James Harrington nominates his Top 14 all-stars XV for a fantasy match against Dan Johansson’s all-star Premiership side
There are just three matches left in the seemingly never-ending Top 14 season, which means it’s time for an almost but not quite entirely definitive, but very definitely completely and totally British and Irish Lions-free team of the season.
15 Brice Dulin – Racing 92
Gaetan Germain fans may feel a little aggrieved that their favourite kicking sniper with a howitzer where his foot should be misses out. But the fact is Dulin’s attacking threat, and his ability to melt defences quicker than a white-hot ballbearing in soft butter, sets him apart from the rest of the French fullback crowd.
14 Gabriel Lacroix – La Rochelle
The future is XXXL, if England coach Eddie Jones is to be believed. La Rochelle – and, hopefully sooner rather than later France, may disagree. If they do, they will most likely point, with a slight downward angle, to 1m71 (5ft 7in) winger with an inbuilt whitewash radar Gabriel Lacroix as evidence. What he lacks in size, he more than makes up for in try-scoring ability … and he’s not the worst defender in the world, either.
13 Remi Lamerat – Clermont
Bam-Bam Lamerat had already proved there’s more to his already pretty decent game than just blitzing over or through defenders before moving to Clermont. But fitting into the most destructive and cutting backline in the Top 14 has brought out the very best in him.
12 Ma’a Nonu
This has been Wesley Fofana’s slot by right and privilege – and talent – for years. But he’s injured, so others have a chance. And what better stand-in than a double World Cup winner? After copping some justified criticism at the start of his pension-padding period at Toulon, he has put in some serious shift in the red and black.
11 Djibril Camara – Stade Francais
Jonny May is made entirely of knees; Josua Tuisova is barely constrained power on the move; George North is all snarling energy. All are very effective wingmen. Stade’s Camara is pure liquid grace. Quicksilver liquid grace. And he’s no less effective.
10 Colin Slade – Pau
It’s a measure of how much Slade means to Pau that they came unstuck almost as soon as he began a season-ending stand-down for concussion. With the boot, or with ball in hand, he was ever dangerous. His axis with Conrad Smith briefly shot the southwest club into the play-off places.
9 Antoine Dupont – Castres Olympique
Bordeaux’s permashrug scrum-half Baptiste Serin may be pure, undiluted Gallic insouciance behind the scrum. But Dupont is a natural-born gamechanger, who can apparently peel open gaps in opponents’ defences by the power of his mind. Some of the things he does should be declared illegal.
1 Antoine Tichit – Castres Olympique
One of those great mysteries in rugby life – up there with referee John Lacey – is how Antoine Tichit has failed to win an international call-up. France’s loss is Castres’ gain, as they benefit from the still-developing skills of a loosehead monster.
2 Mickaël Ivaldi – Lyon
Like all front-rowers, Lyon’s go-to number two looks like he had the toughest of paper rounds as a kid. Despite appearances, he’s only 27. And he’s been a major part of a scrummaging unit that has been instrumental in keeping Lyon in the top flight. Great in the tight. Just as good in the loose, in another lifetime he may even have won some international caps by now.
3 Davit Zirakashvili – Clermont
Born to prop. Enough said. At 33, the Georgian scrum-muncher with a wrestling background may even have one more World Cup in him.
4 Luke Jones – Bordeaux
A thoroughly modern lock, the Australian has proved there’s little he can’t do during the first season of his two-year deal with Bordeaux. He even looked good during that darkly comical period at the turn of the year when the club couldn’t win a game, even if they kicked off the night before.
5 Leone Nakarawa – Racing 92
Six-foot-plenty of pure Fijian rugby brilliance. Stepping into the sizeable shoes of Luke Charteris and Juandré Kruger at Racing would have been a problem for most players. But the prospect didn’t even faze Nakarawa, who just continued playing Olympic gold medal-winning sevens rugby pretty much all season – and damn those who tried to play the 15-man game around him.
6 Fulgence Ouedraogo – Montpellier
It’s a tribute to his character that Oeudraogo kept turning up for Montpellier despite his shoddy treatment at the hands of Jake White. It’s a tribute to his talent that he out-blindsided Toulouse’s Thierry Dusautoir for most of the season.
7 Victor Vito – La Rochelle
Good – better – best – Victor Vito. That’s the English translation of an Academie Francais-approved* superlative ladder that will be taught in French schools from September. Even La Rochelle, despite their heaven-sent season, missed him when he wasn’t there. Case in point: the Challenge Cup semi-final against Gloucester, that they really, really should have won.
8 Carl Fearns – Lyon
Tries, tackles, line-breaks, the lot. Fearns has to be close to the best signing Lyon have made in years. No wonder Gloucester want him. No wonder Lyon want to keep him. The will-he, won’t-he saga of Fearns’ return to the Premiership – or not – is even more convoluted than the reverse-trip Louis Picamoles story. Whoever does win the tug-of-love for Fearns has one hell of a player.
*not approved by the Academie Francais
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