Almost 11 months after it kicked off, Castres Olympique were crowned Top 14 champions as the final whistle blew on French rugby’s epicly long season at Stade de France. So, without any further ado, here is the Rugby Pass Top 14 team of the season.
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15 Julien Dumora (Castres) – Once, Dumora was regarded among opposition sides as a costly error waiting to happen. No more. Solid and brave in defence, and liquid danger in attack, he scored 12 times for his club this season – including the opener in the Top 14 final against Montpellier. Deserves his call-up to the French Barbarians.
14 Chris Ashton (Toulon) – A record-breaking 24 Top 14 tries in a single season, selected here in his preferred position rather than at fullback where he has also been pretty decent. It was far from a bad opening-campaign effort from the rookie. Have you been watching Eddie Jones?
13 Henry Chavancy (Racing 92) – Rugby purists will frown on having two battering rams in midfield, and rightly so as the game needs silk to go with the steel, but Chavancy and Bastareaud both have subtlety to go with their brute force, and the Racing man rarely has a bad game
12 Mathieu Bastareaud (Toulon) – Since taking the captain’s armband from Duane Vermeulen, Bastareaud has done nothing wrong and almost everything very right. His recall to the French squad was utterly justified and grabbed with both hands. Set to captain France on their tour of New Zealand.
11 Semi Radradra (Toulon) – While he prefers a central role, the Fijian is more than capable of doing a job on the wing, and is so hungry for work, he will pop up just about anywhere, frequently providing the break and offload for Ashton to score. No doubt Alivereti Raka would be challenging for this spot, if he’d stayed fit.
10 Ben Botica (Oyonnax) – Finished top of the Top 14 points-scorers’ list with 311 – 55% of his side’s season total of 566, and almost but not quite nearly single-handedly saved Oyonnax from relegation. Not all heroes are winners. Castres’ Benjamin Urdapilleta close to stealing Botica’s spotlight with a near-perfect second-half to the season and a personal 19-point haul in the final.
9 Baptiste Couilloud (Lyon) – A tough position to call in France right now, with Parra, Machenaud, Dupont and Serin all serious challengers for the international shirt when fit, with the likes of Coville and Meric hard on their heels. But the young Lyon 9 shades it for a fantastic breakthrough season. In the France Barbarians squad for the June tour, but must have been close to the main series in New Zealand.
7 Mathieu Babillot (Castres) – The Castres backrower, vice-captain of his club at just 24, is equally comfortable on either side of the scrum and will do what needs to be done from first whistle to last.
8 Victor Vito (La Rochelle) – Mr Consistent in an inconsistent season of two halves for the Rochelais. He was brilliant when the club was brilliant in the opening months, as they raced to the Champions Cup quarter-finals at the first time of asking. And he remained brilliant when they stuttered in the second half of the season.
6 Liam Gill (Lyon) – Although he can play 7, the abrasive Gill, a player who never knowingly takes a backward step has impressed most on the other side of the backrow since joining Lyon from Toulon. Mourad Boudjellal must regret letting him go.
5 Leone Nakarawa (Racing 92) – European player of the year. The gamechangers’ gamechanger. Ludicrously talented and immensely powerful, with an engine that will run all day.
4 Felix Lambey (Lyon) – A player who is still trekking along the foothills of his mountainous potential. If he stays fit, he could be a big part of the answer to a long-running engine-room problem in French rugby.
3 Rabah Slimani (Clermont) – Some referees and opposition loosies may not like him, but it’s hard to imagine there’s a more destructive tighthead in world rugby.
2 Adrien Pélissié (Bordeaux) – Jacques Brunel looked way down the established hooker pecking order when he plucked Pélissié from relative obscurity as injury cover during the Six Nations. The Bordeaux man did not let his former club boss down – and he’s done enough to get a seat on the plane to New Zealand.
1 Dany Priso (La Rochelle) – A mere 1.82 and 110kg, Priso is a streamlined prop with a razor-sharp beard who’s solid in the scrums and rapid and useful in the loose – a by-product of his youth when he played either in the backrow or at centre.
Coach – Christophe Urios (Castres) Urios took Castres from sixth at the end of the regular season to champions in the space of three post-season weeks, beating third-placed Toulouse at Toulouse, second-placed Racing in the semi-final in Lyon, and near-permanent table-toppers Montpellier in Paris to lift the Bouclier du Brennus. He’s a coach whose star has long been on the rise in France – and, now, he’s heading to New Zealand to coach the France Barbarians – before returning to Castres for the final year of a four-year contract … and major interest from bigger clubs.
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