Six teams and five matches remain in the race for the French championship’s Bouclier de Brennus – but the regular Top 14 season is now over. James Harrington reviews each club’s campaign
Contrary to usual practice and convention, everyone loves this particular fearless Top 14 over-achiever. The genuine surprise package of the season beat all-comers to finish the regular season seven points clear of second-placed Clermont. And they did it with smiles on their faces – and with one of the league’s lowest playing budgets (they rank 12th on the spending list, if you must know). The fear is they may be coming off the boil at the business end of the season. They horlicksed home advantage against Gloucester in the Challenge Cup semi final, and a three-week break before their next outing – a small and meaningless Top 14 play-off semi in Marseille – could actually work against them.
Once again, Clermont are where they should be at the end of the regular Top 14 season, competing for major honours on two fronts. Once again, there’s that nagging fear they’ll come unstuck in both Europe and France. They have been here before. In 2015, they reached the finals of both tournaments. They lost both, prompting club president Eric De Cromieres to write an open letter of apology to fans. He will not want to write another one. At least this year, Clermont have a week off after the European Cup final in Edinburgh to recover, win or lose.
How Jake White would love French rugby’s big prize to sign off his two-and-a-half seasons at Montpellier with a metaphorical Andrew Mehrtens-style gesture. His win-first, impress-later policy has won silverware, in the shape of last season’s Challenge Cup, but it hasn’t won hearts and minds in France. It’s a shame he left it so late to realise that big can also be beautiful, as his monster-sized team started playing some brutally stunning rugby in the latter part of this season. A semi-final trip along the south coast to Marseille should be in the bag. But quarter-final opponents Racing will be poring over videos of the weekend’s match against Stade Francais with interest. Few have come as close to winning at the Altrad this Top 14 season as the Paris side. There may be clues, there.
As in England, so in France. A double helping of blood on the managers’ carpet stains a troubled season that has ended – more by sheer will than good judgement – in fourth, the play-offs, and a seat at Europe’s top table next season. Toulon remain a shadow of their former galactico selves – but now Mourad’s finally got his man in incoming director of rugby Fabien Galthie, can we expect better things from Toulon next season? One thing’s for sure, the rugby will be sexier. But first, a home play-off quarter-final against Castres under rather more abrasive temporary head coach Richard Cockerill – another who’s probably quietly daydreaming about hand gestures of a certain kind towards his former employers at Leicester, if Toulon win the title.
The Christophe Urios project sounds like a ropey 70s prog rock band. But at the end of its second season, this project seems to be working at Castres. The side Urios inherited when he arrived from Oyonnax at the end of the 2014/15 season had avoided relegation to the ProD2 only by the application of advanced Top 14 mathematics. In his first season in charge, they finished the regular season in sixth. This season, they’re fifth and Urios was, publicly at least, unimpressed with their Champions Cup campaign.
Credit where it’s due. After compiling the dictionary definition of a season from hell, Racing pulled themselves back from the edge of post-title-winning embarrassment to sneak into the play-offs at the death. But it took the failed merger bomb to inject anything approaching life on the pitch. Until that rugby world-shaking announcement, they looked lethargic and lumpen and ready for any excuse to give up on a game. But four wins from the final five matches saved their campaign. Just. Jacky Lorenzetti will expect much better next time. As will fans and neutrals.
Seventh in the Top 14, and a Challenge Cup final in their immediate future. At one point, not so very long ago, both seemed well beyond Stade Francais’ reach. But coach Gonzalo Quesada’s final season before he takes over at Biarritz next season will extend beyond the 26 of a regular campaign. Win or lose the Challenge Cup showpiece in Edinburgh against Gloucester on Friday, Stade still have a play-off route to the Champions Cup, courtesy of that seventh position. As for the future – new coach, new president, new owner. Interesting times ahead at Stade.
Anywhere between eighth and 10th seems to be Brive’s preferred end-of-season position. And they have managed it again. Which is nice.
The double loss of World Cup winners Colin Slade and Conrad Smith to injuries as the run-in gathered pace hit Pau harder than they’d care to admit. And more than they were able to hide. A winning run just after Christmas saw them leap into the play-off places, but they lost their way when the Slade-Smith axis was removed. A shame. They promised so much. Next season, maybe.
Perennial yo-yo side Lyon have, this time, managed to avoid relegation this season after winning promotion at the end of the last one. And it was reasonably comfortable, too, but a last-game hammering at relegated Grenoble will really hurt. Now, the side with the sixth-largest budget in the Top 14 – more than Pau, Brive, Castres, Montpellier, and La Rochelle, who all finished above them this season – have to push on to greater heights.
There’s no wonder president Laurent Marti’s patience ran out with charismatic head coach Raphael Ibanez midway through the season. While the club were in a post-Christmas freefall, the man in charge spent several punditry duty awaydays with French Six Nations broadcaster France 2. The result: Ibanez announced he was leaving at the end of the season, and spent the remaining matches of his tenure sulking behind a laptop in the stands. The club routinely attracts 30,000 crowds to Stade Chaban Delmas, and Marti believes they deserve better. He’s right, too. Bordeaux should be a top-six side. Anything less is unacceptable. For too long, Bordeaux – and Rafa, who was once a strong favourite for the France job – have delivered less.
For a club that regards a top-six finish and Champions Cup rugby as a divine right, 12th place and a Challenge Cup future is about as rude an awakening as it’s possible to get. But, maybe, they have finally realised that other sides, with smaller budgets and squads, are better at this game than they are. And there’s money trouble in Toulouse, too. Reports in France say that finances are so tight – and employment law so red-tapey – that head coach Ugo Mola kept his job only because getting rid of him was beyond the club’s means. To be fair to Mola, he inherited many of the problems that came home to roost all at the same time this season. But it doesn’t alter the fact that change is badly needed. Fortunately, change is afoot. It may just take a season or three to take root. So the question is: what are patience levels like at the club? There’ll be a new president in place by the time the new season kicks off, so the answer is … uncertain.
For several seasons, a standard Top 14 campaign for Grenoble ran as follows: Fair-to-middling, bordering on the occasionally decent until about Christmas, before falling away to lower-mid-table mediocrity in the second-half of the season. This season, they didn’t bother with the pre-Christmas bit, so the by the time the second-half decline arrived, they were already deep in the relegation mire. And it just didn’t get better. A final-weekend hammering of arch-Alpine rivals Lyon at least gave fans something to cheer about before they start contemplating the prospect of ProD2 rugby.
Beyond dismal and well on the road to abject. There is literally nothing good to say about Bayonne’s season. It started badly, got worse, suffered a bit of a dip, and then stalled completely before plumbing new depths. There have been worse Top 14 performances, but not many.
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