Rugby fans have not been starved of domestic action over the past few months, but the return of weekly club rugby is now here with the Top 14 and once again it is a fiendishly difficult task to pick between the several clubs who will be aiming for the title this season.
There haven’t been back to back winners since Toulouse took the title in 2012 but Castres might have a better chance than most of repeating the feat of winning the Bouclier de Brennus. However, whilst they managed to pull off three upset victories in a row on their way to the title last season, victories against Toulouse, Racing and Montpellier in the final were entirely deserved.
They have managed to keep miracle worker Christophe Urios at the helm for this season before he moves, have not lost any notable members of the first XV, and added centre Yann David from Toulouse, and, full-back Scott Spedding and back-row Camille Gerondeau from Clermont in a highly successful offseason. They compliment a side with a rock-solid core that is held together by Benjamin Urdapilleta and Rory Kocokott, both of whom stay together, and the intense domestic focus they have retained in recent seasons looks sure to be retained as well. The 25’s on them winning the grand final looks to be a very generous offer.
Montpellier did everything right until the final, when they put in their worst game of the season against Castres last season, and once again they should be seriously involved in the Barrages. They are 11/4 to win the Grand Final which does not appeal with the whole season to play, but the fact there has been minimal turnover should mean they hit the ground running with no issues and the 11/4 on them topping the regular season makes far more appeal.
There is a worry that they could go much further in Europe this season than last – they were in the pool of death and found themselves focusing on domestic duties from early on – but the squad depth is there to handle a challenge on two fronts.
The same can also be said of Racing 92, the only side to make Leinster sweat in the spring as they lost a nail-biting Champions Cup final before being knocked out by Castres in the semi-finals of the Top 14. Remi Tales and Dan Carter are now absent, having been replaced by Finn Russell, which looks a good swap to keep the high tempo style of rugby flowing. Simon Zebo ought to help in this regard as well.
Toulon made it to the semi-finals last season before defeat in the Barrages and they have had the most active off season with several world class players joining. Replacing Chris Ashton’s 24 tries will be a stretch, but Julian Savea is as good a replacement as any and a combination between Rhys Webb and Anthony Bellau has explosive potential and Liam Messam could take the league by storm in the vein of many other flankers from overseas such as Liam Gill.
They will be replacing Ma’a Nonu, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Semi Radradra and Duane Vermeulen but if they gel then there’s every reason to think Toulon can take another title.
The most crucial addition might be that of Patrice Collazo at head coach. Collazo was instrumental behind the meteoric rise of La Rochelle over the past season and a half and he has even more talent to work with here – if he can provide stability then that could be worth its weight in gold.
Toulouse were back to where they should be last season with a third-place finish, but they could struggle with Gael Fickou, Tala Gray and Yoann Maestri all departing for Stade Francais, who have invested massively to atone for a shocking 12th place campaign last season.
On paper, they have the side to go toe to toe with the very best, although the jury should be out on how they will all gel as a team this season and that is a big challenge for Heyneke Meyer. His arrival will surely improve the team immeasurably, however – but they look worth a watching brief before assessing them properly for the season.
Clermont had such a shocking season that they didn’t even make Europe, but there was little that could be done when 12 backs, including all their first-choice centres and flyhalves, were out and anything like a normal season in terms of injuries should see them back in the title fight. Bering in the Challenge Cup could also be a benefit and the additions of Tim Nanai-Williams and Geoge Moala give them the strongest centre combination in the division.
La Rochelle finally have a flyhalf to play 10 in the shape of Ihaia West and they ought to improve a great deal for that. Injuries stuck at the worst time but the loss of Patrice Collazo as head coach and the subsequent transition is a real crossroads for them. Gregory Patat and Xavier Garbajosa must ensure a fast start before Jono Gibbes takes over.
Lyon, the surprise of last season, are well set to be in the playoffs again. They have kicked on in the transfer market, with the additions of Raphael Chaume and Noa Nakaitaci excellent moves to bring Top 14 experience, whilst the capture of Charlie Nagatai was one of the signings of the summer. Two key questions for them will be how they cope with the Champions Cup and how Carl Fears returns from injury.
1 pt Castres to win Grand Final (25/1 general)
1 pt Montpellier to win the regular season (11/4 general)