Top 14 Preview: New US audience for French rugby as campaign kicks off

French rugby’s 2022/23 Top 14 season kicks off this weekend.

Racing 92 and last season’s losing finalists Castres get the whole campaign under way at La Defense Arena.

But there’s no doubting the big matches of the first round. Champions Cup winners La Rochelle host Top 14 title holders Montpellier at a full Stade Marcel Deflandre on Saturday evening, 24 hours before Bordeaux entertain Toulouse at an equally crammed Stade Chaban Delmas. 

For fans in UK and Ireland, Premier Sports has four games on the opening weekend – Racing 92 v Castres, Stade Francais v Clermont, and La Rochelle v Montpellier on Saturday, and Bordeaux v Toulouse on Sunday. All are on Premier Sports 2.

And the Top 14 is heading to America this season – US streaming service Flo Sports has done a deal to show Top 14 rugby, as well as European and URC matches. It lists all the opening weekend’s matches.

Here, then, a preview of the weekend’s matches. If you want an in-depth club-by-club look at the coming campaign, I wrote this Top 14 season preview for Rugby World a couple of weeks ago.

Saturday, September 3

Racing 92 v Castres Olympique (kick off 3pm)

La Defense Arena

Vice-champion is an objectively awful whimsical title bestowed in France, like a millstone, round the neck of losing finalists. Castres are saddled with the Top 14 version of it this season, and – 10 weeks and one day after Montpellier fairly pounded them at Stade de France – they return to the outskirts of Paris to face Racing in the opening match of the 2022/23 campaign.

The hosts are without international centre Gael Fickou, who sprained a knee in a pre-season match at Brive and will be out for about a month. 

Absent, too, are summer arrival Asaeli Tuivuaka, injured in the same match, Baptiste Chouzenoux, and Fabien Sanconnie – who’s about three weeks from a return; while the club is waiting on the arrivals of Juan Imhoff, Trevor Nyakane, Veikoso Poloniati, and Warrick Gelant from the southern hemisphere. 

Nolan Le Garrec is likely to start, as is big signing Cameron Woki – though whether he’s in la cage or in the backrow remains to be seen.

Castres, who announced a contract extension for local hero lock Tom Staniforth this week, are close to full strength. Tyler Ardron is missing with injury and Ben Urdapilleta, who’s with Argentina. Summer arrivals Adrien Seguret, Leone Nakarawa – who seems to have recovered from a knock in pre-season – and Aurélien Azar should make their first serious appearances for the club.

Stade Francais v Clermont (kick off 5pm)

Stade Jean Bouin

It had to happen. Morgan Parra joins Stade Francais after 13 years at Clermont, and the fixture setters pull the sides together on the opening day of the new season. Parra is set to bring his much-needed on-pitch experience to the squad, with Joris Segonds expected to make up the other 50 percent of the halfback pairing. 

It’s in midfield, in the absence of the departed Ngani Laumape and Waisea Nayacalevu, where the greatest interest will lie. It’s too soon for late signing Jeremy Ward to make a first appearance, leaving Stade with a choice of Harry Glover, Theo Dachary, Alex Arrate and Julien Delbouis – with the possibility also of Sefe Naivalu moving in to 13.

Parra wasn’t the only experienced player to leave Clermont in the summer. Wesley Fofana retired; Camille Lopez and Bastien Pourilly joined Bayonne; JJ Hanrahan left for Dragons; Kotaro Matsushima returned to Japan; Sipili Falatea switched to Bordeaux, along with 21-year-old France prospect Tani Vili.

Expect to see, then, Alex Newsome, Irae Simone, Anthony Belleau, Loic Godener and Jules Plisson in a side that shows numerous changes from last season – but still holds a certain easy familiarity.

Toulon v Bayonne (kick off 5pm)

Stade Felix Mayol

Ihaia West – the only specialist senior 10 on the books at Toulon – has been training separately from the squad as he recovers from a niggling thigh injury. 

It’s long been recognised that fly-half could be a problem position for the Pierre Mignoni-Franck Azema dream coaching ticket this season – and it seems certain, now, that self-admitted troubleshooter solution Baptiste Serin will kick off his season on the outside of summer arrival Benoit Paillaugue in patched-up hand-me-down second-to-next-best halfback duo.

Bayonne, however, have troubles of their own heading into their Top 14 return season under new management. Experienced Maxime Machenaud, who joined from Racing 92 in the summer, will miss the opening weekend with a calf injury; another new arrival, Bastien Pourilly, has a hamstring injury and will be absent for up to eight weeks. 

Emblematic flanker Jean Monribot has undergone surgery on a thigh injury and won’t be available for several months, while Fijian duo Sireli Maqala and Kaminieli Raisaku are away with the sevens squad in South Africa, prepping for the World Cup.

Could be a tough opener for them at a newly confident Stade Mayol.

Pau v Perpignan (kick off 5pm)

Stade du Hameau

Irish winger Eoghan Barrett could move from the summer SuperSevens competition into the full side for the opener against Perpignan. 

But the club’s successful tournament – they reached the final three times and won once – took its toll. Vincent Pinto ruptured a ligament in his thumb and Aminiasi Tuimaba suffered a sprained ankle. Both are therefore unavailable. 

Nathan Decron and Daniel Ikpefan are also out, as well as the young third row Josselin Bouhier are also out of the reckoning with injury, while Zack Henry steps up as the side’s senior fly-half following Antoine Hastoy’s departure.

Perpignan, meanwhile, have – where possible – stuck to the tried and tested as they enter their difficult second season back in the top flight, without either Melvyn Jaminet or Bautista Delguy. 

Summer signings Kelian Galletier and Victor Moreaux are likely to be on the bench, while Dorian Laborde could start following his arrival from Toulon. 

Another summer signing, Exeter’s Will Witty, will miss the first three weeks of the season with injury. Shahn Eru, meanwhile, is suspended following a dangerous tackle in the promotion-relegation match against Mont-de-Marsan in June.

Brive v Lyon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Amedee Domenech

Brive head into the new season with a new main shareholder and the promise of a bright future – but with several key players out injured, notably Mitch Lees, Said Hireche, Hayden Thompson-Stringer and Wesley Douglas.

Ex-Connacht player Abraham Papali’i could get his first Top 14 start since moving from Galway in the summer, while compatriot Sammy Arnold may come off the bench.

Lyon’s entry injury problems are just as serious. Props Demba Bamba and Francisco Gomez-Kodela are both long-term absentees, as is fly-half Lima Sopoaga. Last week, the club confirmed Josua Tuisova would be out for a month, and medical joker prop Feao Fotuaika has yet to arrive. 

Internationals Baptiste Couilloud and Dylan Cretin aren’t expected back until next week – so Saturday looks like it could be a difficult one for the visitors against their gnarly hosts.

La Rochelle v Montpellier (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Marcel Deflandre

Antoine Hastoy should be straight into the fray for new club La Rochelle at a packed Marcel Deflandre, having joined from Pau in the summer, while Yoann Tanga, Georges-Henri Colombe, Quentin Lespiaucq, Thierry Paiva and Ultan Dillane could all make their first Top 14 starts for Ronan O’Gara’s Champions Cup winners against the Top 14 champions. 

Other new arrivals, including Teddy Thomas and the injured UJ Seuteni may be kept back, with O’Gara likely to stick to a trusted backs division for the first of the weekend’s two big matches.

Montpellier, who follow this tough opener with a match against Bordeaux next weekend, are also likely to hold back internationals Paul Willemse and Arthur Vincent – but Enzo Forletta could return to the squad having recovered from a neck injury. 

Cobus Reinach is away with the Springboks Rugby Championship squad, so Leo Coly could make his Top 14 bow, inside another new arrival, Louis Carbonel. Montpellier played Paolo Garbisi at inside centre during pre-season – he may make his third appearance at 12 in a Top 14 match this weekend, with Ben Lam expected to start at 14. Zach Mercer’s long Montpellier goodbye, meanwhile, should start here…

Sunday, September 4

Bordeaux v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

Toulouse manager Ugo Mola announced on Thursday that Pita Ahki had surgery on a troublesome injury on Wednesday and would miss the first six weeks of the season. 

The centre – routinely one of the best players in rouge-et-noir – joins a list of absentees: Cyril Baille, David Ainu’u, Joel Merkler, Yannick Youyoutte, Thibaud Flament, François Cros, Rynhardt Elstadt, Santiago Chocobares, Paul Graou, Lucas Tauzin, and Juan Cruz Mallia.

Even so, with new signings Ange Capuozzo, Melvyn Jaminet, Pierre-Louis Barassi, and Alexandre Roumat all set to feature – the latter against his old team-mates – and Josh Brennan set for his first Top 14 start, Toulouse are expected to field a strong side at Chaban-Delmas as they look to get their season off to a roaring start.

Mola also discussed improving squad rotation this season to ensure the club’s international stars were not overworked in the Top 14 before the long World Cup run next summer.

Hosts Bordeaux are also expected to field a strong squad, with few absences to report. Maxime Lucu and Matthieu Jalibert’s halfback bromance continues, with Toulouse old boy Zack Holmes likely filling a bench slot first-up. 

Tani Vili, too, probably won’t start. Manager Christophe Urios is expected to stick to what he knows, with old head Remi Lamerat and young gun Yoram Moefana expected on the pitch for the opening whistle – though he may be in the squad.

Another ex-Toulouse player, Antoine Miquel will have a point to prove if he gets an expected start at eight. Caleb Timu could also feature in the match that rounds off the opening weekend.

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