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Top 14: Team-by-team season preview

Fri, Aug 25, 2017, Posted by   print

2007 World Cup

There’s change afoot in the Top 14, with some clubs — notably Toulon and Montpellier — pledging to call a halt to their overseas player raids and build 100 percent Made in France sides in the seasons ahead.

That promise has not stopped them digging deep to bring in some big-name imports ahead of the impending new campaign, which kicks off on Saturday, however. And as the new season comes into view, we look at each club in the top flight and try to predict where they will be come the business end of the competition.

Agen

Agen are set for a difficult return to the Top 14. NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images

With 26 new arrivals at Stade Armandie this summer, there’s concern that Agen, who came late to the transfer market party, are about to make the same mistake as previous over-ambitious new Top 14 arrivals. The Lot-et-Garonne side only ensured top flight rugby this season with a ProD2 playoff win over Montauban in May. They have been granted extra time to bring in reinforcements for their assault on the league — but, similar to Bristol in the English Premiership last season, they’re picking up players everyone else has left behind. It could be argued that they have done well to grab the experienced Ricky Januarie from La Rochelle, not to mention Akapusi Qera, who was dumped by Montpellier at the club’s end-of-season barbecue.

2016-17 Season finish: Promoted from ProD2

Player to Watch: Akapusi Qera. A combination of injury and Jake White’s South African preferences scuppered last season for the rampaging Fijian forward, who will feel he has a lot to prove at his new club

Likely finish this season: 14th. It just looks like it’s going to be a long, difficult season for Agen.

In – Mieres (fly-half, Dax), Cedaro (second row, La Rochelle), Januarie (scrum half, La Rochelle), Lucas Tolot (wing, Montauban), Loris Tolot (fullback, Montauban), Jammes (hooker, Grenoble), Qera (back row, Montpellier), Bosch (hooker, Jaguares), Rubio (scrum half, Narbonne), Salawa (winger, Mont-de-Marsan), Farré (back row, Albi), Ngauamo (hooker, Mont-de-Marsan), Phelipponneau (prop, Vannes), De Marco (second row, Oyonnax), Tanga-Mangene (back row, Castres), Metge (fullback, Oyonnax), Butler (prop, La Rochelle), Tufele (prop, Albi), Martinez (hooker, Toulon), Pueyo (back row, Albi), Nyaz (back row, Aix-en-Provence), McIntyre (fly half, Queensland Reds), Russell (centre Mont-de-Marsan), Dubois (centre, La Rochelle), Vaka (centre, Manukau Counties), Le Huby (fullback, Clermont)

Out – Darbo (scrum half, Montauban), Francis (fly-half, Grenoble), Nakosi (winger, Toulon), Tadjer (hooker, Brive), Paris (winger Castres), Tau (back row, Perpignan), N’Nomo (prop, not retained), Dufour (hooker, Bordeaux), Ratuniyarawa (second row, Northampton), Demotte (second row, La Rochelle), Baget (back row, retired), Vaquin (back row, retired), Hollinshead (fly-half Coca Cola Red West Parks), Decron (Centre, Bordeaux), Cirikisuva (back row, not retained), Cadiou (scrum-half, Montauban), Bouvier (fly-half, Carcassonne), Soulan (fly-half, not retained), Tardieu (fullback, Colomiers), Tongia (fullback, not retained)

Bordeaux

Bordeaux will be hoping for a much better season than last term. NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images

Backroom changes were the story of the Top 14 last season — and Bordeaux were one of five top flight clubs in the market for a new head coach. The drawn-out departure of Raphael Ibanez, the former poster boy of coaching in France, was the lowlight of another disappointing season at the Atlantic coast club. His successor, former Italy coach Jacques Brunel, has one of those impossibly difficult yet simple-sounding jobs that crop up in sport all the time — turn perennial flatterers to deceive into real contenders. And quickly. To make things tougher still, he has an added tie to his straitjacket. Under Ibanez, the salary cap was pushed to its limits, with the likes of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Ian Madigan swelling the wage bill. Now, the purse-strings are being held much tighter. The recruitment team has avoided courting big names, but South African Tian Schoeman and New Zealander Fa’asiu Fuata’i add a dash of southern hemisphere glamour.

2016-17 Season finish: 11th

Player to Watch: Darly Domvo. The fullback should be a household name. He should be a French international, or at least knocking on the door. But two ACL injuries — one for each leg — have stalled what should have been a stellar upward career trajectory. Here’s hoping he can get a decent, injury-free run.

Likely finish this season: 9th. It takes time to build a title-chasing team, and Brunel is just about starting from scratch. Give him this season.

In – Ravai (prop, Aurillac), Pélissié (hooker, Aurillac), Gayraud (second row, Bayonne), Houston (back row, Queensland Reds), Diaby (back row, Grenoble), Schoeman (fly half, Bulls), Naqalevu (centre, Dax), Fuata’i (fullback, Otago), Dufour (hooker, Agen), Vigne (back row, Béziers), Roumat (back row, Biarritz), Woki (back row, Massy), Decron (centre, Agen), Paiva (prop, return from loan at Carcassone), Roumat (back row, Biarritz), Barraque (fly half, France 7s), Edwards (centre, Sale)

Out – Kitshoff (prop, Stormers), Auzqui (prop, Grenoble), Botha (second row, Perpignan), Palmer (second row, not retained), Madaule (back row, Toulouse), Saili (back row, Pau), Audy (scrum half, Oyonnax), Madigan (fly half, Bristol), Beauxis (fly half, Lyon), Ashley-Cooper (wing, Kobelco Steelers), Vakacegu (wing, Biarritz), Buttin (fullback, Lyon), Bruté de Rémur (hooker, loaned to Carcassonne), Requet (second row, Montauban), Labouteley (second row, Perpignan), Edwards (back row, Provence), Wrampling (back row, Massy), Waqaliva (centre, Aurillac), Tuwai (wing, Aurillac), Pilati (fullback, Dax), Chalmers (fly half, not retained)

Brive

Brive’s Gaetan Germain was the top scorer in the regular season last term, scoring 321 points as the Frenchman helped Brive finish 8th. David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images

For the first time since 2008, low-budget Brive start the new season without never-say-die captain Arnaud Mela, who has retired and joined Albi as a coach — taking Patrick Toetu, Will Whetton, Lomualito Tafili, Swan Cormenier and Gymael Jean-Jacques with him. On the new arrivals side, Félix Le Bourhis has joined from Bayonne, and Florian Cazenave has returned from enforced exile in Italy, after French rugby authorities finally rescinded a law that prevented him from playing while wearing protective goggles. Make no mistake, Brive are among the poorest of the Top 14 teams, but what they lack in star power — kicking fullback Gaetan Germain and the promising forward Fabien Sanconnie apart — they more than make up for in sheer hard work.

2016-17 Season finish: 8th

Player to Watch: Gaetan Germain. It’s always Gaetan Germain — the man with the laser-guided howitzer boot, who lands penalties from pretty much anywhere. Cazenave, too, could be an interesting addition to the squad.

Likely finish this season: 11th. Brive habitually bounce around in a limited Top 14 region between eighth and 11th that should be called Brivespace. There’s no reason to assume this season will be any different, as they’re almost impossible to beat at home. But the scale of the Mela effect — or rather its absence — remains to be seen.

In – Johnston (prop, Worcester), Brugnaut (prop, Racing 92), Puafisi (prop, Glasgow), Leleimalefaga (prop, Worcester),Tadjer (hooker, Agen), Lagrange (second row, La Rochelle), Herjean (back row, Narbonne), Marques (scrum half, Toulouse), Cazenave (scrum half, Reggio), Le Bourhis (centre, Bayonne), Romanet (wing, Lyon), Benjamin (hooker, La Rochelle), Lafrancesca (prop, Aix), Domec (second row, Tarbes), Brown (back row, Northampton)

Out – Lavergne (prop, loaned to Angoulême), Pointud (prop, Toulouse), Toetu (prop, Albi), Buys (prop, Oyonnax), Ribes (hooker, retired), Mela (second row, retired, Albi staff), Whetton (back row, Albi), Iribaren (scrum half, Racing 92), Péjoine (scrum half, retired), Cabannes (centre, Mont-de-Marsan), Tuatara-Morrison (centre, Colomiers), Radikedike (wing, not retained), Steenkamp (second row, not retained), Tafili (prop, Albi), Cormenier (prop, Albi), Gymael Jean-Jacques(hooker, Albi), Escorne (hooker, not retained), Brayer (back row, Mont-de-Marsan), Konaté (back row, not retained), Delord (scrum half, Lyon), Queyrel (wing, not retained).

Castres Olympique

Castres relied heavilly on Samoan winger David Smith last term. REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images

Losing Antoine Dupont to Toulouse was a shock, but tough-to-please boss Christophe Urios is in consolidation mode and is just tinkering around the edges of a youth-and-experience squad that he seems generally happy with. Young outside-half Yohan Le Bourhis shows plenty of promise at 10, while Canadian flier Taylor Paris has been brought in from Agen to take some of the try-scoring pressure off David Smith out wide. Visitors to the club please note, Stade Pierre Antoine becomes Stade Pierre Fabre from Sept. 9, in honour of the club’s late former owner.

2016-17 Season finish: 5th — knocked out of the playoffs at the quarterfinal stage

Player to Watch: Anthony Jelonch — following an impressive domestic season, the 20-year-old openside broke into the international squad for the tour to South Africa, but only made it onto the pitch for the French Barbarians match. Now he has a taste for Les Bleus’ jersey, however, expect him to give incumbent Kevin Gourdon a run for his money.

Likely finish this season: 4th. Castres have reached the knockout phases in all but one of the last seven seasons. Having travelled to Toulon and pushed them all the way in the ‘barrage’ match in May, they’ll want home advantage this time around.

In – Radosavljevic (scrum half, Clermont), Clermont (prop, Carcassonne), Domenech (scrum half, Carcassonne), Le Bourhis (fly half, Biarritz), Batlle (wing, Grenoble), Paris (wing, Agen), Firmin (hooker, Dax), Gerbaud (fullback, La Rochelle), Tatre (fly half, Saône Seille), Vaccaro (centre, Toulon)

Out – Mach (hooker, retired), Dupont (scrum half, Toulouse), Seron (scrum half, Carcassonne), Agulla (wing, Hindu), Fontaine (centre, Colomiers), Grolleau (prop, Lavaur), Sentenac (prop, Angoulême), Hannoyer (second row, loaned to Dax), Tanga-Mangene (back row, Agen), Reggiardo (scrum half, Aurillac), Icart (fly half, Vannes), Javaux (fly half, not retained)

Clermont

Clermont will be looking to retain the Top 14 title this season. BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images

Another club with a relatively quiet run through the transfer market. The prospect of Rabah Slimani and Davit Zirakashvili packing down together will send more than just shivers down the rapidly compressing spines of opposition front rows everywhere, as coach Franck Azema adds more scrummaging oomph to go with the terrifying backline. That could feature at some point this season in the same XV: David Strettle, Nick Abendanon, Rémy Grosso, Wesley Fofana, Morgan Parra, Remi Lamerat and Camille Lopez. Not bad.

2016-17 Season finish: Champions, finished 2nd in regular season

Player to Watch: Rémy Grosso. The one-cap winger was always due to move to Clermont this season, but joined from Castres earlier than expected in the middle of the last campaign as injury cover, and adds serious additional hard-running firepower to an already scary backline.

Likely finish this season: 1st in the regular season — and be shocked if Clermont don’t make the final again. They have rediscovered their taste for trophies, after winning the Brennus last season. Expect them to be heavily involved at the business end of the campaign on both domestic and European fronts.

In – Slimani (prop, Stade Français), Uhila (prop, Hurricanes), Laidlaw (scrum half, Gloucester), Betham (centre, Leicester), Falatea (prop, Colomiers), Vili (centre, Brive)

Out – Ric (prop, Lyon), Domingo (prop, Pau), Debaty (prop, Oyonnax), Bardy (back row, Montpellier), Radosavljevic (scrum half, Castres), Stanley (centre, Pau), Planté (wing, Pau), Svimonishvili (prop, not retained), Rude (hooker, Aurillac), L. Lee (back row, Aurillac), Vaz (back row, Aubenas), Sanga (scrum half, Montpellier), Defrance (fly half, Mont-de-Marsan), Fuala’au (wing, not retained), Le Huby (fullback, not retained).

La Rochelle

La Rochelle stunned everyone last season by topping the regular season table. FRANCK PENNANT/AFP/Getty Images

La Rochelle took the ‘little-team-punching-above-their-weight’ title from Castres, finishing the regular campaign seven points clear of second-placed Clermont. Unbeaten at home in the Top 14, they also won four times on the road, breaking a two-year win-drought away from home in the process, to finish on 85 points. But now, everyone knows what to look out for, which makes this effectively the club’s difficult second season. They have recruited well, with late arrival Rene Ranger joining scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow as additions to the Rochelais’ New Zealander ranks. The scrum-half will have a friend at the base of the scrum in Victor Vito, while there will be no language barrier to worry about with either Brock James or Ryan Lamb at 10.

2016-17 Season finish: 1st in regular season, knocked out of playoffs at the semifinal stage

Player to Watch: Gabriel Lacroix. Forget the All Black imports — watch out for the fiery Lacroix. The little winger was, along with Vito, the star of last season at Stade Marcel Deflandre. He’ll be out to prove, once again, that size is not everything.

Likely finish this season: 6th. La Rochelle took just about everyone by surprise last season, but the rest of the Top 14 knows what to look out for now. They will find it hard to match last season’s run, but they should still make the playoffs

In – Orioli (hooker, Toulon), Lamboley (second row, Toulouse), Demotte (second row, Agen), Kerr-Barlow (scrum half, Chiefs), Lamb (fly half, Worcester), Doumayrou (centre, Stade Français), Sinzelle (wing, Stade Français), Bourgarit (hooker, Auch), Jolmes (second row, Grenoble), Alldritt (back row, Auch), Commenge (prop, Toulouse), Ranger (centre, Blues)

Out – Seneca (prop, Nevers), Lagrange (second row, Brive), Cedaro (second row, Agen), Graham (second row, not retained), Le Bail (scrum half, Vannes), Januarie (scrum half, Agen), Holmes (fly half, Toulouse), Lagarde (centre, Vannes), Rawaca (centre, Bayonne), Raikuna (wing, not retained), Popelin (wing, France Sevens squad), Vaslin (prop, Dijon), Butler (prop, Agen), Benjamin (hooker, Brive), Poences (hooker, Angoulême), Edwards (second row, Aurillac), Picquette (second row, Vannes), Destruels (second row, Angoulême), Bendjaballah (back row, Oyonnax), Fuertes (fly half, Oyonnax).

Lyon

Lyon have managed to retain the services of flanker Carl Fearns this summer. JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images

The flow of players from Toulon to Lyon has turned into something of a flood. Another two — Jonathan Pelissie and the never-less-than-impressive Liam Gill are the latest to join the ranks. Alexis Palisson and Albi’s Timilai Rokoduru are something of a mix-and-match on the wing — while Jean-Marcellin Buttin will want to kickstart a career that stalled somewhat when he moved from Clermont to Bordeaux.

2016-17 Season finish: 10th

Player to Watch: Carl Fearns. The tug-of-love between Lyon and Gloucester finally ended in the French club’s favour. No wonder Lyon were so keen to keep the Liverpudlian; this is a player who scored seven tries, made more carries than anyone else in the Top 14, and more metres than any other forward. Grabbing Gill from Toulon was impressive, but this is arguably the deal of the season.

Likely finish this season: 7th. Tough on Lyon, who will be expecting at least one place better, but they will come up agonisingly short.

In – Choirat (prop, Bayonne), Gill (back row, Toulon), Ric (prop, Clermont), Lacombe (hooker, Racing 92), Oosthuizen (second row, Sharks), Roodt (second row, Grenoble), Van der Merwe (second row, Racing 92), Cotte (back row, Bourgoin), Pélissié (scrum half, Toulon), Beauxis (fly half, Bordeaux), Mignot (wing, Grenoble), Palisson (wing, Toulouse), Rokoduru (wing, Albi), Buttin (fullback, Bordeaux), Delord (scrum half, Brive), Dominguez (fly half, Pakuranga), Séguret (centre, Albi), Tarley (wing, Massy), Cotte (back row, Bourgoin), Weiss (prop, Mulhouse)

Out – Botha (prop, Biarritz), Mavinga (prop, Newcastle), Navrozashvili (prop, Albi), Ti’i Paulo (hooker, Tasman), Njewel (second row, Oyonnax), Paulino (second row, Narbonne), Privat (second row, retired), Bonnaire (back row, retired) Tison (back row, Carcassonne), Isa (back row, Toulon), Figuerola (scrum half, retired), Durand (scrum half, retired), Potgieter (fly half, Perpignan), Bonnefond (centre, France Sevens squad), Romanet (wing, Brive), Nalaga (wing, London Irish), Loursac (fullback, retired), Porical (fullback, not retained), Gear (wing, not retained), Mapusua (hooker, not retained), Goux (second row, loaned to Bourgoin), Browning (back row, Oyonnax), Galletier (centre, Montpellier), Clunies-Ross (wing, pas conservé), Huyard (wing, Mont-de-Marsan).

Montpellier

Montpellier look set to compete for the Top 14 title this season — the club have not won the title in their 31 year history. FRANCK PENNANT/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron Cruden. And Ruan Pienaar. And Louis Picamoles. If Montpellier had signed no one else, few fans would have complained. Getting the latter’s signature was a drawn-out and costly affair for club owner Mohed Altrad, so the pressure will be on one of the club’s best-loved prodigal sons to deliver. New coach Vern Cotter has inherited a powerful squad. If he can add some much-needed and long-lost ‘je ne sais quoi’, fans who left in their thousands during the Jake White era will surely return.

2016-17 Season finish: 3rd in the regular season, knocked out of playoffs at the quarterfinal stage

Player to Watch: Yacouba Camara. Probably a surprise, given the big names listed above — but the 23-year-old is one of French rugby’s great Bleu hopes. And the club were so keen to get their man from Toulouse that they have made him one of the highest-paid French players in the Top 14.

Likely finish this season: 2nd in the regular season — and expect a Montpellier vs. Clermont final. This squad, under this coach, demands nothing less.

In – Picamoles (back row, Northampton), Camara (back row, Toulouse), Bardy (back row, Clermont), Pienaar (scrum half, Ulster), Cruden (fly half, Chiefs), Serfontein (centre, Bulls), Kornath (back row, Grenoble), Devergie (back row, returned from loan to Colomiers), Sanga (scrum half, Clermont), G. Galletier (centre, Lyon), N’Gandebe (wing, Massy), Giudicelli (hooker, Lyon), Sese (back row, Stade Francais), Aprasidze (scrum-half, Lelo Saracens)

Out – Bazadze (prop, Agen), Tchale-Watchou (second row, not retained), Qera (back row, Agen), Battut (back row, not retained), Spies (back row, not retained), White (scrum half, Exeter), Catrakilis (fly half, Harlequins), Du Plessis (fly half, returned from loan to Bayonne), O’Connor (wing, not retained), Michel (fullback, not retained), Van Wyk (hooker, not retained), De Coninck (back row, loaned to Biarritz), Wright (scrum half, not retained), Roméra (scrum half, Oyonnax), Van der Merwe (wing, Edinburgh), Nakailagi (wing, not retained), Ishchenko (prop, loaned to Vannes).

Oyonnax

Oyonnox have bounced straight back to the Top 14 after a year away from the top flight. NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images

As you would expect from a promoted side, Oyonnax have been grafting in the transfer market as they bid to build on their instant return to the top flight. Both Rory Grice, from Grenoble, and Curtis Browning, from Lyon, look smart signings, as does ex-Quins centre Matt Hopper, while Vincent Debaty will bring all kinds of gnarly experience to the front row. In fact, expect no quarter given from the pack, who are now coached by freshly retired Canada enforcer Jamie Cudmore.

2016-17 Season finish: Promoted as ProD2 champions

Player to Watch: Matt Hopper. After six years at the Stoop, the 32-year-old centre will want to make the most of his late-career change of scenery.

Likely finish this season: 13th. In previous years, this would have meant an instant return to the second tier, but from this season it involves a playoff against the second side seeking promotion from the ProD2.

In – Buys (prop, Brive), Ceccarelli (prop, Zebre), Debaty (prop, Clermont), Vartanov (prop, Racing 92), Elliot (hooker, Chiefs), Battye (second row, Béziers), Njewel (second row, Lyon), Browning (back row, Lyon), Grice (back row, Grenoble), Audy (scrum half, Bordeaux), Hopper (centre, Harlequins), Giresse (wing, Biarritz), Bendjaballah (back row, La Rochelle), Roméra (scrum half, Montpellier), Fuertes (fly half, La Rochelle), Lasmarrigues (centre, Racing 92), Vial (prop, Bourgoin), Vartanov (prop, Racing 92), Inman (centre, Rebels), Inman (centre, Rebels), Muller (winger, on loan from Toulon)

Out – Greyling (prop, retired), Rapant (prop, not retained), Bordes (hooker, Massy), Cudmore (second row, retired – on staff), De Marco (second row, Agen), Faure (back row, not retained), Swerling (back row, not retained), Cibray (scrum half, Provence), Aziza (scrum half, Narbonne), Taufa (centre, Grenoble), Sheridan (centre, not retained), Vainikolo (wing, Valence), Tawalo (fullback, Biarritz), Metge (fullback, Agen), Halangahu (prop, not retained), Marie (prop, Limoges), Cotet (prop, Aubenas), Chouvet (fly half, Valence), Giordano (centre, Provence).

Pau

Conrad Smith’s time at Pau has been blighted by injuries. IROZ GAIZKA/AFP/Getty Images

Simon Mannix has worked wonders in the two seasons since Pau returned to the top-flight after an absence of nearly a decade. He has built a workmanlike side around the combined All Black talents of Colin Slade and Conrad Smith, while Carl Hayman’s coaching has shored up what was a creaky scrum. Like Azema at Clermont and Urios at Castres, he’s in consolidation mode. Benson Stanley and Frank Halai look the most interesting of the new intake, while Peter Saili will bring some blockbusting go-forward from the back of the scrum.

2016-17 Season finish: 9th

Player to Watch: Peter Saili. There was a lack of impetus off the back of the scrum last season. He’ll be expected to provide plenty.

Likely finish this season: 8th. Pau are starting to look like a good side, but that top six is tough to break into. Like Lyon, they’ll come up just short.

In — Adriaanse (prop, Sharks), Domingo (prop, Clermont), Bouchet (hooker, Grenoble), Foley (second row, Munster), Puech (back row, Colomiers), Saili (back row, Bordeaux), Nicot (centre, Colomiers), Stanley (centre, Clermont), Halai (wing, Wasps), Planté (wing, Clermont), Corato (prop, Auch), Halai (winger, Wasps)

Out – Jacquot (prop, Morlaas), King (prop, retired), Boundjema (hooker, Narbonne), Pierce (second row, not retained), Bernad (back row, not retained), Diarra (back row, not retained), Coughlan (back row, retired), Lacrampe (scrum half, retired), Moa (scrum half, not retained), Fernandez (fly half, Hindu), Ratuvou (wing, not retained), Dupichot (wing, returned from loan to Racing 92), Sclavi (prop, Angoulême).

Racing 92

Racing 92 rescued their campaign last season — can they be more consistent this time around? FRANCK PENNANT/AFP/Getty Images

Monied Racing will be determined to put 2016-17 behind them — though the poor form on tour of big international signing Virimi Vakatawa will concern coaches Labit and Travers. The sevens winger has signed on the dotted line to bolster his experience in the 15-a-side game. It’s experience that cannot come too soon given his importance to the national side — the worry is it may be too little too late. On the other hand, Teddy Iribaren from Brive looks a tidy signing. And landing Donnacha Ryan from Munster was a smart piece of backroom work. But the big news out of 92 Towers is that big Chris Masoe has taken up a backroom role at the club, as defence coach.

2016-17 Season finish: 6th, knocked out of playoffs at the semifinal stage.

Player to Watch: Virimi Vakatawa. See above.

Likely finish this season: 5th. Right at the death, Racing just about rescued what looked certain to be a failed campaign last season. Owner Jacky Lorenzetti and coaches Labit and Travers will expect much better this time around.

In – Johnston (prop, Toulouse), Kakovin (prop, Toulouse), Ryan (second row, Munster), Chouzenoux (back row, Bayonne), Iribaren (scrum half, Brive), Vakatawa (wing, France 7s), Albacete (second row, Toulouse), Dupichot (wing, returned from loan to Pau), Pauvert (centre, Saint-Nazaire), Bienvenu (centre, Toulouse), Maka (back row, Toulouse)

Out – Brugnaut (prop, Brive), Vartanov (prop, Oyonnax), Lacombe (hooker, Lyon), Grobler (second row, Toulon (Gloucester 2018), Van der Merwe (second row, Lyon), Williams (second row, retired), Dubarry (back row Biarritz), Masoe (back row, retired), Missoup (back row, not retained), Hart (scrum half, Munster), Lorée (scrum half, Mont-de-Marsan), Dussartre (centre, Grenoble), Maïau (prop, Grenoble), D’Hooghe (second row, Montauban), Godener (back row, Grenoble), Anon (scrum half, Carcassonne), Robinson (fullback, Bayonne), Lasmarrigues (centre, Oyonnax), Maylon (wing, Angoulême), Bly (wing, Vannes), Reynaert (fullback, Valence).

Stade Francais

Stade Francais were triumphant in the European Rugby Challenge Cup last season. Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

New owner. New general manager. New head coach in charge of a new-look coaching team. New future — when, for a while last season, it looked like there wouldn’t be one for Stade Francais. Given last season’s failed merger woes in Paris, it’s no wonder new signings have been scarce. Argentinian prop monster Ramiro Herrera is a straight swap for Clermont-bound Slimani on the front row, while Otago’s Tony Ensor looks an interesting signing, and Romain Martial has all the experience in the world out on the wing or at fullback. But Greg Cooper will be developing a side almost from scratch — just as predecessor Gonzalo Quesada had to a few years ago. Having to rebuild his front row three weeks from the start of the new season has not helped preparations and nor have doubts over the future of Meyer Bosmann, which have prompted the club to sign Shane Geraghty as cover.

2016-17 Season finish: 7th, European Challenge Cup winners

Player to Watch: Jules Plisson. The flyhalf has apparently been topping up the mercurial to Freddie Michalak levels. When he’s good he can be very, very good. When he’s bad… His long-term international future could well depend on how he does this season.

Likely finish this season: 12th. Similar to his opposite number at Bordeaux, Cooper needs time to build a team. But after the traumas of the last campaign, and the upheaval that followed, he’s starting from a much worse position.

In – Cittadini (prop, Bayonne), McLeod (scrum half, Grenoble), Bouhraoua (scrum half, France Sevens squad), Yobo (centre, Toulon), Martial (wing, Bayonne), El Ansari (prop, Massy), Revert (second row, Toulon), Coville (scrum half, returned from loan to Vannes), Herrera (prop, Jaguares), Meite (back row, Beziers), Ensor (fullback, Otago), Guillermin (prop, Grenoble), Gau (hooker, La Rochelle), Cerqueira (second row, Beziers), Francoz (back row, La Rochelle), Geraghty (centre, Bristol), O’Connor (winger, Montpellier), Fourie (prop, Lions TBC)

Out – Slimani (prop, Clermont), De Malmanche (hooker, not retained), Boutaty (second row, not retained), Mostert (second row, not retained), Papé (second row, retired), Ross (back row, Sale), Lakafia (back row, Toulon), Dupuy (scrum half, retired), Genia (scrum half, Australia – Queensland Reds?), Doumayrou (centre, La Rochelle), Sinzelle (wing, La Rochelle), Ratini (wing, not retained), Bonneval (fullback, Toulon), Seneca (prop, Vannes), Tramon (hooker, Narbonne), Sio (back row, not retained).

Toulon

Toulon’s Mathieu Bastareaud pictured in action as the side lost to Clermont in the playoff final. Can Toulon go one better this season? Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images

Owner Mourad Boudjellal has publicly pledged that the overseas class of 2017 — which includes Fecundo Isa, JP Pietersen, Chris Ashton, Malakai Fekitoa, and [for the moment at least] Edoardo Padovani — will be the last he tries to tempt to the south of France. He is, he says, keen to develop a 100 percent Made in France squad, and wants a homegrown matchday 23 challenging for the title in five years. How that exercise plays out remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt there has been a sea-change in policy, prompted in part by tightening player rules in France. This Toulon squad is younger, fresher and, on the whole, more French than it has been for years. It will be interesting how many of these young, fresh Frenchmen actually get serious game time under new boss Fabien Galthie. In the meantime, watch out for that two-thirds overseas back three of Pietersen, Ashton and Hugo Bonneval. Look out, too, for an occasional appearance from promising young [and French] scrum-half Anthony Meric.

2016-17 Season finish: 4th in the regular season. Losing finalists.

Player to Watch: Chris Ashton. He may be a marmite player, but no one can argue with his try-scoring senses.

Likely finish this season: 3rd in the regular season — playoff semifinalists.

In – Lakafia (back row, Stade Français), Bonneval (fullback, Stade Français), Ashton (winger, Saracens), Nakosi (winger, Agen), Radradra (Ailier, FID, Parramatta Eels), Isa (back row, Lyon), Wisniewski (fly-half, Grenoble), Monribot (back row, Bayonne), McAlister (centre, Toulouse), Pietersen (winger, Leicester), Padovani (fullback, Zèbre), Placid (fullback, Melbourne Rebels), Fekitoa (centre, Highlanders)

Out – Saulo (prop, London Irish), Orioli (hooker, La Rochelle), Smith (back row, Toyota Verblitz), Pélissié (scrum half, Lyon), Bernard (fly half, Biarritz), Gill (back row, Lyon), Giteau (centre, Suntory Sungoliath), Yobo (centre, Stade Français), Barba (wing, St Helens), Mitchell (wing, retired), O’Connor (wing, Sale), Tuilagi (wing, not retained), Halfpenny (fullback, not retained), Goromaru (fullback, Yamaha Júbilo), Revert (second row, Stade Français), Davis (back row, Bayonne), Annetta (back row, loaned to Béziers), Jacquelain (wing, Grenoble).

Toulouse

Toulouse had a dismal season last time around — can they get back to their former glory this season? REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images

Toulouse were a pitiful shadow of their once-mighty selves last season, limping home in 12th, ahead of only the frankly terrible — and relegated — Grenoble and Bayonne. The most important changes have gone on behind the scenes, with club president Rene Bouscatel leaving after a quarter of a century in charge, along with part of the coaching furniture Jean-Baptiste Élissalde, and former sporting director Fabien Pelous moving into a new role. On the pitch, Toulouse’s scragging of scrum-half wunderkind Antoine Dupont from Castres has to go down as a coup — while the mouthwatering prospect of him flicking out bullets to the even younger Romain N’Tamack [son of Emile] in the not-too-distant future suggests that something in the Toulouse garden may actually be rosy.

2016-17 Season finish: 12th

Player to Watch: Antoine Dupont. He can’t just see gaps in the opposition defence before they appear, he can force them open them with the power of his mind. And he has the pace and balance and power to take full advantage.

Likely finish this season: 10th. On paper, the squad looks more balanced, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Toulouse should, at least, look good this season — even if key results don’t go their way.

In -- Pointud (prop, Brive), Ramos (fullback, return from loan to Colomiers), Madaule (back row, Bordeaux), Holmes (flyhalf, La Rochelle), Kolbe (fullback, Stormers), Faumuina (prop, Blues), Dupont (scrumhalf, Castres), Mienie (prop, Cheetahs) Out — Johnston (prop, Racing 92), Steenkamp (prop, retired), Kakovin (prop, Racing 92), Tolofua (hooker, Saracens), Albacete (second row, Racing 92), Lamboley (second row, La Rochelle), Camara (back row, Montpellier), Dusautoir (back row, retired), Marques (scrum half, Brive), Flood (fly half, Newcastle), McAlister (fly half, Toulon), Palisson (wing, Lyon), Pirlet (prop, loaned to Narbonne), Tebaldini (scrumhalf, Narbonne), Bienvenu (centre, Racing 92).

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/20359760/top-14-2017-18-season-preview-team-team-guide-new-french-club-season
Top 14: Team-by-team season preview
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