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.

Top 14 Preview: Final four escape red heat zone for semi-final stand-offs

Image: Stade Toulousain / Twitter

It’s southwest semi-finals weekend in the southeast of France, as Occitanie teams Castres, Toulouse, Montpellier and Nouvelle Aquitaine representative Bordeaux face off in Nice for the right to travel north to Saint-Denis for next Friday’s showpiece final.

Nevermind the tense games situation, or the prize that awaits the two winners this weekend. Playing in Nice will be a relief of sorts for all four sets of players. The matches on Friday and Saturday evening will take place in temperatures a degree or so south of 30C.

In Castres and Toulouse, by kick-off time on Friday evening, the temperature is expected to have dipped to 36C, from highs during the day of over 40C.

The departments in which Castres, Toulouse and Bordeaux are among the 12 in the southwest of the country that have been placed on red weather alert – the highest available – for heat on Friday.

Similar temperatures are expected in Bordeaux on Saturday evening, with a 40km/h wind, while the mercury in Montpellier is due to hit a 40C high on Friday, before dipping 10C in 24 hours into the weekend.

So, Nice, in the relatively fresh southeast of the country, will feel relatively comfortable in comparison. Which is nice.

Both matches are live in Ireland and the UK on Premier Sports.

Friday, June 17

Castres v Toulouse (kick off 9.05pm)

Allianz Riviera

The hype-legend of the Top 14’s opening semi-final sprang instantaneously and fully formed from the firmament on the final whistle of last Saturday’s barrage-round match. A Midi derby rivalry, top of the table versus the defending champions, Castres’ rugby David versus Toulouse’s Goliath. 

Meanwhile, Toulouse coach Ugo Mola has spent much of his media time this week trying to sound convincing in claiming that Castres, rather than his star-spangled squad, are favourites. No one who saw their 41-0 thrashing of Friday’s opponents at Stade Ernest Wallon in November, or how close they came to victory in their 19-13 loss at Stade Pierre Fabre in April would make the same argument.

It’s true Castres have been consistent this season. They spent just two weeks outside the top six. Their longest losing run in the Top 14 lasted just two games – and they finished the domestic campaign with 12 wins from 15, including five on the bounce to close out the season. They climbed to first for the first and only time on the final whistle of the final round – which was also the first time they had held a top two position.

Castres hooker Gaetan Barlot put the season past into perspective ahead of Friday evening’s match. “Our first place rewards the fact that we are the only undefeated team at home, with a good record and wins on the road. But that doesn’t mean we are champions.

And he highlighted in two sentences the scale of the challenge and the scale of the ambition for the Tarn side. “In Nice, we are facing the French and former European champions so it will be very difficult but we are ready for the two big games that remain in order to go all the way,” he said. “If we lost in the semi-finals, we would have finished first in the regular season for nothing. That would be a shame.”

It’s true, too, Castres had a bye week while Toulouse faced La Rochelle in the barrage round. And that their season has been less affected by Covid-19 or a long European run.

But it’s also true that Toulouse, despite a ropey run from Christmas to the end of March when they were without key internationals, qualified fourth in the table, and beat new European champions La Rochelle in the barrage-round to book their place in the semis. They were top of the table for nine weeks and – like Castres – have been in the top six for all-but two rounds of the campaign.

Even so, Mola insists that Castres are in pole position for the final place at stake on Friday. “Castres are favorites and it’s not Ugo Mola who says so, it’s the league ranking. 

“It’s hard for them to claim they are the underdog side: the facts are there, they finished first [in the Top 14]. They are also the leaders in terms of character and state of mind.”

It’s true, too, that Toulouse have more injury concerns. Francois Cros is out after picking up a knee injury in the victory over La Rochelle, while Charlie Faumina has completed a safe tackle course and returns after a ban to fill an fitness problem at tighthead. He starts, with Dorian Aldegheri – who’s been nursed through injury niggles recently – on the bench.

The truth, despite what Mola would have anyone believe is that Toulouse are, quite rightly, favourites. But he also knows that Castres could easily spring another surprise this season.

And it seems they do have a plan for dealing with Antoine Dupont…

It involves pizza.

Saturday, June 18

Montpellier v Bordeaux (kick off 9.05pm)

Allianz Riviera

We need to talk about Bordeaux. Something is, if not rotten, not entirely well in the former rugby utopia of Chaban-Delmas.

The comprehensive 36-16 barrage-round win over Racing 92 was played against a tense training ground background. Manager Christophe Urios had called out his players after their defeat at Perpignan a week earlier had seen them drop out of the top two for the first time in months – naming Matthieu Jalibert and Cameron Woki in particular.

Both scored in the barrage-round victory. But Jalibert told Canal Plus immediately after the match: “This week, it was tense. You saw it, there were statements in the press from our manager, that targeted players. I just want to say that we are not playing for Christophe (Urios). We are just on a mission for the players.”

And Woki gestured at the crowd after he scored, saying afterwards: “To whom were these gestures addressed? I think everyone understood.”

It has also been reported this week that Woki – whose contract is up in June 2023 – is hesitating about signing a new deal with the club. 

Kane Douglas, meanwhile, told Le French Rugby Podcast how the team prepared for the match against Racing without Urios – who has since insisted “I am the boss, and no one else” – for most of the week. 

President Laurent Marti and Urios have both appeared to describe the situation as “over” and liken it to a storm in a teacup. But it’s hardly a health position from which to mount a challenge for the Top 14 title. 

In comparison, silence has been golden preparation for opponents Montpellier, who have enjoyed minimal coverage and – as a result – minimal pressure. 

News, such as it is, has been limited to contract renewals for Florian Verhaege, and for defence coach Alexandre Ruiz, while Zach Mercer – surely one of the first names on the Top 14’s team of the season – has revealed he thought seriously about jacking rugby in when he was a teenager with Bath, in favour of heading to New Zealand and, according to Rugbyrama, dismissing reports about an imminent move back to the Premiership.

Montpellier, second in the table at the end of the season, despite – like Bordeaux and Toulouse – something of a second-half wobble, should expect to start as favourites. They don’t have the individual flair of Bordeaux, but they are well-organised, and smart, and clinical. 

Even without the injured Paul Willemse and Cobus Reinach, Montpellier have the smarts to play their way into the final.

With Maxime Lamothe an injury concern, Bordeaux, may turn to Springbok international hooker Joseph Dweba, who has only played in nine matches all season – and hasn’t featured at all since the beginning of May. Jandre Marais’ injury, meanwhile, will have Urios scratching his head over second-row options. Guido Petti, Louis Picamoles, or Woki could get the nod.

Top 14 Preview: ‘Derby Day’ the prologue to European rugby’s return

Image: Stade Francais / Twitter

It’s the Top 14 ‘Fan Days’ derby weekend before the European fortnight – and, thanks to the vagaries of qualification for the knockout phase of the Champions Cup, for four teams it’s the first of a triple-header of domestic and Champions Cup matches that could seriously shape their seasons.

Here is the table heading into the 22nd round of the Top 14 – by close of play on June 5, we’ll know for definite which six teams are in the play-offs.

There are two matches, this week, for Top 14 followers in the UK and Ireland, with Premier Sports listing both Bordeaux-La Rochelle and Racing 92-Stade Francais. 

Lyon-Toulon might have been an interesting third option and, for distilled French rugby derby spirit, Castres-Toulouse really should have been a must. 

Saturday, April 2

Castres v Toulouse (kick off 3pm)

Stade Pierre Fabre

This is not just any Top 14 derby match. This is a Top 14 derby match in which the fifth-placed side heading into the weekend entertains the one that jumped two places above them last week … at the business end of a season that looks for all the world as if it will go all the way to the wire.

Normally, the standard line in previews such as this is something along the lines of: ‘Forget the 41-0 result at Ernest Wallon earlier in the season. That was an outlier result, similar to Castres’ 52-7 win at Pierre Fabre in 2017 or the frankly insane 31-41 result at Ernest Wallon that ended the smalltown club’s 39-year losing streak’. 

Then, they’d go on to say: “These matches are routinely visceral, hard-tackling, tension-fuelled affairs, decided by small margins. A yypical derby, in other words. Especially at Pierre Fabre, where home fans turn out in force. This match – as always – is a sell-out.”

All of which is true. But the suspicion is the visitors could go all-in on their starting lineup, with a Dupont-Ntamack halfback partnership, Julien Marchand and Cyril Baille in the front row, and Rynhardt Elstadt and Sofiane Guitoune back from injury.

In which case, it’s probably right to worry a little for Castres, who defend their 15-month unbeaten run at home without Benjamin Urdapilleta after he suffered a hand injury late in the loss at Brive last week. They could still win – Castres routinely punch well above their weight – but it suddenly looks a whole lot more difficult.

Biarritz v Pau (kick off 5pm)

Parc des Sports d’Aguilera

Biarritz are in the odd position of all almost-officially relegated sides. There genuinely is little hope for a side that has managed just five wins all season – the last of those came back in early February with the double-ball victory over La Rochelle – and is 11 points adrift of 13th place, and a further eight from escaping the bottom two places, with their relegation curse.

But, freed from desire to survive, they are almost guaranteed to be a banana-skin side for other clubs, especially at home, where they face Pau, Castres and Clermont – all of whom need points. They proved as much at league leaders Montpellier last weekend, where they were excellent value for their 22-14 first-half lead, before eventually losing 37-22.

Which should, and will, put this week’s visitors Pau on high alert. Even with their long injury list – 18 or 19 players are currently filling the infirmary – the Basque side won’t run out of puff so quickly at home, driven on by their own fans. 

And the visitors are still just a little too close to 13th place for total comfort. An away win, after their victory at home against Perpignan last week will make the rest of the run-in much more comfortable.

Clermont v Brive (kick off 5pm)

Stade Marcel Michelin

Don’t be too surprised to see French international centre-turned-winger Damian Penaud back in the heart of Clermont’s midfield for the visit of Brive this weekend, as the hosts try to make up for last week’s pointless trip to Toulon.

The hosts’ young scrum-half Kevin Viallard, who’s likely to be on the bench on Saturday, this week told Rugbyrama that Clermont, “can’t even imagine a non-qualification” for the play-offs. Morgan Parra said last weekend that the Jaunards could not afford any more mistakes at home and needed at least one win away to reach the top six.

They would normally expect to beat Brive at Marcel Michelin – and they probably will. 

But the visitors are on something of a roll, with only one defeat in their last five matches – and will look to keep the scoreboard tight. 

If the visitors can turn this match into an arm wrestle, and if they are still inside a score in the final 15, this could turn into a shootout. Which won’t please new director of sports development Didier Retiere, who officially started his role on Friday after years behind the scenes at the FFR.

Lyon v Toulon (kick off 5pm)

Stade Gerland

Next season, Lyon’s Pierre Mignoni and Toulon’s Franck Azema will unite to form a Top 14 coaching dream team at Stade Mayol. 

But, right now, there are still five matches of the current campaign to go, and play-off places up for grabs. The former will want to take his Lyon side – currently sixth in the table – as far as possible, after missing out on the play-offs last season.

The latter has an outside shot at the top six, having flirted with relegation not so very long ago – but Toulon’s Champions Cup hopes rest more heavily on qualification via the Challenge Cup. 

That said, European quarter-final qualification is assured, one match ahead of schedule. So, Azema could rest a few players against Biarritz next week, ahead of the one-leg round-of-16 match the following week. So he could select a strong side this week just to test the waters of what would be a hugely unlikely Brennus push.

Finally, some good news: Mathieu Bastareaud has started training again. There’s no official news on his future – his contract is up at the end of the season – but it’s good to see him moving again.

Perpignan v Montpellier (kick off 5pm)

Stade Aime Giral

League leaders Montpellier are set to welcome Paolo Garbisi back for their short trip to Perpignan after the Italian was given a well-earned week off following his emotional Six Nations’ exploits in Cardiff.

They could feature the routinely good Bastien Chalureau, who’s also back from injury – it’s a toss-up whether he or Janse van Rensburg will start alongside Paul Willemse in the second row. Geoffrey Doumayrou is also expected to play for the first time since early November.

These returns are good news for coach Philippe Saint-Andre and his staff, as they stare at what could be busy few weeks, with two European matches against Harlequins, as well as Top 14 outings against Bordeaux, Lyon, Racing 92 and Clermont in their immediate futures. 

Perpignan, meanwhile, still have out-and-out survival in mind – even if Patrick Arlettaz has publicly admitted the relegation play-off is their best way out. In order to keep the pressure on Brive, Pau and Stade Francais – their nearest rivals – they need a win. Anything less, and it’s hard to see any route to survival outside that play-off.

Bordeaux v La Rochelle (kick off 9.05pm)

Stade Chaban Delmas

Bordeaux ended a run of five matches without a win, dating back to January 29, when they beat Stade Francais 31-18 in Paris last weekend. That losing run saw them give up a 10-point lead at the top of the table and be overtaken by Montpellier.

They now face the first of three matches in a row against their Atlantic coast Top 14 – and European – rivals, who are just over two hours up the A10.

Jandre Marais could return to a Bordeaux second row that has been heavily patched up in recent weeks – Cameron Woki and Louis Picamoles both successfully filled in there for the first time for their clubs at Jean-Bouin last weekend.

Meanwhile, former Castres’ backrow Maama Vaipulu – who arrived on a medical joker contract last month – could make the bench. Matthieu Jalibert remains unavailable, but is expected to return for the second leg of the Champions Cup round-of-16 tie.

For the hosts, Gregory Alldritt, Uini Atonio and Jonathan dainty should start, while Romain Sazy is set to make his 300th appearance for the club. But head coach Ronan O’Gara may have some player juggling to do to maintain the club’s JIFF matchday average.

Sunday, April 3

Racing 92 v Stade Francais (kick off 9.05pm)

La Defense Arena

Racing 92 and Stade Francais are, like Bordeaux and La Rochelle, at the start of a three-week run of matches against one another in domestic and European competition. Which will be fun.

Unfortunately for Stade, they have been struck by injuries at completely the wrong moment. Waisea and Marcos Kremer were both injured in the loss against Bordeaux last weekend. The former, by far the best performing player for Gonzalo Quesada this season, is out for four to six weeks with a sprained knee. The latter is set to miss three weeks’ action with a calf injury.

Paul Alo-Emile, Julien Delbouis, Harry Glover and Mathieu De Giovanni are also recovering from injury, while JJ van der Mescht is suspended until April 10. 

Racing, meanwhile, are likely to keep Bernard Le Roux on ice until the European meetings over the next fortnight, and could well rest Donovan Taofifenua and Louis Dupichot. 

But with a backline that looks set to include Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Gael Fickou and Juan Imhoff, all launched by Finn Russell – who will hope for an improvement on last week’s performance in defeat at La Rochelle – it could be a long night at La Defense Arena for the visitors.

Grand Slam Saturday: The result of 12 years of change in French rugby

France had to win the 2022 Six Nations, preferably with a Grand Slam, to confirm they really are back. They did. Here’s the story of the years of backroom and boardroom system change that has – finally – taken Les Bleus out of the rugby doldrums.

FABIEN Galthie was quick to pull all levels of the game in France into the Grand Slam celebrations after the 25-13 victory over England on Saturday night.

“This Grand Slam is a victory for the 1,900 clubs of French rugby,” he said, as Stade de France celebrated. This wasn’t mere lip-service. Nor was it the first time the management of France’s senior men’s squad had mentioned the club game during this Six Nations. 

In the squad selection announcement for the decisive final game against England, both Galthie and team manager Raphael Ibanez made pointed references to the domestic game.

Ibanez, opening the press conference, said: “We want to gather French rugby around the French XV,” he said. “I would like to thank the clubs, the presidents and their respective managers, because we have just lived through eight weeks of competition, and it has been a time of constant exchange with the players, the clubs. 

“If, today, we can present you with a competitive team for this match against England, it’s simply because French rugby understands this collective project.”

And Galthie, asked whether a Grand Slam shot was ‘always’ the goal for the Championship, answered: “Yes, we wanted to be in this position and we did everything to be there.

“It didn’t start at the first gathering in Carpiagne, it started long before. Competitions are won while they are not being played – in everything we did between November and December, with clubs, with club managers and players that allowed us to be in this position today.”

Work for this particular Six Nations may have started in November and December, but it was built on efforts to save French rugby dating back much further – almost back to the last time France lifted the title, in 2010.

Thierry Dusautoir noted in his post-match column in L’Equipe: “I don’t think we can draw parallels with the 2010 generation to which I belonged, because it’s not the same story or the same dynamic. Our team won, but with less serenity and control.”

Back then, France won the Grand Slam almost despite, rather than with, the clubs – who held the upper hand over the union because of the financial power of domestic game, driven by wealthy clubs importing stars from overseas.

So, change started with JIFF regulations. In a recent Rugby Union Daily podcast, Brive president Simon Gillham said clubs had “realised there were far too many people playing in French top divisions who were not qualified to play for France”.

The rules are complicated and, as Gillham pointed out, don’t mean that JIFF-qualified players automatically play for France. But the majority of those who go through age-grade rugby and academies to knock on the door of the professional game are French.

“To be very honest,” Gillham added, “I was against the system … but I think it’s been absolutely brilliant for French rugby. I think today, you’ve got third-, fourth-choice French scrum-halves who would probably be the number one in any other country in the Six Nations. 

“There’s a strength in depth today in French rugby – you could put out a second, almost third French team and they’d give everybody in the Six Nations a good game.”

As a coach, Galthie has been fortunate in more ways than one. He took charge at a genuine inflexion point, when a golden generation of young players from the world under-20 championship-winning sides of 2018 and 2019 were ready to take the next step in the senior men’s game. 

Four years earlier, Bernard Laporte had won a contentious FFR presidential election ballot with a populist manifesto that promised to “give power back to the amateur clubs”. 

He had two key aims: win hosting rights for the 2023 World Cup, and revitalise the men’s France side – a team he has repeatedly described as the ‘shop window’ for rugby in France. 

Galthie may always have been on Laporte’s mind as a long term coach – the pair go back a long way – “For 20 years, my destiny has been linked to Bernard’s – a very strong bond exists between us,” the head coach said ahead of the president’s hard-fought re-election in 2020

But he wasn’t necessarily first-choice. The president looked overseas after sacking Guy Noves and installing loyal Jacques Brunel as a caretaker – Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt were linked to the post – while Galthie was tied into an ultimately aborted deal at Toulon. But a referendum of the newly empowered amateur clubs put paid to the overseas’ coach plan.

In the meantime, Galthie and Toulon had parted company after just one season. He was available; the job was coming open. The stars aligned.

So Galthie was named the next head coach of France in April 2019, to take over from Brunel after the World Cup in Japan. By early May he was part of the World Cup set-up, as an assistant to Brunel, alongside Laurent Labit and S&C coach Thibault Giroud, who had already agreed to join his coaching staff.

The rest of the future coaching staff – larger than any of France’s previous groups – was already almost confirmed. Shaun Edwards was on board. He would later say his decision was helped by the fact that ‘France really wanted me’. 

It would be easy to round this off here with a glib ‘the rest is history’ line. But that wouldn’t be true. Professional rugby – the source of all the players – needed convincing. Laporte had the World Cup. Galthie needed the players to make sure the home nation’s efforts weren’t embarrassing.

Back to Grand Slam Saturday. “The France team is the showcase of French rugby, it’s obvious,” Laporte said again, and welcomed, “the intelligence of the leaders of the LNR and the clubs”.

“This excellent dynamic of the Blues is due to a collective desire to move forward together,” added LNR president Rene Bouscatel.

Both Laporte and Bouscatel were on the pitch for the presentation of the Six Nations’ trophy.

The image, captured by numerous photographers and TV cameras won’t win any awards – it’s a picture of a group of mostly white, mostly middle-aged, men standing on grass, applauding. But it was a notable tableau, one that wouldn’t have been seen a few years ago in the internecine rugby war years in France.

Never-ending arguments over player release needed to be resolved. Galthie and Ibanez wanted to be able to select 42 players per international, 11 more than any preceding coach had been permitted. 

Negotiations were strong, rising to heated, if reports are accurate. The clubs weren’t willing to release so many players for so long. Laporte, it is claimed, threatened to use his authority as union president to bar any player not released from playing for 10 days.

In the end, for an annual payment of nearly €2million from the FFR, the clubs relented. It hasn’t all gone to plan – the three-match-per-player selection fudge for the hastily arranged Autumn International Cup in 2020 were due to a flare-up between union and league.

Now, may be the time for that ‘the rest is history line’. France won a first Six Nations in a dozen years; they are ranked second in the world and, right now, they’re on the rise. The battle between club and country is in a period of ceasefire – it may even be over for as long as the union-friendly Bouscatel is president of the LNR.

The rest has been done on the pitch, the result of a conjunction of undeniable playing talent and smart, co-ordinated coaching. He’s won 20 of 26 matches in charge – a success rate of nearly 77 percent. Of those matches France have lost since 2020, five have been within a score and the result only decided in the closing minutes.

The head coach has been offered a contract extension beyond the 2027 World Cup – and this time, according to Laporte, he will have sole say in selecting his coaching staff. 

“He is the right person, in the right place,” Laporte told Midi Olympique this week, confirming reports that he was to offer Galthie a long-term extension. “At the beginning of his mandate, I built with him because we were in a hurry: building a new staff, integrating Shaun Edwards, choosing names with him and Raphael Ibanez. 

“Putting the church back in the centre of the village was to make the French team a benchmark again and for that, the best in their field was needed. Servat for the scrum, Ghezal for the touch, Giroud for the performance cell, Labit in the three-quarters… I did it with him. 

“From now on, I leave the hand to him for the continuation. He doesn’t need me anymore.”

For now, a lot of the French rugby garden is looking very rosy indeed. It would be nice if that lasted a while.

Six Nations: How France could solve the problem of no Villiere

Image: Gabin Villiere / Twitter

Winger’s absence has left Les Bleus with a selection issue … in midfield

The injury that has forced winger Gabin Villiere to miss France’s Six Nations match against Scotland has left head coach Fabien Galthie facing a selection conundrum – who does he call to stand in for his star turn of the tournament so far?

The remarkable Villiere has been one of the star Bleus of the opening two weeks of the tournament – his boys’ own back story is now so famous it’s up there with lock Thibault Flament’s dabbling with the 10 shirt in Loughbrough, or centre Yoram Moefana’s rapid rise and rise.

It’s easy to argue that the Toulon winger was better against Ireland than he was against Italy, his ridiculous work rate and phenomenal defensive effort in the 52 minutes he was on the pitch outweighing even the hat-trick he scored in the opener against Azzurri.

Followers of France already knew of his bravery and high-pain threshold – for a man, at least. With France out of wing cover, Villiere played almost all of the second Test against Australia in July on a badly sprained ankle that later required surgery.

Now Galthie has to find a way to replace his die-hard winger, who has made the 11 shirt his own since his debut in November 2020, for the difficult trip to Edinburgh. And it looks, from media reports following Tuesday’s training session at Marcoussis as if he’s chosen a safety-first option.

He has winger-for-winger options in his 42-player extended squad. Toulouse’s Matthis Lebel won his first cap against Georgia in November, but was largely anonymous in a no-better-than adequate win for a France side that was clearly looking ahead to New Zealand. 

And bogey-team Scotland – in the cauldron of Murrayfield, 18 months out from the World Cup when attack coach Laurent Labit has promised ‘less experimenting’ – is unlikely to be an opponent against which Galthie feels he can blood any of the uncapped trio of Racing 92’s Donovan Taofifenua, La Rochelle’s Jules Favre, or Toulon’s Aymeric Luc.

Which inevitably leads to speculation – backed up, apparently, by the game of bibs, that a midfield shift is far more likely.

Defence lynchpin Gael Fickou has gone there, done the wing-switch, before. He’s moved out wide four times under Galthie – including the two Six Nations’ defeats to Scotland – and can do a job there, but it seems unlikely that the staff will want to make more changes than necessary, and keeping their defence captain where he’s most effective makes the most sense. 

A 12-13 Fickou-Virimi Vakatawa partnership – bringing the club and country midfield band back together – is a consideration, despite the latter’s perceived dip in form. But, that falls into the same trap as moving Fickou wide. 

Meanwhile, Jonathan Danty’s recall – after Tani Vili was pulled from the squad following disciplinary issues at his club, Clermont – suggests that he has recovered from the injury that kept him out of the squad for the Ireland match. 

The 21-year-old Moefana did plenty right and nothing wrong at inside centre in Danty’s absence against Ireland at Stade de France, after impressing off the bench against Italy.

He – like Fickou – is a better centre than wing. But he – like Fickou – can do a job out on wide. He’s done it more than once for Bordeaux, for all that his last start – on the other side of the pitch – was on the opening day of the Top 14 season, in September. 

As prediction models go, what bibs a player is wearing four days before a match and two before the squad is announced is not entirely accurate. But Moefana switching to the wing, with Danty-Fickou as the centre partnership and Damian Penaud – another former centre whose switch was questioned at the time but who has proved his doubters very wrong – at the other side of the pitch would make sense as a stop-gap, safety-first, continuity rugby move.

Villiere is expected to be fit again for France’s trip to Cardiff on March 11. With a Six Nations still very much on the cards heading into this week’s Edinburgh encounter, and a shot at a Grand Slam still on, short-term safety first makes the most sense for Les Bleus.

As for elsewhere, the return of tighthead Mohamed Hoauas, following his court appearance over a series of 2014 break-ins in Montpellier, prompted speculation over whether he will make an instant return to the starting line-up. It seems unlikely, even though he has long been a favourite of Galthie’s. Uini Atonio has a tight grip on France’s number three shirt right now, and seems unwilling to let it go.

It’s more likely Hoauas’s return would be off the bench, if it happens against Scotland at all. Which leaves one final question: what bench split could France go for? A six-two would mean – probably – Maxime Lucu and Thomas Ramos would be the sole backs in the replacement contingent. A five-three opens up the possibility of a winger coming on late.

My name is James Harrington. I’m a freelance sports journalist based in France, writing mostly about French club and international rugby. If, after reading this, you feel the urge to commission me for match previews, reviews, features, interviews, live blogs, feel free to contact me

And, please read my weekly French rugby column in The Rugby Paper every Sunday. And I round-up all the weekend’s Top 14 action on the Irish Examiner website on Monday.