Arguably the best rugby in Europe was played by Toulouse and last season’s Top 14 Champions can retain their title once again. Ugo Mola’s side were an astonishing 15 points clear of Clermont at the end of last season not including the deserved win they had in the final, and they will be going to war with roughly the same side. The World Cup – amazingly the Top 14 is starting as normal, despite the small matter of biggest tournament in the game – will have an impact early given that 13 French players are away on International duty through the tournament, but they are the best XV in French
Clermont, with a fully fit squad, were Challenge Cup Champions and also runners upt to Toulouse, and they will be there or thereabouts once again if they can keep pace with them through the World Cup. The strength in depth they have should help them cope with that difficult opening period, although being back in the Champions Cup could prove to be a long term distraction.
Racing probably have the deepest squad (all round) so might have an advantage in the early weeks with the World Cup, although they must send eight players with just two short term ‘jokers’ to cover. Nevertheless, they can start Bruce Dulin, Henry Chavancy, Juan Imhoff, Donnacha Ryan, and Cedate Gomes Sa today whilst Simon Zebo, and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne are on the bench. That’s more than most sides at full strength can hope to have and they could open up an advantage early.
Montpelier disappointed last season, scraping into the Barrages before they lost to Lyon, and they have one again gone to the transfer market in a bid to close the gap to the other contenders. The arrivals of Guilhem Guirado, Handre Pollard, and Kahn Fotuali’i gives them three more top class additions and Aaron Cruden, when on form, is one of the best flyhlaves in the league – it’s not so long ago he was first choice for the All Blacks. Timoci Nagusa also gets a start for them against Pau and if they gel early then they can make the barrages again at least, although they will be aiming for a semi-final.
Toulon had a miserable first campaign under Patrice Collazo, but the former La Rochelle coach will surely get the time to build a new side and the signings are once again coming back. Christopher Tolofua, Baptiste Serin, Eben Etzebeth, the brilliant Nehe Milner-Skudder (Hurricanes), Bryce Heem, Sergio Parisse and the short term addition of Ben Te’o give them options galore before you consider the names in the side to begin with and their starting lineup today includes Tolofua, Liam Messam, Louis Carbonel, Julian Savea and Hugo Bonneval.
Lyon, semi-finalists last year, are beginning to compete at the top table, have added top quality into both their forward pack and backline including Demba Bamba from Brive, along with Xavier Chiocci, Pato Fernandez and Josua Tuisova (Toulon). That, when added to Noa Nakaitaci, Charlie Ngatai and Alexis Palisson, along with Carl Fearns and Liam Gill, gives and XV that can go toe-to-toe with and not only beat the very best too.
Of the others, Pau’s new coach Nicolas Godignon has a great pool of new signings in Ben Smith, Luke Whitelock, Alexandre Dumoulin, Lucas Pointud, and Mohamed Boughanmi but they might need time for them to gel before they close the gap to the top six.
Heyneke Meyer has had a clear out at Stade Francais, with 15 arrivals and 13 departures including Sergio Parisse, and gelling will surely take time for the new faces.
Advice – Top 14 Regular Season
2 pts Toulouse (12/5 Betway)
1 pt each/way Toulon (14/1 Boylesports)