New Zealand’s undoubted and, in some ways, unrivalled rugby system produces some of the most intelligent and lethal talent that have ever graced the game. With the introduction of professionalism in the late 20th century, products from this system have fanned out around the world in the quest for fame and fortune.
In France, the premier division, the Top 14, has evolved into the wealthiest club competition on the planet. With massive financial investment and fanatical crowds it has attracted many top class players from all corners of the globe to create a championship teeming with incredible rugby ability.
With so much economic strength, the Top 14 squads are overrun with foreign internationals; the French rugby football union (FFR) has called for quota systems to prevent a decline in exposure to the top flight of French qualified players. For now however, the power stays on the continent...
After seven seasons with Welsh outfit the Cardiff Blues, four times capped All Black Ben Blair joins SU Agen for the forthcoming season. The 33 year old fullback moves to a club which finished tenth last season and boasts former Hurricanes prop John Schwalger in its ranks.
South west from Agen is Aviron Bayonnais, which, being only one place above the drop zone last season, was the destination of All Blacks Neemia Tialata and Josevata Rokocoko after the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand. Not five miles down the D810 at the Stade Aguilera are Basque rivals and 2012 Challenge cup winners Biarritz Olympique. Boasting a raft of French internationals, and lead by the beautifully named no.8 Imanol Harinordoquy, Biarritz finished disappointingly in mid-table last season. With Waipukurau born fly-half Matt Berquist arriving from European Champions Leinster this season, Biarritz will look to emulate the French championship winning teams of 2005 and 2006.
One place above Biarritz last season was the newly promoted amalgamation team of Union Bordeaux-Begles. Formed from Stade Bordelais and Club Athletique in 2006, Bordeaux only gained top flight status after winning the 2010 Pro D2 playoffs from fifth position. Whilst the squad contains a few lesser known Kiwis, 25 year old Lachie Munro joins the Bordeaux club from Northland and the Blues.
Two hundred miles south-east of Bordeaux takes Hurricanes fly-half Daniel Kirkpatrick into the heart of French rugby and to the 106 year old club of Castres Olympique. The 23 year old from Napier joins a team containing Tongan born All Black prop Saimone Taumoepeau, and ex-pat Karena Wihongi who also lines up in the front row. Whilst Castres finished fourth last season, they were knocked out in the semi-finals against eventual champions Toulouse. With another young fly-half from France in the roster, Kirkpatrick will have a battle on his hands to cement his place at standoff during the season ahead.
ASM Clermont Auvergne welcomes Benson Stanley to the centre of France to join fellow New Zealanders Kevin Senio, Regan King, Sitiveni Sivivatu and coach Vern Cotter. With the French halves pairing of Morgan Parra and David Skrela, the last decade’s perennial Top 14 finalists look to go at least a step further than last year after elimination to championship runners- up, Toulon.
Another title hopeful, Montpellier Herault Rugby, boast one of the more ‘French’ squads in the competition. Although sprinkled with Argentineans, the roster also includes former Kiwi rugby league centre Shontayne Hape. The England rugby union International moves to the Mediterranean city of Montpellier from London Irish after ten years in the UK.
Down the coast, Catalan club USA Perpignan have showed their intent by signing barnstorming Chiefs prop Sona Taumalolo and former Taranaki centre Lifeimi Mafi. The Tongans will add significant power to a side looking to do much better than their eleventh place finish last term. They join a massive influx of internationals to the Stade Aime Giral with the likes of Luke Charteris (Wales), Luke Narraway (England), Daniel Leo (Samoa) and Alasdair Strokosch (Scotland) adding to established players in veteran French prop Nicolas Mas and Welsh maestro James Hook.
Representing the only northern teams in the competition, Racing Metro 92 and Stade Francais Paris are also the first clubs to compete in the French Championship, dating back to 1892. Where Stade Francais have had a decorated history, being champions three times in the last decade alone, Racing have dabbled with the second division since the merger of founding club Racing Club de France (Est 1890) and US Metro in 2001. However, last season saw Racing sneak into the top six where Stade Francais finished six points worse off in seventh. With former Chiefs’ hooker Aled de Malmanche and Aucklander Paul Williams in the side, Stade Francais will look to re-establish themselves back at the top with the cream of the division.
Amongst those top teams is RC Toulonnais which, in recent seasons, has invested heavily to bring quality players to the beautiful coastal city of Toulon. With All Blacks Carl Hayman and Chris Masoe in the side, Toulon is peppered with quality throughout the squad where Coach Bernard Laporte can choose from Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau or 2012 Super 15 finalist Frederic Michalak at fly-half alone. This season Toulon should go one step further and win the championship after the narrow 18-12 loss to Toulouse in last year’s final.
Current champions Stade Toulousain will be vying to make it three on the trot after also winning the title in 2010. French captain and tackling legend Thierry Dusautoir leads an virtual shadow national team which includes thirty times capped All Black Luke McAlister at fly-half. McAlister is in his second season with the French giants and should retain his number one status over fellow pivot Lionel Beauxis after kicking all his sides’ points in the final last term.
With CA Brive and Lyon OU relegated to the second division, the Top 14 welcomes Pro D2 champions FC Grenoble and play-off winners Stade Montois. Come June 2013, who will be on top and who will be getting used to life outside of France’s premier rugby competition?
- © Fairfax NZ News
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