Of the 201 confirmed new arrivals at France’s Top 14 clubs this summer, 59 are overseas players.
Not all those 59 are new to the French game. The headlines focus on big-name arrivals: drooling over Montpellier’s mega-money signing Aaron Cruden and his shiny new halfback partnership with South African Ruan Pienaar; the Toulon reconnection with Ma’a Nonu for All Black Malakai Fekitoa; or La Rochelle’s double-dip into the New Zealand talent pool for Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Rene Ranger.
Sixteen of those 59 overseas players are heading to the two promoted clubs – Agen and Oyonnax, who between them account for 48 of the 201 new contracts.
In reverse order, here are the top seven freshly contracted overseas players who fans should watch out for when new Top 14 campaign kicks off on August 26.
7 Donnacha Ryan – Munster to Racing 92
Munster fans are still sitting around wondering how their imposing second row was allowed to leave for a Parisian twilight – especially as he could line up against them in the Champions Cup. Ryan has been part of the Munster furniture since 2004, and there was widespread disbelief – and much dismayed pointing at Jamie Heaslip’s shiny new deal – when Ryan was overlooked for a new central contract, especially after his performances against New Zealand in November and during the Six Nations. Ireland and Munster’s loss is very definitely Racing’s gain. Ryan was back at the peak of his powers last season, following a couple of injury-ridden years. In February, he said he admired former team-mate Donncha O’Callaghan’s longevity. He may yet emulate the man.
6 Liam Gill – Toulon to Lyon
One of the internal moves. Liam Gill was among Toulon’s best players of last season. That would make the 25 year old backrower’s departure after one season of a two-year deal surprising – were it not for the fact that the club has also signed Facundo Isa, Raphaël Lakafia and Jean Monribot. With Charles Ollivon and Duane Vermeulen also on the books and Juandre Kruger agreeing a one-year extension, backrow stocks are high at Stade Mayol. Despite some fine performances in 23 matches, including 19 starts, Gill – not helped by his nationality – was deemed surplus to requirements. It’s a decision the club may come to regret.
5 Charlie Faumuina – Blues to Toulouse
It’s unlikely the All Blacks will miss Charlie Faumuina, such are the riches across the front row in New Zealand. No wonder, then, that the 50-cap Faumuina (the majority from off the bench) has decided to take a shot at an overseas career. Despite casting himself aside of the international reckoning, the mobile, powerful 30-year-old, who can play on either side of the front row, still has plenty of mileage in him. He will be key to head coach Ugo Mola’s rebuilding plans following a disappointing 2016/17 season, which saw the four-time European champions miss out on qualification for the top-tier competition for the first time in their history.
4 Chris Ashton – Saracens to Toulon
Old marmite is back. Whether you love him, loathe him, or just think he’s a showboating idiot, no-one can deny Toulon have bagged a winger with an eye for the tryline. No player has scored more tries in European competition (37 tries in 57 Champions Cup games, and six in seven Challenge Cup outings), and his continuing enforced international exile – he has not worn an England shirt since 2014, despite scoring 19 times in 39 matches – that finally prompted him to head to France is mystifying. With Ashton on one wing and Josua Tuisova on the other, sandwiching Ma’a Nonu and Malakai Fekitoa in midfield, Top 14 try-scoring records will be in serious danger. Meanwhile, the ‘Ash Splash’, you’ll be pleased to know, has a Gallic twist – it’s now called simply Le Splash.
3 Malakai Fekitoa – Highlanders to Toulon
There is an argument – made on Rugby Pass previously – that the 25-year-old Tongan-born World Cup-winning All Black centre has never quite lived up to his potential. He was earmarked as a natural-born successor to Conrad Smith – but the strength in depth New Zealand boast in midfield, with Sonny Bill Williams and Anton Lienert-Brown currently hanging on to the 12 and 13 shirts, halted his accession in its tracks. Reuniting with old hand Ma’a Nonu as part of a frightening set of backs at Toulon could well be the remaking of Fekitoa.
2 Aaron Cruden – Chiefs to Montpellier
The 28-year-old New Zealand fly-half effectively called time on his international career by signing a three-year deal with ambitious Montpellier worth a reported €800,000 a year, making him the second-highest earner in the Top 14, behind Racing 92’s Dan Carter. He will team up with another player on this list, South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, to make what bears an uncanny resemblence to a near-perfect partnership at that all-important axis.
1 Carl Fearns – Lyon to Lyon
Not so much a move as a u-turn, but arguably the signing of the year. Early last season it seemed certain Fearns was heading out of the door. The Liverpudlian agreed a three-year deal at Gloucester in November. Then, doubt crept in. Maybe it was uncertainty that overtook the club in southwest England during Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad’s unsuccessful takeover bid and the changes at the top that followed that prompted Fearns’ change of heart. Maybe it was the money, though the player has vociferously insisted it was not. Whatever the reason, Lyon have kept hold of an explosive backrower, who scored seven tries last season, carried more times than any other player in the Top 14 and made more metres than any other forward.
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