that will cause no great concern. In what was a surprisingly hard-hitting encounter on the Mediterranean coast, the home side scored two penalty tries, with both converted by Jonny Wilkinson. Racing’s only response was two penalties from the boot of outhalf Jonathan Wisniewski. The Frenchman is a good option for les deux Laurents, but will almost certainly need to get used to playing back-up.

For Sexton, the first week is over. The hard work starts again on Monday and by this time next week we may have seen the 28-year-old in Racing’s sky blue and white jersey for the first time. The French adventure is underway and off to a good start.

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Photo: Emilie Manchon.

Top 14 Preview: Biarritz

UntitledThe History

Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque dates back to 1902, when the Biarritz Stade athletics club first created a rugby section. In 1909, Biarritz Sporting Club was born in the town, before the two outfits merged in 1913. BO’s first French title came in 1935, when a team captained by Henri Haget beat USAP 3-0. Legendary outhalf Haget helped Biarritz to another championship win over Perpignan in 1939, but BO failed to claim another trophy for the next 60 years.

The club enjoyed a competitive spell in the late ’80s powered by fullback Serge Blanco and lock Jean Condom, but it was not until the 2000s that BO were back amongst the silverware. In 2002, when Dimitri Yachvili first broke through, the club were crowned champions of France. Bankrolled by Serge Kampf, Biarritz recruited the likes of Imanol Harinordoquy and Damien Traille in ’04, with further French titles secured in ’05 and ’06.

Biarritz suffered Heineken Cup final losses in both 2006 and 2010, but were true giants of French rugby for the decade. The club’s most recent trophy came in 2012, then they beat Toulon in the Challenge Cup final. Unfortunately for the Basques, times are changing.

The Setting

BO

BO’s fans have an excellent and well-deserved reputation as amongst the best in the league. © bernardphoto.

Biarritz is located in the Pays Basque, on the Atlantic coast of southwestern France, just 17 kilometres from the Spanish border. Eight kilometres away is Bayonne; the rivalry between the towns is fierce. Parc des Sports Aguiléra is BO’s home ground, with a capacity of 15,000. For some big games, Biarritz relocate to the 32,000-seater Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastian, Spain. Club president Serge Blanco hopes plans to modernise and enlarge the Aguiléra to 18,000 seats will be confirmed before the end of the year.

Last Season

Biarritz made a superb start to last season, winning their first four league matches before a shocking turn in form saw them lose six in a row. After defeat to Connacht in December, Blanco sacked coaching duo Serge Milhas and Jack Isaac. BO’s Sporting Director, ex-France No. 8 Laurent Rodriguez, assumed the position of forwards coach, with Didier Faugeron drafted in as backs coach. Under the new coaching team, Biarritz’s performances improved and they finished the season in ninth.

The Heineken Cup was a disappointment for BO, with just three wins in a group containing Zebre and Connacht. After dropping into the Challenge Cup and briefly flourishing against Gloucester, Biarritz’s thrashing at the hands of Leinster showed how far they have fallen. This season will be the first time since ’99/00 that Biarritz haven’t been in the Heineken Cup. The simple truth is that BO can no longer compete financially with the likes of Clermont, Toulouse and Racing.

Ambitions

BO

BO are aiming for the top six and H Cup qualification. © bernardphoto.

Despite that, Blanco remains optimistic for the club he loves so dearly. He told Midi Olympique that “our ambition once again will be to finish in the top six and go as far as possible in the Challenge Cup. I think we’re going to surprise people in a lot of areas. I’m ready to go to war with this group.” Fighting talk indeed, but it would be a shock to see Biarritz back it up on the pitch over the course of the season. There is a real sense of a wounded Goliath about BO, but of course any flailing strike presents real danger for the opposition.

The Coach

Rodriguez is still in charge of the forwards at Biarritz, but it is backs coach Faugeron who dictates their approach. The former winger had coaching spells with Brive, Agen, Stade Francais and Bayonne before arriving at BO. While les Biarrots’ style of play over the last number of years has been highly structured around Yachvili’s kicking skills, Faugeron has been working to expand their attacking game plan since December.

In his own words: “A player must be ready to come out of the given structure. There are never good or bad places to attack from. I ask the players to be constantly on the alert and reading the game. You can’t create mismatches unless you react in real time.” The fruits of that philosophy were a more expansive attacking game from Biarritz in the second half of the season, and it may finally be time for BO to leave behind the template that brought them so much glory.

Transfer Activity

Pietersen

Joe Pietersen joins from the Stormers. (c) Paul Barnard.

Biarritz’s attempts to find an outhalf have landed them Dan Waenga. The 27-year-old Kiwi made his Super Rugby debut off the bench for the Chiefs this season after years of ITM Cup experience with Hawke’s Bay and Bay of Plenty. Waenga replaces Jean-Pascal Barraque, who moved to Toulouse this summer. Yachvili will continue to run the team from scrumhalf, but Waenga’s success in adapting to the Top 14 will be important.

Italian international lock Josh Furno joins from Narbonne and is a player of real potential. The 23-year-old Melbourne-native has played in the back row and possess excellent lineout skills. Tongan international Ueleni Fono (31) joins from relegated Agen. His power can be utilised anywhere across the back row. Loosehead prop Alexandre Menini (29) is likely to push hard for a spot in the starting XV. Having spent his entire career in the Pro D2, his first Top 14 campaign with a poor Mont de Marsan team last season was impressive.

The most exciting signing is perhaps Joe Pietersen from the Stormers in South Africa. The 29-year-old has seven years of Super Rugby experience and is a sharp attacking presence from fullback. Pietersen spent a season with BO’s neighbours Bayonne in ’10/11, where he scored seven tries in 17 games. A wildcard addition is Samoan sevens star Paul Perez (26). He has seven international caps in the fifteen-a-side game, as well as ITM and Currie Cup exposure.

Key Players

Biarritz Olympique - Conversion - Dimitri Yachvili

Yachvili is still in charge at BO. (c) Peter Dean.

Yachvili is still the man in Biarritz. At 32, he remains the key for les Biarrots. If he can avoid injuries and find his best form, Faugeron’s side will flourish. Yachvili is the side’s playmaker from scrumhalf, and he is given free reign to play the game as he sees fit. It’s hard to stress just how important the French international is to Biarritz. If he plays well, BO do too.

Harinordoquy has been plagued with injuries for the past two seasons, but remains an important cog. His career has been magnificent, but the 33-year-old is not finished yet. Harinordoquy recently stated his ambition to be involved in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and will have benefited from an extended rest this summer. His skills and genius remain but, like Yachvili, the question is whether his body can keep going.

In the centre, Damien Traille is still going at the ripe old age of 34. His experience and defensive leadership are likely to be deployed at 12. Outside him at 13, Benoît Baby had one of the best seasons of his career having finally settled in one position and remaining injury-free. The French international’s attacking threat was one of the main positives of the campaign. On the wing, American winger Takudzwa Ngwenya’s searing pace is always a threat.

Up front, Raphaël Lakafia (24) is a powerful presence in the back-row, while fellow French cap Arnaud Héguy will need to take control at hooker following the retirement of Biarritz hero Benoît August. The loss of flanker Wenceslas Lauret (24) to Racing Metro will also be felt.

Irish Connection

Tououse V Biarritz

Balshaw (passing) has become an important part of the set-up at Biarritz in recent years. (c) Martin Dobey.

There are no Irishmen at Biarritz, but Iain Balshaw has played against Ireland and the provincial sides on numerous occasions. The 34-year-old will miss the start of the season as he recovers from knee surgery, but is expected back in mid-September. Fellow English international Magnus Lund is in his sixth season with les Biarrots. Capped 10 times, he is likely to be used at blindside.

That duo are joined by a compatriot in the shape of Addison Lockley (21). The England U20 lock has signed for the club’s academy after impressing for Moseley in the Championship. Tighthead prop Ben Broster is another name that may be familiar. The 31-year-old was capped twice for Wales. Physical wing Aled Brew (9 Wales caps) scored just one try in 30 appearances in his first season at Biarritz and his place comes under threat from the exciting Teddy Thomas.

Possible Starting XV

15. Joe Pietersen 14. Takudzwa Ngwenya 13. Benoît Baby 12. Damien Traille 11. Teddy Thomas/Aled Brew 10. Dan Waenga 9. Dimitri Yachvilli 8. Imanol Harinordoquy 7. Raphaël Lakafia 6. Magnus Lund/Benoît Guyot 5. Josh Furno 4. Pelu Taele 3. Ben Broster/Francisco Gomez-Kodela 2. Arnuad Héguy 1. Fabien Barcella/Alexandre Menini

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Photos: Paul Barnard, Peter Dean, Martin Dobey, bernardphoto.