French Top 14 kicks off after whirlwind summer of activity

Peter BERLIN
The Top 14 lost its biggest international star when New Zealand fly-half Dan Carter left Racing 92 for Japan

Barely a year before the national squad heads off to Japan for the World Cup, France's leading clubs kick off the Top 14 season on Saturday focussed only on the brutal 10-month marathon that lies ahead.

The Top 14 again starts a week ahead of the other major European club leagues. Last season also ended a week later on June 2, when Castres upset the regular-season table toppers Montpellier 29-19 in the final.

The two teams meet in a rapid rematch in Montpellier on Sunday.

The sad state of the national team, who have has won 10 of their last 22 games and fallen to a humiliating eighth in the world, has seemingly been the last priority for France’s wealthiest clubs as they have spent their short summer break in a whirlwind of activity.

The clubs have been ruthless. Some 20 players have left Stade Francais, who flirted with relegation and whose new owner Hans-Peter Wild is ready to spend having also hired former Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer.

Toulon, who were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, have their fourth coach in two years, Patrice Collazo, who, after turning La Rochelle into a contender, stormed out at the end of a season following a bust up with his assistants and a late collapse cost that club a playoff place.

Collazo's replacement at La Rochelle, Jono Gibbes, will not arrive until November at the end of a contract with Waikato, in his native New Zealand, ends.

For once, French clubs have lost international stars with Duane Vermeulen of Toulon and Dan Carter of Racing 92 both heading to Japan, who are investing in rugby ahead of the World Cup.

Just a year ahead of that competition, top southern hemisphere players are reluctant to jeopardise their places in national squads and accept lucrative French contracts.

The most notable arrivals from below the equator, 28-year-old winger Julian Savea and 34-year old back row forward Liam Messam, both at Toulon, and 35-year-old forward Jerome Kaino, at Toulouse, may have 180 All Blacks caps between them but none has figured in recent squads.

French clubs have also been combing the Celtic fringe, with last season's European Champions Cup finalists Racing 92 recruiting Scotland fly half Finn Russell to help fill the hole left by Carter.

Toulon have brought in Welsh scrum half Rhys Webb. Perpignan have recruited Irish scrum half Paddy Jackson, who was sacked by Ulster after a rape trial which, even though it ended in acquittal, revealed questionable behaviour.

The most eye-catching move by beaten finalists Montpellier was to sign 26-year-old South African back Johan Goosen who had retired when under contract at Racing in 2016 to work in business his home country.

Castres, who crept into the playoffs in sixth place and then reeled off three victories over higher seeds to snatch the title, were a relative island of stability, although sporting director Christophe Urios has left.

For fans of the national team there are shoots of hope. France won the under-20s World Cup for the first time this summer and several youngsters shone as France lost all three tests in New Zealand.

But one promising talents is already out for six months.

Matthieu Jalibert, a 19-year-old scrum half who injured a knee ligament in the first half hour of his France debut in the Six Nations in February, reinjured it in a pre-season game with Bordeaux Begles.

The opening-day games will be preceded by a minute’s silence for Louis Fajfrowski, the young player with second-division Aurillac who died after a collision in a pre-season game, and Pierre Camou, the former president of the French rugby federation, who died on Wednesday.

Fixtures

Saturday (all matches 1615 GMT, unless stated)

Perpignan v Stade Francais (1345), Bordeaux-Begles v Pau, Lyon v Toulouse, La Rochelle v Grenoble, Clermont v Agen, Toulon v Racing 92 (1945)

Sunday

Montpellier v Castres (1605)