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FEATURE A bluffer's guide to French teams in the Champions Cup

A bluffer's guide to French teams in the Champions Cup
7 months ago

European rugby is back. Is it possible that you haven’t paid too much attention to the rugby that’s been happening in France? Do not fear! We’ve got you covered. This guide will allow you to get a head-start as the first two rounds of pool action get under way in the elite Champions Cup.

Bayonne

Pool 3 fixtures v Munster (A), Glasgow (H), Northampton (A), Exeter (H)

A great side for developing nation aficionados. Bayonne, or Aviron Bayonnais for the hipsters, could feature Luke Tagi (Fiji) at tighthead, Manuel Leindekar (Uruguay) at lock, and Gela Aprasidze (Georgia) at scrum-half. Bayonne were the revelation of last season’s Top 14 as they won more games than they lost and finished in the final Champions Cup spot after getting promoted the season before. This season has been a small step backwards but they have still beaten Toulouse, Stade Francais and Pau – three of the top six in the league.

One to watch: Arthur Iturria – Back-row-come-lock is a nightmare for opposition lineouts.

Arthur Iturria
Arthur Iturria spent eight years at Clermont before joining Bayonne for this season (Photo Gaizka Iroz/AFP via Getty Images)

Verdict: Desire to stay in the Top 14 might draw their attention more than European glory.

Bordeaux-Begles

Pool 1 fixtures v Connacht (A), Bristol (H), Saracens (H), Bulls (A)

Mid-table mediocrity since they re-established themselves in the Top 14 in 2011. They feature the surprise French half-back pairing of Maxime Lucu and Matthieu Jalibert, who have combined together in the last four matches to lead the team to two away losses and two home wins – c’est le rugby francais. Madosh Tambwe’s try-scoring record dried up in December last year and he has now scored just four times in 14 matches.

One to watch: Louis Bielle-Biarrey – Electric winger who has already scored twice since returning from the World Cup.

Louis Bielle-Biarrey
Louis Bielle-Biarrey, at 20, was one of the breakout stars of the recent World Cup, scoring four tries for France (Photo Romain Perrocheau/AFP via Getty Images)

Verdict: Will fancy their chances in their two opening matches and should pick up at least a win and a bonus point loss.

La Rochelle

Pool 4 fixtures v Leinster (H), Stormers (A), Leicester (H), Sale (A)

Montpellier have beaten only one team in the Top 14 this year and, inexplicably, that team was La Rochelle. The men from the west coast have had a poor start with four wins and five losses which sees them sitting in ninth place. That won’t be too troublesome as the gap is just nine points to league leaders Racing 92, who have only won two more matches. Their European journey starts with a rematch of that final for the ages we saw in Dublin barely six months ago. If they emerge with two wins from their opening two matches, they will be favourites for a third successive title.

One to watch: Judicaël Cancoriet – The back-rower arrived last year from Clermont, where he was a regular in a mediocre team. Looks reborn in La Rochelle.

Verdict: Poor start to the season and they will be missing their talismanic leader, Ronan O’Gara, for the Leinster match after his latest ban. It’s hard to see them staying unbeaten through the opening rounds.

Ronan O'Gara
Ronan O’Gara has guided La Rochelle to the last two Champions Cup titles, both finals won against Leinster (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Lyon

Pool 1 fixtures v Bristol (A), Bulls (H), Connacht (H), Saracens (A)

Have lost four of their past five games and find themselves third from bottom of the Top 14 after a poor start to the season in which they have won just three times. Unfortunately, given the French mindset, that will probably mean they see Europe as an inconvenience. They might be lured in though by a pair of winnable matches to start with.

One to watch: Joel Kpoku – The former Saracens lock has been moved to the back row in France and looks hugely impressive.

Joel Kpoku
Joel Kpoku has been a big success with Lyon since moving from Saracens and is playing on the blindside (Photo by OLIVIER CHASSIGNOLE/ Getty Images)

Verdict: Their opening match against Bristol should be a cracker, as long as Lyon take it seriously.

Racing 92

Pool 2 fixtures v Harlequins (H), Ulster (A), Bath (A), Cardiff (H)

The Parisian playboys find themselves at the top of the Top 14 after nine games. If we’re being harsh though, they have had a relatively easy start to their season in terms of fixtures. The confidence from leading the table should see them approach Europe with a spring in their step. Expect them to inflict their unique brand of rugby on some unfortunate opponents.

One to watch: Will Rowlands – the Wales lock has played just 17 minutes for Racing so far but he was exceptional in the World Cup.

Will Rowlands
Will Rowlands had a barnstorming World Cup for Wales but is still waiting in the wings at Racing (Photo Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Verdict: Given Ulster’s difficult start to the season, Racing should be looking to come away with two from two – and maybe 10 points – from their opening matches.

Stade Francais

Pool 4 fixtures v Sale (A), Leicester (H), Leinster (A), Stormers (H)

Stade have been a bit of a revelation this year after a brilliant fourth place in the Top 14 last season. This term they have won six matches and sit in fifth place. They come into Europe having beaten Toulouse 27-12 in their last match. They’ve done this by going back to basics with their stripped down game-plan. Veteran scrum-halves Brad Weber and Rory Kockott have been vitally important in their success.

One to watch: Lester Etien – the winger is not a prolific try scorer but is a brilliant ball carrier and Sale and Leicester will need a plan to stop him over the next fortnight.

Lester Etien
French winger Lester Etien’s ball-carrying ability has helped re-establish Stade Francais as a Top 14 force (Photo Raymond Roig/AFP via Getty Images)

Verdict: Their approach should suit the poor weather they are destined to face over these opening two weekends. Expect them to target this competition.

Toulon

Pool 3 fixtures v Exeter (H), Northampton (A), Munster (H), Glasgow (A)

It’s been a great start to the Top 14 season for the rebuilding galacticos as they’ve won six times and sit second, a point behind Racing. Veteran signings like Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones might have drawn the attention but there’s a very good, and young, French core here. Enzo Hervé has done a great job while Biggar returns to full fitness and full-back Melvyn Jaminet has recently arrived to boost French stocks. There is also a strong Northampton flavour as Kieran Brookes and David Ribbans could both be involved in a homecoming reunion on 15 December.

One to watch: Jules Coulon – The back-rower is just 21 and already a menace both with ball in hand and at the breakdown.

Jules Coulon
Jules Coulon, normally a blindside flanker, has played across the back row and scored two tries in Toulon’s recent win at Clermont (Photo Olivier Chassignole/ AFP via Getty Images)

Verdict: The three-time champions and last season’s Challenge Cup winners obviously have history in Europe and will relish the chance to win a title with a more sustainable team.

Toulouse

Pool 2 fixtures v Cardiff (H), Harlequins (A), Ulster (A), Bath (H)

They fell short in Dublin last year with a disappointing semi-final performance. Their season was a success however as they split titles with La Rochelle, beating O’Gara’s team in the Top 14 final. They’ve struggled to get too much going this season though and sit sixth, six points off the top, with the injured Romain Ntamack leaving a void at fly-half. Without any standout stand-off putting their hand up, they’ve turned to Antoine Dupont and Thomas Ramos, out of position. A European run is a prerequisite for Toulouse, so expect them to turn their full attention to these opening two matches.

One to watch: Baptiste Germain – Yet another talented nine/10 to come off the French conveyor belt. Actually made a Champions Cup final team sheet back in 2021, but was an unused replacement as Toulouse beat La Rochelle.

Baptiste Germain
Baptiste Germain can play scrum-half or fly-half and spent last season on loan at Biarritz before returning to Toulouse (Photo by Gaizka Iroz /AFP via Getty Images)

Verdict: Fly-half is an issue, but the talent in this team is frightening and they should have too much for all but a handful of Europe’s elite.

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Comments

2 Comments
N
Nik 224 days ago

Ironic in retrospect.

G
Grant 228 days ago

UBB…mid table mediocrity? Three semi finals in three years. Top 4 every year. ???

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