Tag Archives: Lifeimi Mafi

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.


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.


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


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

Mafi Makes Impression on Top 14

Lifeimi Mafi copy

Mafi had some massive games for Munster, but many supporters found him inconsistent. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

Amongst Munster fans, he was a divisive figure. Capable of moments of magic, but prone to lapses in concentration. 144 appearances over six seasons would have made many players heroes in Thomond Park, but Lifeimi Mafi never quite managed to achieve that status. When Munster announced the signings of James Downey and Casey Lualala, it was time to move on.

Relocated in Perpignan, Mafi’s first season in the Top 14 has been a success. He looks a better player in his new surroundings and has rapidly won over USAP’s fans.

36 appearances and six tries in all competitions make this the most prolific season of Mafi’s career in terms of playing time and scoring. At Munster, the ex-New Zealand underage international was seen purely as an inside centre, much to the disagreement of some. At Perpignan, his game time has been split between the 12 and 13 jerseys. The USAPistes Supporters Club say most fans prefer to see Mafi in the wider channel:

“Lots of us prefer him at 13, outside Sione Piukala. But David Marty is the undisputed starting 13 in the eyes of the coaches.”

These sentiments are backed up by Mafi’s displays when chosen at outside centre. Himself and Piukala managed to tear Clermont’s defence apart earlier in the season when partnered together (video below). Both of Mafi’s Top 14 tries came when he was fielded at 13.


Regardless, the Tonga-born centre’s overall form has impressed. His skill set stands out for Perpignan, in particular the one-handed offloads which we saw glimpses of at Munster. At USAP, Mafi is completing 3 or 4 offloads per game. Watching him buzz around the pitch in that inimitable running style of his, the 30-year-old seems far more at ease than he did at Munster. This is being expressed in the confidence of his passes and offloads. (Check out this incredible pass!)

Equally, Mafi’s success rate could say something about the support play offered at Munster, an aspect that frustrated Lualala up until the closing stages of the season. Whatever the reason, Mafi’s increased creativity helped Perpignan to sixth place in the try-scoring standings for this Top 14 season. The USAPistes rate him as one of their most effective attacking elements:

“Mafi is a very good attacker. He’s lively and clever. He knows how to make ground when he has the ball.”


Defensively, Mafi’s time at Munster was pockmarked by a few dangerous tackles and several instances of rushing out of the line to the team’s detriment. He could hit hard, but there was always a sense of not knowing what he was going to do. At Perpignan he has calmed in this regard. He still puts a hit on when he has the chance, but it’s far less common to see him shooting up headlessly.

For USAPistes, defence is “not necessarily the strong point” in Mafi’s game. The highlight reels going around France at the time of his move featured his most spectacular hits, and it was something that was expected from him at Perpignan. French fans appreciate a crunching tackle nearly as much as a skillful try. Mafi’s defensive game is more subtle now.

Signed to replace France and Toulon centre Maxime Mermoz, Mafi has had an excellent first year at USAP. He’s contracted until the end of next season and so far there’s nothing to suggest the club will be bringing in new centres this summer. The move to France has been a successful one, with Mafi showing facets to his game that never really flourished at Munster.


Photos: Ivan O’Riordan.

Laulala To Join Munster Next Season

Laulala will join from the Cardiff Blues. (c) Ciac Images.

Following on from last week’s confirmation that James Downey will be joining the province next season, Munster have revealed the Casey Laulala has signed. The ex-All Black is out of contract with the Cardiff Blues at the end of this season and Munster have beaten off what Tony McGahan called a “very impressive chasing pack” to get their man. The centre has signed a two year deal.

The 29-year-old has two caps for New Zealand, the second of which came against Ireland back in 2006. The same year, Laulala scored the only try of the game as his Crusaders side beat the Hurricanes in the Super 14 final. The All Black joined the Blues in 2009 and has gone on the make 58 appearances for the Welsh region, scoring 14 tries.

Laulala will be expected to add explosive running to the Munster outside centre position. At his best, he is elusive, possesses quick feet in traffic and a good burst of pace. Munster will hope to draw the best from a player who will be 30 by the time next season rolls around. If truth be told, Laulala can blow hot and cold depending on his mood. McGahan will demand consistency from the New Zealander.

Red Army

Laulala will have to earn the respect of the Munster fans. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Laulala’s move will be disheartening for young Munster midfielders like Danny Barnes, Troy Smith and JJ Hanrahan. However, McGahan believes that Laulala will “act as a mentor to the emerging back talent we have in our squad”. His experience will of course be useful in this regard, but surely it would serve these young players better actually playing for their province.

Is Laulala really an upgrade on what Munster currently have? Lifeimi Mafi is an explosive, elusive runner at his best but struggles for consistency too. Laulala has plenty to prove at Munster but certainly has the ability to win over the Munster faithful. At over 100kg, he and Downey will beef up the size of the Munster midfield at a time when centres are looking bigger than ever. Munster fans will get an early chance to look at their new signing when the Blues visit Thomond Park for the PRO12 match on the 24th of this month.


Photo courtesy:  Ivan O’RiordanCiac Images.

Transfer Rumours Update

Munster’s signing of James Downey last week signalled the beginning of the province’s plans for next season. This is the time of year when professional clubs are planning and finalising their squads for next season, deciding who will be let go and who they will try to bring in. This obviously leads to plenty of rumours about new signings. The Touchline has rounded up some of the more interesting ones….


Tommy Bowe to Munster/Ulster


Pictured tackling Denis Hurley, Bowe might be his teammate next season. (c) Liam Coughlan.

The big one that most people will have heard is that Tommy Bowe may be returning to Ireland next year. Obviously, each of the four provinces would welcome Bowe with open arms but the depth of competition Leinster already have out wide seems to have ruled them out of the picture. The truth is that Bowe is contracted to the Ospreys until the end of 2013. However, the Welsh regions will operate under new salary restrictions from next season on, and with Tommy Bowe earning 350k a year according to The Sunday Times, they may be convinced to let the Irish wing return home a year early.

If Bowe did make the move back, it seems Munster would be competing with Ulster for his signature. The Monaghan man would definitely be interested in playing for his home province, especially with their exciting backline options of Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble, Ian Whitten, Jared Payne, Ian Humphreys, Ruan Pienaar and Craig Gilroy. Equally though, the thought of being part of a Munster back division including Conor Murray, Ronan O’Gara, James Downey, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Felix Jones and Doug Howlett would be tempting.

Whatever happens, it would be great to see Bowe playing his club rugby in Ireland again. According to the BBC, Ulster are likely to win the battle for his signature.


Jerome Kaino to Ulster

All Black World Cup winner Kaino is one of the premier back-rowers in world rugby and any move for him would be huge news. The 28-year-old’s contract at the Auckland Blues finished at the end of this calendar year and Kaino has admitted considering a move to foreign shores. Every club in Europe with the necessary finances would compete for the New Zealander’s signature.

The rumour linking Kaino to Ulster clearly has something to do with the fact that current Ulster tighthead John Afoa is Kaino’s close friend. Afoa actually missed one of Ulster’s Heineken Cup games earlier this season when he flew to Samoa to be best man at Kaino’s wedding. Ulster already have plenty of back-row options including Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Willie Faloon. Still, bringing a world-class player like Kaino on board would be a no-brainer. Pedrie Wannenburg’s contract finishes at the end of this season, and with Roger Wilson already on board, it remains to be seen if Ulster can add even more depth to their back-row.


Lifeimi Mafi to Perpignan

Mafi magic

Mafi could be on his way out of Munster. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

The signing of James Downey, and the possibility of Casey Laulala joining too (see below), it would appear that Mafi’s days at Munster are coming to a close. The Tonga-born centre has been a great servant to the province and put in some top-class, dynamic displays. He was undoubtedly at his best when paired in midfield with Rua Tipoki in the 07/08 Heineken Cup-winning season . Since the latter’s exit from Munster though, Mafi has been inconsistent.

The 29-year-old would be well suited to the Top 14. His quick feet and powerful play could be a great success in the more open French league. Perpignan may lose their France international center Maxime Mermoz to one of the bigger clubs this summer, and Mafi would be an ideal replacement.


Dan Parks to Connacht

Cardiff Blues outhalf Parks had a bit of a ‘mare at the weekend as Charlie Hodgson blocked down the Scottish outhalf’s kick to score for England at Murrayfield. Parks is out of contract at the end of this season, and with Newport Gwent Dragons fly-half Jason Tovey set to join the Blues, it appears that Parks will leave the club.

Despite Parks limitations, he is capable of kicking the corners, kicking his goals and occasionally controlling games, at least at club level. The 33-year-old has never relied on physical attributes, so his age is not a huge issue. Connacht have lacked a consistent goal-kicker, as well as an experienced head at outhalf so that’s where the rumours linking Parks to the western province stem from. Any move for Parks would be hugely disappointing for Connacht’s current pivot, Irish man Niall O’Connor.


Rhys Ruddock to Munster

Ruddock has been impressive when given the chance for Leinster. (c) Art Widak.

Still just 21, back-row Ruddock feels he is ready to play first-choice provincial rugby. With Sean O’Brien, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip and Kevin McLaughlin to compete against, Ruddock doesn’t play every game for Leinster. His recent performance for the Irish Wolfhounds showed just how good Ruddock can be. Ruddock has one cap for Ireland, but with the above four ahead of him in the Leinster pecking order, it will be hard for him to add to that single cap.

Ruddock’s contract runs until the end of this season so a potential move will certainly be in his thoughts. Munster’s back-row options include players who are coming towards the last few seasons of their careers in David Wallace, James Coughlan and Denis Leamy. A move to Munster would make sense for Ruddock’s career, and Joe Schmidt has every reason to be worried about losing one of Leinster’s best prospects. EDIT 10/02/12 – However, the latest line from Munster is that Ruddock has decided to stay with Leinster.


Casey Laulala to Munster

The Cardiff Blues’ centre is out of contract at the end of season, and there has been much talk that Laulala is one of Munster’s primary targets. The ex-All Black would add creativity to the outside centre position for Munster. Any move for Laulala would be disappointing for young Munster backs Danny Barnes, Scott Deasy and Troy Smith as it would likely push them down the pecking order.

Laulala is 29, so he still has plenty of rugby left in him. He would nicely complement James Downey’s more direct style in midfield. Still, would Laulala’s signing really improve Munster that much? The New Zealander has his moments of class but can often let games pass him by. Surely it would benefit Munster more to keep faith with their youngsters and push them into the first team. Apparently Laulala has several offers on the table, including a move to the lucrative Japanese leagues. EDIT – Munster have sealed the signature of Laulala for next season, read more here.


Peter Stringer to Connacht

Peter Stringer

Stringer is currently on loan at Saracens. (c) Martin Dobey.

Stringer’s contract expires this summer, and judging by his loan move to Saracens, it seems that Munster have no need for his services any longer. However, Stringer’s form in England shows that he has plenty of rugby left in the tank. The 34-year-old has admitted that he will probably have to look for a move away from Munster in order to secure regular rugby.

Connacht are one side who could benefit from Stringer’s immense experience. This season, Eric Elwood has rotated between Frank Murphy and Paul O’Donohoe at scrumhalf, with neither player making the position his own. Stringer would have been a valuable addition to the Connacht’s Heineken Cup campaign, and Elwood may look to secure the Cork man for next season.


Brad Thorne to Leinster

With Leo Cullen set for up to 8 weeks on the sidelines after achilles surgery and Steven Sykes having left the province after a disastrous spell, Leinster are short on second-row options right now. As a result, Joe Schmidt has made an approach for World Cup winner Brad Thorne, currently contracted to Japanese side Fukuoka Sanix Blues.  Despite turning 37 last week, the abrasive second-row would be a superb signing for Leinster.

Thorne is contracted to Sanix for next season, but the club played their final game of the domestic season last Saturday, winning 37-26 away to the Docomo Red Hurricanes. That meant the club finished 11th in the 14-team league despite Thorne’s best efforts. The point is that the New Zealander is match-fit, and presumably he would be keen on a short-term spell with the Heineken Cup champions. The problem will most likely be his Japanese club, who would almost certainly want him to rest after a World Cup season. Whatever happens, we should have confirmation on this one over the next few days.


What do you make of these rumours? Which of these moves do you think would improve the provinces and the players in question? Would you like to see these transfers actually happen? Comment below with your views. Feel free to add any rumours you may have heard!


Photos courtesy: Liam Coughlan, Ivan O’Riordan, Art Widak, Martin Dobey.

Munster Seal Downey Deal

Downey on a typical surge. (c) Henry Southgate.

Munster have announced the signing of Northampton Saints’ centre James Downey for next season. The Ireland A cap has had previous spells with Munster (06/07), Connacht (04-06) and Leinster (02-04). After leaving Munster, Downey’s move to Italian side Calvisano gave him exposure to Heineken Cup rugby and he earned a switch to the Saints the following season.

That move has been a massive success as the Dublin-born centre has become an integral part of the set-up at Franklin’s Gardens. Despite his sustained excellence in the Premiership, Downey has never impressed enough to earn a senior Ireland cap. He has played for Ireland A (now the Wolfhounds) on three occasions, as well as the Irish Sevens team and the U19s international squad. The lack of a senior cap is certainly part of the motivation for Downey to return to Ireland.

The move makes sense from Munster’s point of view too. Since the Trevor Halstead days, Munster have lacked a centre who consistently gets over the gainline. Lifeimi Mafi can be brilliant at times, but he is a different type of centre completely and is frustratingly inconsistent. Downey is straight out of the Halstead mould. In fact, the two are very similar in physical dimensions. At 6′ 4″ and around 105kg, Downey is a hard man to stop when he gets on the ball. Added to that, his size and strength allow him to come up with some big hits.

Munster will hope to make the best of Downey's offloading game. (c) Henry Southgate.

Downey has evidently worked hard on his offloading game in recent years. More often than not, Downey will get over the gainline when he carries ball. If Munster can get him offloading out of the tackle regularly then it gives them a completely different option to what they have in the centre now. The thought of Keith Earls, Felix Jones, Simon Zebo and maybe even Tommy Bowe picking lines off Downey is an exciting one. Tony McGahan will work hard to ensure that he gets the best out of Downey in terms of keeping the ball alive.

The fact that Downey is Irish also makes sense from Munster’s point of view. With the IRFU rulings on how overseas players will be contracted to be imposed from the 2013/14 season, Munster will need to look for more native signings. Downey turning 31 next month does represent a slight risk for the province. His contract is only two years though, so even if injuries start to afflict Downey, Munster will be able to release him soon enough.

Another risk is the fact that Downey is being judged on his performances in a league that has clearly regressed in quality. The Aviva Premiership has only one side in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and is producing less and less top-class players for its own international side. Munster’s recent demolition of Northampton completed a double over the Saints in Pool 1. While Downey managed to score a try in the first match at Thomond Park, he was completely anonymous in the return fixture. His only major involvement was to throw the telegraphed pass for Simon Zebo’s intercept try.

Still, this is a calculated and worthwhile risk for Munster. Downey’s performances for the Saints in the past few seasons suggest that he will offer something different to the province. He will hope that a place in the Munster team will finally earn him some international recognition.


Photos courtesy:   Henry Southgate.