This weekend heralds the start of the 2018/19 French Top 14 season, with this year’s edition promising to be as exciting and unpredictable as ever. The league has its fair share of additions for the new season, with a swathe of new signings and the return of two clubs with a rich history in the domestic scene over the years.
Reigning champions Castres will be looking to kick-start the defence of their fifth title against the team they upset in the 2018 final in June, Montpellier.
The Top 14 is the longest league season in the northern hemisphere and is perhaps also the most demanding. So what is there to look forward to for 2018/19?
Big signings and entertainment guaranteed
One of the biggest pulls to the Top 14 is undoubtedly its star qualities, and this year is no different.
Perhaps the most anticipated partnership this season is the arrival of Scotland fly-half Finn Russell and Irish winger Simon Zebo to Racing 92.
The pair have already clicked off the field as well as producing some magic in their new side’s pre-season friendlies. Their collaboration with the likes of Teddy Thomas, Juan Imhoff and Joe Rococoko must have the Parisian fans licking their lips.
Clermont Auvergne had a shocker of a season in 2017/18. Placing only eighth in the regular season, they missed out on the play-offs and a spot in the European Champions Cup competition. A year of rebuilding and fighting for Challenge Cup honours is certainly not where they want to be.
However, despite losing a raft of influential players (Noa Nakaitaci, David Strettle and Scott Spedding) to other clubs and talisman Aurélien Rougerie to retirement, there is optimism for Les Jaunards.
Tim Nanai-Williams and George Moala join the club with the abilities and flair that will make them crowd favourites in no time.
Rhys Webb’s highly publicised move to Toulon has been long discussed and debated ever since it was announced. But this could be the season that makes the Welsh scrum-half.
The former Osprey moves to a team which is known for its fast tempo game and impressive European records. His Wales future may be at stake right now, but it will hard for the coaching staff to refuse Webb should he hit the ground running at the Mayol.
The return of two giants
Having been relegated after the 2016/17 season, Grenoble are back to make amends in the Top 14. The club, run by former France international Stéphane Glas alongside Dewald Senekal, finished third in the regular season of the second tier Pro D2 last season before comfortably beating Oyonnax 47-22 in the relegation play-off.
They’ve been on a recruitment drive and have tempted both former Reds player Ben Lucas and ex-Western Province prop JC Janse van Rensburg back to France.
Perpignan also mark their return to the championship for the first time since 2013/14, having won the Pro D2 title outright against Grenoble 38-13.
Their big signing for this season has been former Ulster fly-half Paddy Jackson, who converted three tries in their pre-season friendly defeat to Toulouse.
Opening weekend fixtures:
Saturday 25th August
Perpignan v Stade Français – Stade Aimé Giral
Bordeaux-Bègles v Pau – Stade Chaban-Delmas
Lyon v Toulouse – Matmus Stadium de Gerland
La Rochelle v Grenoble – Stade Marcel-Deflandre
Clermont Auvergne v Agen – Stade Marcel Michelin
Toulouse v Racing 92 – Stade Mayol
Sunday 26th August
Montpellier v Castres – Altrad Stadium