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Top 14 Preview: Clermont

25924The History

Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne was launched in 1911 by Marcel Michelin, son of André, who founded the Michelin tyre company. The club was intended to provide entertainment for the many workers employed by the organisation. Their story since has been littered with near-misses. ASM did enjoy success in the Challenge Yves du Manoir and Challenge Cup, but they finished runners-up in the French championship ten times before finally winning in 2010.

In the Heineken Cup, Clermont have lost a final, semi-final and a quarter-final in recent years. The common perception is that ASM lack the mental edge to win big games, but their 2010 success has been quickly forgotten. In that same time frame, Toulon have lost four finals and won one trophy, but not once has their winning mentality been questioned. Of course it is the manner of Clermont’s defeats which see them labelled as ‘bottlers’ too, but they will continue to challenge for titles.

The Setting

The city of Clermont-Ferrand sits in the Auvergne region of central France, with a population of 141,000. While it is an industrial area, the city has a growing student population of 30,000 and Clermont’s supporters are amongst the friendliest in the world. The Stade Marcel-Michelin is ASM’s home, with space for 18,030 people. With the stands almost leaning over the pitch, the atmosphere is never anything less than fervent. ASM hold a French record of 60 consecutive victories at home, they simply don’t do losses at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.

Last Season

ASM v LR

Two superb wins over Leinster have been forgotten amidst Clermont’s end-of-season failure. (c) Andy Patterson.

The campaign promised so much as Clermont played scintillating rugby throughout the season. Top try-scorers by 12 in the Top 14, Vern Cotter’s side topped the regular season table. In the Heineken Cup their 31 tries were unmatched, and they looked like champions-to-be. Everything came unstuck on the home straight though, with the loss to Toulon in the H Cup final followed by a pitiful effort against Castres in the Top 14 semi-final. Flanker Julien Bonnaire summed it up in simple terms: “Let’s call a cat a cat. Last season was a failure. Now we must redeem ourselves.”

Ambitions

ASM approach this season in a strange state following Cotter’s frank criticism of the players and the club’s recruitment policy in the aftermath of the failed season. The New Zealander has agreed to join Scotland at the end of this season, and the impression was that he was attempting to get himself released early by speaking out. However, bridges have apparently been rebuilt and Clermont are focused on winning a trophy. They have the squad to compete on two fronts, but the truly burning desire is Heineken Cup success.

While they have shown a strong tendency to lose high-pressure play-off games, writing Clermont off before the season has even started would be foolish.

The Coach

Bouclier de B.

Cotter is hoping for more days like this one in 2010. (c) Ville de Clermont-Ferrand.

Cotter is a former number eight who played for Counties Manukau as well as four French clubs. His coaching career took in Bay of Plenty and the Crusaders (as forwards coach where he won Super Rugby titles in ’05 and ’06) before Clermont made him head coach for the ’06/07 season. ASM lost the next three Top 14 finals before finally earning a Bouclier de Brennus in 2010. Cotter is as hard-nosed as you would expect from a Kiwi back-row but also encourages his players to offload and attack from their own half.

Cotter’s challenge this season is to ensure that Clermont are better equipped for knock-out games. The sheer quality in their squad means they will feature in the latter stages of both competitions. Pre season at ASM has focused on decision making, demanding that the players work through their options in various match specific scenarios. Cotter told Midi Olympique that ASM “need be capable of better adapting to the context, and if we must, making our plans simpler and more pragmatic.”

Transfer Activity

Clermont were the quietest Top 14 club in terms of transfers this summer, with just three new faces. Having originally agreed a deal to join in June, Mike Delany was drafted in late last season on a medical joker basis and greatly impressed in three starts. Unfortunately, the one-time All Black outhalf has had to undergo shoulder surgery and will miss the opening three months of the season. That meant Clermont had to search for another outhalf, with the experienced Gavin Hume the result.

The 33-year-old South African spent the last nine seasons with USAP, winning a Top 14 title in 2009. Hume has been sharp for ASM in pre season and offers solid back-up to Brock James. The only other addition is scrumhalf Thierry Lacrampe (25) from Castres, who will compete with Ludovic Radosavljevic for a place on the bench behind Morgan Parra. Familiar names leaving Clermont include David Skrela, who drops into the Pro D2 with Colomiers, and Anthony Floch, who joins Montpellier in search of game time.

Key Players

Wesley Fofana is amongst the best centres in world rugby and probably Clermont’s greatest asset. The 25-year-old runs perceptive lines and aided by sizzling pace and a violent fend, the French international is a nightmare for opposition defences. his ability to pick out weak defenders in the defensive line is unrivaled.  While Fofana’s passing game still has some way to go, he is an attacking threat from any situation. Alongside him is captain Aurélien Rougerie, a one-club man and a passionate leader.

Wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga provide a guaranteed supply of tries. Sivivatu was exceptional last season, roaming into midfield and often taking the ball as first receiver. The former All Black has the footwork and power to beat tackles every time he touches the ball. Nalaga is more of a direct proposition, but he is near to unstoppable from close range. In between them, Clermont have the luxury of choosing between Lee Byrne’s kicking game and experience or Jean-Marcellin Buttin’s languid, creative brilliance.

James

Brock James has been the focus of much of the criticism aimed at ASM. (c) Frank Nieto.

Morgan Parra is the archetypal French scrumhalf, directing his forwards, place-kicking and strutting around when he is in control. After ending the season in very poor form, the 24-year-old decided not to tour with France this summer and will benefit from a full pre season schedule. Joining him in the halfback charnière is Brock James, the much maligned Australian. His famous incidences of big-game failure make him an obvious target, but at his best James is a superb outhalf.

Julien Bonnaire remains crucial at the age of 34 through his lineout excellence, work-rate and leadership. Alongside him, number eight Damian Chouly is a strong ball carrier but needs to become more prominent in the high-stake games.

Irish Connection

In a giant tight five featuring French internationals Thomas Domingo and Benjamin Kayser, the key man is Scottish international Nathan Hines. He was certainly among the best locks in Europe last season and would have added greatly to the Lions tour. At 36, the body has started to feel the knocks that little bit more, but Hines never gives anything less than total commitment. Smashing rucks, winning lineouts and shoving at scrum time are the norm for any lock, but what sets Hines apart is his superb handling and passing ability.

Possible Starting XV

15. Byrne/Buttin, 14. Sivivatu, 13. Rougerie, 12. Fofana, 11. Nalaga, 10. James, 9. Parra, 8. Chouly, 7. Vosloo/Lapandry, 6. Bonnaire, 5. Hines, 4. Cudmore, 3. Zirakashvili, 2. Kayser 1. Domingo

——————-

Photos: Andy Patterson, Ville de Clermont-Ferrand, Frank Nieto.

Top 14 Preview: Toulon

logo_rctThe History

Rugby Club Toulonnais was founded in 1908, with their first Bouclier de Brennus coming in 1931 after a 6-3 win over Lyon. The victorious team were greeted by 30,000 supporters on their return to Toulon, before a riotous night of celebration. It was 57 years before RCT had the opportunity to repeat the party, when a 15-12 win over Racing gave them their second French championship in 1987. The success was repeated in ’92, with two drop-goals from Yann Delaigue helping Toulon to their most recent league title.

The summer of 2000 saw RCT relegated to the second division due to a reported €1.5 million deficit in their accounts. In 2005, Toulon were promoted as champions of the Pro D2 but were relegated the following season. Mourad Boudjellal, who made his fortune in comic books, was subsequently elected as president and orchestrated the first wave of high-profile recruitment. Since promotion in 2008, Toulon have lost four finals (two Top 14s, two Challenge Cups) but last season’s Heineken Cup victory was just reward for Boudjellal’s passion.

The Setting

Toulon is situated on the Mediterranean coast in southwestern France and has a population of around 170,000. With sunshine all year, delicious food and a laid-back way of life, it is the ideal place for older professionals to eke more years out of their careers. Toulon’s home stadium is the Stade Mayol, which holds 15,100 loud supporters. RCT are famous for their pre-match Pilou Pilou war chant as the players come onto the field. It’s a special atmosphere and an intimidating arena.

Last Season

ST v RCT

Toulon’s powerful pack played a huge role in their H Cup success. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Bernard Laporte’s men topped the regular season from round four all the way to round 24, before Clermont finished the stronger in the final two games. That meant Toulon drew Toulouse in the semi-final, where they dispatched Guy Novès’ side 24-9. However, the final was one step too far for RCT as a fresher Castres deservedly won. The fact that Toulon had already won a first-ever Heineken Cup two weeks before made the loss easier to accept. The H Cup success was Toulon’s first trophy under Boudjellal, and probably the first of many.

Ambitions

Having won in Europe, les Toulonnais now have their sights set on domestic success. Boudjellal and most of the club’s dirigeants are keen to assert their dominance over the Top 14. By adding to Toulon’s existing base of stars this summer, Boudjellal has provided Laporte with all the tools he needs to compete for both trophies this season. Toulon’s squad is bursting with proven winners, as well as previously unseen levels of experience. Boudjellal continues to pose Toulon as underdogs to Toulouse and Clermont in public, but privately he knows RCT are out in front.

The Coach

Bernard Laporte’s official title of Sporting Director is apt for describing his role. The former scrumhalf won a French championship with Bordeaux in 1991 before moving into coaching with the same club. In 1995, he dropped down to the third division to join Stade Français and backed by Max Guazzini’s millions, remarkably led the Parisians to a French championship in 1998. Two years later he took charge of the national side, the first head coach of les Blues who hadn’t been capped himself.

Laporte

Laporte is an intelligent leader. (c) Philippe Marc.

In seven years with Laporte at the helm France won four Six Nations titles, two of them Grand Slams. Following the semi-final loss to England at the 2007 World Cup, Laporte resigned. After administrative roles with the French government, Bayonne and Stade Français, Laporte took over at Toulon in 2011. The 49-year-old leaves the coaching to Jacques Delmas (forwards) and Pierre Mignoni (backs), but he is the selector, motivator and public face of the team.

Transfer Activity

Just when it looked like Toulon’s squad couldn’t get any more experienced, they signed Bryan Habana, Drew Mitchell, Ali Williams and Martin Castrogiovanni. Habana and Mitchell add world-class finishing ability to a squad which already included four excellent wingers. While Toulon do approach knock-out games with less attacking ambition, they generally play with an open style of rugby, highlighted by 69 tries in the Top 14 last season. That means Habana and Mitchell will get their hands on the ball often, while both are also excellent kick chasers.

New Zealander Williams replaces the excellent Nick Kennedy, and his partnership with Bakkies Botha should be formidable. Both proven winners, it’s a pairing that opposition second rows will relish challenging. Italian cult hero Castrogiovanni’s rotation with Carl Hayman at tighthead will be important under the fatiguing new scrum laws. The other additions are scrumhalf Michael Claassens (30), who has impressed in pre season, and loosehead prop Emmanuel Felsina (28), who was playing in Fédérale 1 as recently as 2011 but is highly-rated.

Key Players

Wilko

A true Toulonnais. (c) Noëmie Haffner.

Jonny Wilkinson enjoys the status of a deity in the Var département, and deservedly so. Any foreign player looking for an example of how to integrate into French life need look no further than the former England outhalf. Once plagued by injuries, the 34-year-old had started 104 games for RCT since joining in 2009. Outside Wilko, Aussie centre Matt Giteau does much of the playmaking and his passing and vision are crucial to the Toulon backline.

Another Englishman who has adapted to life at Toulon with success is Andrew Sheridan, selected as the best prop in France by Midi Olympique. Anyone who watched the 33-year-old last season would have been surprised not to see him involved with the Lions, but Sheridan is perfectly content with life in Toulon. At lock, Bakkies Botha had a phenomenal season as he established himself as the premier lock in the Top 14. While he has had inexcusable moments of ill-discipline in the past, the donkey work he does cannot be underestimated.

In the back row, the classy skills of Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe are inspirational. Picking out strengths is a difficult task because the Argentine captain is so complete. While he attends to the Rugby Championship, Steffon Armitage will look to step up. Having been the standout player of the 2011/12 Top 14 campaign, the explosive 27-year-old had to take a back seat on Toulon’s journey to the Heineken Cup trophy last season. Chris Masoe’s power from number eight is another crucial part of Toulon’s set-up.

Equipe du RC Toulon

RCT. (c) Yann Caradec.

This RCT squad is stacked with ability, experience, aggression, power and depth. While it has become popular to dislike the club and question their style of play, that only aids their mental strength. The puppet master Boudjellal is a genius at drawing the pressure towards himself and allowing the players to focus on winning. It’s an intelligent formula and could lead to Toulon’s first French title in over 20 years.

Possible Starting XV

15. Armitage, 14. Mitchell, 13. Bastareaud, 12. Giteau, 11. Habana, 10. Wilkinson, 9. Michalak, 8. Masoe, 7. Armitage, 6. Fernandez Lobbe, 5. Williams, 4. Botha, 3. Hayman, 2. Bruno, 1. Sheridan

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Photos: Pierre-Selim, Philippe Marc, Noëmie Haffner, Yann Caradec.

Top 14 Preview: Toulouse

Toulouse_badgeThe History

With 19 French championships and five Heineken Cups to their name, Stade Toulousain are perhaps the greatest club in rugby history. Having won the first edition of the Heineken Cup in 1996, Toulouse have been involved every year since. In the last six seasons, they have won three French titles and a H Cup. Toulouse have been involved in the last 20 French championship semi-finals. The longevity of their success is phenomenal, and the club plans to persist.

In February 2013 the club opened a state-of-the-art training facility, fully kitted out with gym, video analysis room, recovery areas and much more. The new training centre allows Toulouse to focus on their commitment to developing French players from within. Toulouse are also an integral part of plans to build a ‘Cité du Rugby’ (an interactive museum of world rugby) on the island of Ramier near the centre of the city. With a budget of €35.4 million, Stade Toulousain are still the biggest club in France.

The Setting

The city of Toulouse lies in the Midi-Pyrénées region in the south of France. With a population of over 440,000 la ville rose is the fourth-largest city in the country. Stade Toulousain’s home is the 19,500-capacity Stade Ernest-Wallon. In recent years, the big games have been moved to the 36,000-capacity Stadium Municipal de Toulouse (also on on Ramier Island), but refurbishment for Euro 2016 means the club won’t have access until late 2015, a blow to revenue.

Last Season

Arrière, c'est aussi joué tout seul

Clément Poitrenaud, with the Toulouse forwards in the background. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Toulouse finished the regular season table in third, but were a disappointing 11 points behind second-placed Toulon. That gave Guy Novès’ men a home barrages match, where they dealt with Racing Metro. The semi-final loss to Toulon that followed was crushing for Novès, who questioned the club’s direction and recruitment policy in the aftermath. Toulouse looked threatening, but Toulon’s ability to score points was the only aspect of the game that mattered.

In the Heineken Cup, Toulouse failed to advance from the group stages for the first time since 2007. After dropping into the Challenge Cup, a weakened team was downed by USAP.

Ambitions

After such an unsatisfactory campaign, Toulouse are focused on winning the Top 14. While a Heineken Cup success would be welcome, it is domestically that les Toulousains will concentrate. That focus has seen a slight shift in policy at a club famed for its strong “made in France” playing core. With the doublons (games on the same weekends as international fixtures) still a challenging feature of the Top 14, Novès’ transfer policy this summer was centered on “foreigners of top-quality”. Toulouse lost to Agen (away), USAP (home) and Toulon (away) during the Six Nations last season. Noves is hoping that won’t be repeated.

The Coach

Guy Noves

This man is Stade Toulousain. (c) chris_3164.

Born in Toulouse, 259 appearances on the wing for Stade Toulousain and the club’s coach since 1988 in which time he has won 10 French championships and four Heineken Cups; if ever a club was intrinsically tied up with an individual, it is Toulouse with Guy Novès. Searingly intelligent, irrationally angry, optimistic and despairing in differing circumstances, the 59-year-old’s passion for the club is inspirational. There was an unsettling sense that Novès was tiring of the constant challenge last season, a feeling that Toulouse are a force in decline.

However, Novès insists he is ready for the new season, refreshed and motivated. He has called on his French internationals in particular to step up and be counted in the Top 14. Whenever he does decide to retire, it is likely that Novès will finish on a winning note, leaving by the back door without fuss.

Transfer Activity

Capped 14 times for the All Blacks, Hosea Gear is exactly the type of signing Novès wanted. The 29-year-old wing is a powerful finisher coming off the back of a Super Rugby season in which he scored eight tries for the Hurricanes. With Vincent Clerc being nursed back from a knee injury, Gear’s impact will be crucial. Springbok Chiliboy Ralepelle is another big-name addition, although the hooker will only arrive in October after the Rugby Championship. William Servat will hope to retire properly this season.

Hosea Gear

Gear adds explosive strength out wide. (c) Patrick Subotkiewiez.

Another new signing delayed until October is Jano Vermaak (28). The South African scrumhalf joins from the Bulls to provide competition for Jean-Marc Doussain. Completing the quartet of new top-class foreigners is Joe Tekori, moving from Castres. The explosive Samoan’s ability to cover lock and the back-row will be useful. Novès has brought in two French players in creative outhalf Jean-Pascal Barraque (22) from Biarritz and the athletic flanker Yacouba Camara (19) from Massy. Both are excellent prospects.

Key Players

Thierry Dusautoir is captain and one of the greatest leaders by example. His work-rate in defence often overshadows the excellent work The Dark Destroyer does in attack, freeing up others to do what they do best. Louis Picamoles appreciates the opportunity to carry as often as possible, and at 27 is hitting his prime. The France number eight is simply very difficult to tackle. His powerful hand-off is matched by a high degree of strength in the hips and legs, making low tackles no guarantee. The more he sees of the ball, the better Toulouse are.

Luke McAlister is the premier outhalf in France at his best, but there are days when you have to wonder if he is an outhalf at all. His powerful running can tear teams to shreds, but it is his ability to direct play around the pitch that provides doubts. If Toulouse are going to win the Top 14, McAlister needs a good season. In the centre, Gaël Fickou faces the task of replacing the retired Yannick Jauzion. Still only 19, Fickou has a different style but possesses all the skills needed to make himself the best centre in the league over the next three years.

Essai de Fickou

Fickou must replace a legend of the club in Yannick Jauzion. (c) Pierre-Selim.

In the engine room, the likes of Yoann Maestri, Romain Millo-Chluski, Census Johnston and Gurthrö Steenkamp will be busy getting their hands dirty. At close to 140kg, Johnston is a man mountain but he can play a bit too. At loosehead, Steenkamp will miss the opening rounds due to the Rugby Championship. Maestri is one of the most complete locks in France at 25, while Millo-Chluski (30) and Patricio Albacete do the unglamorous work. Out wide, the likes of Yoann Huget and Clément Poitrenaud offer a suave counter-attacking threat.

Irish Connection

While he’s not strictly involved with Toulouse any longer, Trevor Brennan maintains strong ties with the club. The two-time Heineken Cup winner runs the De Danú bar in Toulouse, which is a must-visit on any rugby trip to la ville rose. There is still a Brennan on the books at Stade Toulousain, in the former Ireland lock’s 14-year-old son Daniel. Already the focus of a Midi Olympique article, the 6ft 2ins, 121kg prop says he would consider playing for France if the opportunity arose. One for the future as Toulouse look to return to the summit of French club rugby.

Possible Starting XV

15. Huget 14. Matanavou, 13. Fritz, 12. Fickou, 11. Gear, 10. McAlister, 9. Doussain, 8. Picamoles, 7. Nyanga, 6. Dusautoir, 5. Maestri, 4. Albacete, 3. Johnston, 2. Ralepelle, 1. Steenkamp

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Photos: Pierre-Selim, chris_3164, Patrick Subotkiewiez.

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

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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.