A host of new international players have joined England's Jonny Wilkinson for a place in the sun this summer, confirming the Top 14’s status as rugby union’s richest and most competitive league.
Carl Hayman (pictured above)
(National team: New Zealand; Club: Toulon; Position: Prop; International caps: 47; Age: 30)
Having deprived Newcastle of Jonny Wilkinson last summer, big-spenders Toulon have now taken the Falcons’ star prop Carl Hayman. Towering at 6 ft 4 (1.93m), the Kiwi is widely regarded as the world’s best tight-head prop. But his decision to heed the call of Toulon’s flamboyant president, Mourad Boudjellal, could prove costly ahead of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand (the All Blacks are expected to pick their players exclusively from the domestic league).
(Australia, Toulon, Flanker, 110 caps, 30)
It may be less known than Cannes, but Toulon, also on the French Riviera, probably counts more stars by now – and that is all thanks to rugby. Joining the host of big guns at the Stade Mayol, Toulon's homeground, is Australian flanker George Smith, the most capped Wallaby forward ever. Toulon president Boudjellal described him as such: “It’s like with goalkeepers. There are those who dive all the time and catch nothing and those who are always in the right place and never concede a goal. He is one of the latter.”
(England, Toulon, Wing, 22 caps, 30)
While Smith has put an end to his ten-year career with the Wallabies, England’s Paul Sackey will be hoping a move to Toulon can boost his chances of making the starting line-up of the Red Rose. Like Smith and Hayman, the dreadlocked winger of Ghanaian heritage is no youngster; but then youth hardly seems to be a priority for president Boudjellal.
(New Zealand, Clermont, Flanker, 17 caps, 29)
Despite his massive bulk (6 ft 4, 119kg), Tonga-born Sione Lauaki is expected to add more pace to the defending champions’ game. Down in Clermont, they will be hoping the temperamental former All Black with a track record of mischief off the pitch doesn’t make headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Martin Rodriguez Gurruchaga
(Argentina, Stade Français, Full-back, 6 caps, 24)
While desperate to put two miserable seasons behind them, cash-strapped Stade Français have been relatively quiet on the transfer market. The Parisian club did, however, sign the man known in Argentina as “El Super-Mago” (the super-magician). French clubs will no doubt be wary of the young full-back, not least since he played a key role in the Pumas’s demolition of France (41-13) in June.
Juan Martin Hernandez
(Argentina, Racing Metro, fly-half, 33 caps, 28)
They may have the “super-magician” on their side, but Stade Français will no longer have the original “El Mago” in their squad. Argentinian fly-half Hernandez is back in town after a season in South Africa, but he will be playing for Parisian rivals Racing Metro. The star-studded blue-and-white outfit, which includes the likes of François Steyn and Sébastien Chabal, already look like championship contenders in only their second season since returning to the top flight.
Those who haven’t budged
Toulon will still be able to count on Springbok Joe Van Niekerk, Argentinians Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Fernandez-Lobbe, and – of course – England’s Jonny Wilkinson. Up in Paris, Racing’s South African full-back François Stein also stays put.
Clermont, who finally broke their duck last season after ten final defeats, have held on to Australian fly-half Broke James, Fiji winger Napolioni Nalaga, and Puma veteran “Super” Mario Ledesma.
Kiwi scrum-half Byron Kelleher and Argentina lock Patricio Albacete have stuck with Toulouse, winners of last season’s Heineken Cup final against Biarritz, who still boast of Zimbabwe-born US wing Takudza Ngwenya.
At Castres, New Zealanders Cameron McIntyre and Chris Masoe will be keen to prove that last year’s surprise packages deserve a place among the league’s big four. As for Italy’s Sergio Parisse, he will captain last season’s big underachievers, Stade Français.
Finally, Figi wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca will need to break down a lot of opposition defences if his club, newly-promoted Agen, are to survive among the top flight – that is, if he ever comes back from extended holidays in the Pacific.
Date created : 2010-08-16