Things are moving fast at ambitious Top 14 side Pau – or Section Paloise, to give the club its Sunday name.
Three seasons ago, Simon Mannix’s side won the Pro D2 so easily that to use the canter cliche would suggest an inaccurately high expulsion of effort on their part.
Suffice to say, they started recruiting for their first season in the Top 14 since 2006 more than a month before the end of the regular season. And, yes, that meant they were able to tempt World Cup-fresh All Blacks Conrad Smith and Colin Slade to their ranks.
They finished a perfectly respectable 11th in their first season back in the French top flight.
— Section Paloise (@SectionPaloise) July 30, 2017
But they did not rest on their laurels. The following season, last season, was even better. Three weeks from the end of the regular 2016/17 campaign, the club in the shadow of the Pyrenees in southwest France, occupied a sought-after play-off place, ahead of more illustrious sides such as Stade Francais, Bordeaux, Racing 92, or troubled Toulouse.
They fell away at the end, however, to finish ninth, five points off the pace, as injuries to key players – including both Slade and Smith – took their toll.
That Mannix and his cohorts were devastated with their run-in performance reveals the ambition of the club – and the on-field vision is being matched off the pitch.
More savvy recruitment means Slade, Smith, Dan Ramsay, Jamie Mackintosh and Tom Taylor, who joined from Toulon at the start of last season, will be joined by fellow New Zealanders Benson Stanley, Franck Halai and Peter Saili.
Mannix is also keen to point out the homegrown talent in the club – mentioning boys from the Bearn stuff Quentin Lespiaucq, Thibault Daubagna and Bastien Pourailly in dispatches when quizzed on the number of All Blacks populating key playing positions. Big things are expected this season of young stars Lespiaucq and Daubagna, in particular.
Beyond the white lines, the club’s ambitions are equally apparent. Work is almost finished on expanding Stade du Hameau from 14,000 to 18,500 seats, to complement the still shiny new training complex that was inaugurated at the beginning of last season. The expansion includes new changing rooms and improved hospitality suites.
Now, the team has to standards demanded by the facilities.
As ever, Mannix is coy about his side’s chances. “If we work well, we will play well and we will win our games,” he told Rugbyrama recently. But he – as well as club bosses and fans – wants Pau to challenge for the top six finish, and the play-off place and European Champions Cup qualification that goes with it.
It will be tough. At least 10 sides, including Pau, have serious and genuine top six ambitions going into the new campaign. And the club have to tighten up in defence so they don’t lose as often at home – they gave up four points on their own turf four times last season.
How Pau’s season shakes out will depend on turning the attractive Hameau into a fortress.
— Section Paloise (@SectionPaloise) July 29, 2017
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