Unlike the Aviva Premiership, which sensibly waits until the Rugby World Cup has been and gone, the Top 14 kicks off on 21 August for what will be a ridiculously long season lasting some ten months.
Last season saw one of the most competitive campaigns for years with only Lyon having nothing to play for on the final day. So what does the season ahead offer?
Once again, the battle to stay up is likely to be as interesting as that for the play-off places with one or two teams possibly figuring in both until late in the season.
The usual suspects should be in the mix for the top two positions as well as the remaining places in the post season games with, perhaps, the most pressure being on Bordeaux Begles to finally live up to their potential.
Much interest will be focused on last season’s runaway ProD2 winner, Pau (or Section Paloise Bearn Pyrenees to give them their full name) and how they perform with the big boys especially after a number of impressive signings.
Will Racing 92 start to deliver under the great Dan Carter or will they continue to be the white elephant of the league? How about Montpellier and their much changed squad hoping to erase the memories of a hugely disappointing 2014-2015 which saw the departure of Fabien Galthie and the arrival of Jake White?
Are Castres likely to continue to struggle or will the arrival of the outstanding coach of the past two season, Christophe Urios from Oyonnax, transform their fortunes as they hope? And what of Oyonnax? Undoubtedly the good news story of the season just gone, will they maintain their impressive form on their new plastic pitch?
Here are my thoughts on the prospects team by team together with my predicted end of season positions:
Promoted after a dramatic extra time ProD2 play-off win over Perpignan, they are likely to be in the relegation mix and almost everybody’s favourites to go back down. Stranger things have happened but a team of journeymen are likely to struggle against most teams unless they can rapidly forge an Oyonnax style team spirit and turn the Stade Armandie into a fortress.
A club with huge support, stable finances, a promising young coach and a great squad. It is something of a mystery that they could only manage a Champions Cup spot with a 7th place play-off win over Gloucester. Surely this is the season they start to realise the massive potential especially having signed players of the calibre of Adam Ashley-Cooper and Loann Goujon amongst a number of good looking arrivals.
Survived by the skin of their teeth last season albeit with a hugely impressive 27-0 win over champions to be, Stade Francais. They should remain difficult to beat in front of their own fans but, again, seem destined for a long hard winter and a nail biting spring. This may be the season their luck runs out.
Only a late run of form saved them from the ignominy of relegation a year after contesting the Top 14 final and two years after being champions. The arrival of Christophe Urios should help transform their fortunes together with the arrival of Benjamin Urdapilleta from his old club Oyonnax and free scoring David Smith from Toulon though the loss of Remi Tales to Racing 92 and Thomas Combezou to La Rochelle may be sorely felt. Will survive but not without having to look over their shoulders.
Once they have stopped scratching their heads, and wondering how they managed to lose another final, Clermont will knuckle down and get on with winning regular season games. No longer unbeatable at home but still not likely to lose there too often, a squad enhanced by the addition of David Strettle and Scott Spedding amongst others should comfortably make the top two. As with Toulon, the RWC and a long run in the Champions Cup are unlikely to help their ambitions to be champions come play-off time but they should still be there or thereabouts.
A team that flatters to deceive or a sleeping giant? It’s difficult to tell. No summer signings to set the heart racing but a solid squad, they shouldn’t find themselves in the position they were last season when they came within a whisker of last day relegation. Unlikely to seriously threaten the top 6 but should manage mid-table mediocrity.
One or two additions to a squad that performed well enough in the last campaign should see La Rochelle reward their large and colourful support with a season that offers no threat of relegation but little chance of a play-off place. A good run in the Challenge Cup may be highlight of the season.
Eleven South Africans and counting have been added to the squad during the off season by Jake White. A huge turnover of staff may mean that it takes some time for them to gel but they really can’t be as mediocre as last season when Fabien Galthie departed mid-season to be replaced by White. If they ignore the Challenge Cup they may have enough to just scrape into the play-offs but it will be touch and go.
To the surprise and delight of many, the departed Christophe Urios led small town Oyo to the play-offs last season. They now have a new coach and a much changed squad as well as the Champions Cup and a new plastic pitch to contend with. Sad to say that this season may be a long hard struggle.
Runaway winners of ProD2 last season. Simon Mannix has recruited impressively over the summer bringing in Conrad Smith, Colin Slade, Julian Pierre and Euan Murray amongst others. They should stay up but probably won’t contend for a play-off place.
They’ve dropped the ‘Metro’ but it’s the same ‘old’ club. I say old as their recruitment policy can hardly be described as being based on youth. Quality players, sure, but they may feel the effects of a long season. Perennial under achievers, this season will be no different. They may find that the reward for what appears to be a short term fix is that Challenge Cup rugby will be played at their new stadium the season after next.
Surprise champions last season, they have chosen quality over quantity in their summer recruitment. The stand out arrivals are Will Genia and Willem Alberts but there appears to be a significant lack of depth outside the scrum and half backs. The return from a season long injury of Hugo Bonneval will be a boost but this season promises to be a struggle not least because the scrum (which was the platform for their success last season) will be most of the tight five including replacements. Were it not for the RWC I would have expected the improvement under Gonzalo Quesada to continue but not this year.
Despite the loss of Botha, Williams, Hayman, Masoe, Catrogiovani, Smith, Claassens and Sanchez, the European champions appear to have strengthened their squad! Nonu, Monoa, O’Connor, Ollivon, O’Connell, Vermeulen and, who knows, maybe even Quade Cooper, will arrive to keep the machine moving. They have more than enough personnel to see themselves through the RWC and the Champions Cup. But they are not unbeatable and may find that another long European campaign takes a little too much out of them domestically.
A new coach, rumoured financial issues, little in the way of recruitment. Not the Toulouse that once bestrode European rugby but perhaps the very reason that they will be comfortably in the play-offs again and looking at a home game in the quarter-finals. Unlikely to seriously threaten the top two but if they can replicate their form of the second half of last season they should cruise through the coming season.
As to who will be crowned champions, long European campaigns and international call ups may again mitigate against the best team emerging victorious in Barcelona next June. I’ll stick my neck out and plump for Bordeaux-Begles to win their first championship as a merged club and the first for one or other of them for 25 years.
So there we have it. Only time will tell whether I am right or wrong but one thing I think I can safely say is that it won’t be dull!