All eyes are on English fly-half Jonny Wilkinson as the French rugby season opens with a showdown between his new club Toulon and Stade français, two of several French clubs that have spent big over the summer to attract a legion of foreign players.
AFP - The French Top-14 rugby season gets underway this weekend with several clubs looking to highly-paid English invaders, including World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson, to boost their chances of succeeding Perpignan as champions.
A frantic close season saw an avalanche of big-name transfers from English clubs including fly-half Wilkinson, who has joined up at ambitious Toulon, centres Ricky Flutey and Jamie Noon who opted for Brive, Iain Balshaw and Ayoola Erinie at Biarritz and flanker Tom Palmer who will move to Paris to play for Stade Francais.
The English were not the only ones in demand by big-spending French clubs.
Springbok star Francois Steyn has signed on at newly-promoted Racing-Metro, Scottish full-back Hugo Southwell heads to Stade Francias, while Argentine Juan-Martin Fernandez-Lobbe and Felipe Contepomi will also display their talents at Toulon where Philippe Saint-Andre has taken over as coach after his years spent at Sale.
On top of that, the new season will see the return of several top bracket French players such as the hugely popular powerhouse Sebastien Chabal, who moves to Racing-Metro alongside another newcomer, national skipper Lionel Nallet, Julian Dupuy and Benjamin Kayser, who have both joined Stade Francais from Leicester and Sebastian Bruno who moves with Saint-Andre from Sale to Toulon.
What all that transfer activity will mean once the new season opens is up for debate, but at the very least it will certainly spark crowd interest and introduce an element of uncertainly into a league that had become all too predictable.
Last season's big four of Perpignan, Stade Francais, Toulouse and Clermont will once again be the favourites to reach the semi-finals playoffs even though they have followed different paths in the close season.
While Stade Francais indulged in a transfer binge, Perpignan opted to stick with last year's winning formula while Toulouse and Clermont have both brought in fresh faces from less well-off French clubs.
Toulouse in particular will be looking to bring back the glory days that brought them French and European titles in recent years.
Long-time coach Guy Noves, who was bitterly disappointed when his side lost to Clermont in last season's Top-14 semi-finals, said that it was all about confidence building and team management.
"It's going to be a high quality championship, that's for sure," he said.
"On top of that we once again will have to deal with international calls on our players. That's tough. It will be no different this year for all the teams have brought in international reinforcements. We will just have to take it match by match."
Over at Biarritz, French champions in 2003, 2005 and 2006, but who failed to even make the semi-final playoffs last year, club president and full-back legend Serge Blanco said that new players had been brought in to re-galvanise the Basque side.
"In my mind we are starting from scratch," he said. "It feels just like 10 years ago when I first took over the presidency. In that time we won three league titles and reached the final of the European Cup. Now we have a new project and we are building it around new men."
The teams most likely to challenge last year's semi-finalists and Biarritz for the top honours are likely to be Toulon and Racing-Metro as well as Brive who last won the title in 1996.
Opening fixtures in French Top-14
Toulon v Stade Francais
Biarritz v Castres
Bourgoin v Clermont
Montauban v Toulouse
Brive v Montpellier
Perpignan v Bayonne
Albi v Racing
Date created : 2009-08-14