This time there will be crowds. On Saturday, September 4, some 71 days after Toulouse lifted the Bouclier de Brennus to bring the curtain down on a Covid-hit 2020/21 season, the race for the title begins again.
The season kicks off with an opening weekend bang. It features an-all Nouvelle-Aquitaine opener as newly promoted Biarritz host Bordeaux. Then, Stade Francais meet Racing 92 in a capital derby; Toulon host Med rivals Montpellier, Lyon and Clermont face off in an Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region battle for bragging rights, while La Rochelle look for early revenge against their nemesis side of last season, Top 14 champions Toulouse.
Four of the weekend’s seven matches – Stade Francais v Racing 92, Toulon v Montpellier, Lyon v Clermont and La Rochelle v Toulouse – will be broadcast in the UK and Ireland on Premier Sports 1.
So, here’s what you should be watching for this weekend from each of the seven Top 14 encounters.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 4
Biarritz v Bordeaux
(kick-off 2pm France time) Parc des Sports Aguilera
Newly promoted Biarritz, in what could be their last season in the far southwest, open their Top 14 account against Atlantic coast rivals Bordeaux, under what weather forecasters have promised will be cloudless skies and in comfortable temperatures.
The two sides met in Lille in preseason, with today’s visitors winning 28-7. But the Basque side did enough to suggest their return to the top flight for the first time since 2014 will last longer than a season. The northern city is potentially Biarritz’s future home if a long-running row between club and city council over the redevelopment of Aguilera cannot be resolved (and a recent interview with club president Jean-Baptiste Aldigé in Le Figaro suggests relations aren’t in good shape)
Brive v Perpignan
(kick-off 4.05pm France time ) Stade Amédée-Domenech 4.05pm
Brive were sweating on the fitness of inter-season arrival Andrés Zafra in the days leading up to their season opener against Perpignan – who won the ProD2 title at a canter last season and will be wanting to avoid a repeat of their straight-back-down-again 2018-19 campaign after winning promotion easily the season before.
Covetous eyes are already on Perpignan’s star fullback Melvyn Jaminet – who followed-up his debut season with a successful personal tour of Australia with France. He’s already had to quiet rumours of an early departure for Toulouse, by declaring his intention to continue with Perpignan … but it’s hard to see that first refusal deterring other interested parties.
Castres v Pau
(kick-off 4.05pm France time ) Stade Pierre Fabre
In news that will no doubt please rivals in France and Europe, not to mention referees, Castres’ scrum-half Rory Kockott this week formally announced that he will retire at the end of this season, after more than a decade at the Top 14 outfit.
The bad news is he’ll want to go out on a high. Castres, for all their recent struggles, are routinely underestimated by pundits. They’re not a fashionable side by any means – they’re difficult and gnarly and tough … and conditions, with rain around, could suit them well.
But they’ll face a stern opening-day test from opponents Pau, under new head coach Sebastien Piqueronies. The Bearn side did not win either of their pre-season outings, but we all know preseason form means little heading into the campaign proper.
Stade Francais v Racing 92
(kick off 6.15pm France time ) Stade Jean Bouin
A potentially stormy – in meteorological terms at least – early evening slot for the first ‘proper’ derby of the season, four hours and 15 minutes after the campaign kicks off.
The conditions may not be favourable to the style both sides like to play, which is a real shame, but there’s sure to be plenty of talent on show in what promises to be a highly charged battle for Parisian hearts and minds.
While there are few worries over their terrifyingly talented backs, Racing were caught out more than once by a lack of beef in their pack last season – but they believe they have rectified that by signing France international Baptiste Pesenti from Pau. The hope, too, is that Jordan Joseph is ready to fulfil his potential.
Toulon v Montpellier
(kick off 9.05pm France time) Stade Felix Mayol
Toulon made a decent start to last season but suffered a dismal second half; the less said about Montpellier’s early run the better – but they at least enjoyed a Challenge Cup-winning finish. Between them, the two sides enjoyed a strong campaign. Now, they both want to go it alone.
There’ll be some patching-up work for both coaches this week, with neither side able to field any French internationals who played in the Australia tour, or – obviously – those internationals currently on Rugby Championship duty, while Toulon are also missing Fiji stars Leone Nakawara and Juita Wainiqolo for administrative reasons.
Wainiqolo, at least, has found a way to get to France – via Sydney and Dublin – though, unsurprisingly, he’s listed as unavailable to play this week.
But Saturday is set fair in Toulon, after a stormy Friday, so the opening Saturday’s big match could be a thriller. If the notoriously patchy Mayol pitch holds up.
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 5
Lyon v Clermont
(kick off 5.45pm France time) Stadium Gerland
A tough opener for both sides looking to get off to a strong start under a warm early evening sun and clear skies in southeast France.
Lyon won a close preseason outing between the two sides last weekend, but should expect a less messy performance from their opponents on Sunday evening.
They’ll also be aware they owe their fans an improvement on last season, when they finished ninth. They’ve recruited smartly, bringing in Guillaume Marchand on loan from Toulouse, and Lima Sopoaga from Wasps, as well as France 7s star Tavite Veredamu.
Clermont’s recruitment has been more measured – JJ Hanrahan and Tomas Lavanini are their only two senior signings, if Lavanini could ever be called ‘measured’. But the squad looks a little more balanced this season, if – running against current Top 14 norms – a little … ahem … experienced.
La Rochelle v Toulouse
(kick off 9.05pm France time) Stade Marcel Deflandre
Unsurprisingly, this rerun of last season’s Champions Cup and Top 14 finals is a broadcasters’ wet-dream of a match to bring the curtain down on the opening weekend of the new season.
More good news – after tricky weather conditions denied fans the Top 14 final they deserved from these sides, the weather is set fair along France’s Atlantic coast on Sunday night – perfect for some all-out attacking rugby.
The biggest changes to La Rochelle’s ranks have been among the coaching staff, with new head coach making a number of changes, bringing in old Munster mucker Donnacha Ryan and ex-Springbok loosehead Gurthro Steenkamp to continue what he and former colleague Jono Gibbes started.
The big news round Toulouse, meanwhile, has centred on Cheslin Kolbe’s sudden departure to Toulon – but the bigger miss is likely to be AB Zondagh, who’s joining Gregor Townsend’s staff at Scotland. That’s said, you’d expect this Toulouse set-up to be able to deal with that easily enough – they certainly looked like they’d got over the Kolbe shock when they beat Toulon 52-10 in Nimes in a preseason friendly the day after the deal was announced.