PARIS, France, August 26 – The new Top 14 season gets underway on Friday but while most rugby fans can’t wait for the World Cup to begin in September the quadrennial global showpiece is a headache most of the domestic coaches could do without.
Champions Toulouse, who will be bidding to become the first side since Biarritz in 2006 to retain the title and extend their record haul of crowns to 19, will be the hardest hit with Clermont, Biarritz, Toulon and Racing-Metro.
They along with last season’s surprise beaten finalists Montpellier, who will lose key duo captain Fulgence Ouedraogo and fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, will be without their leading players for eight matches.
Toulon, who will be missing fly-half Jonny Wilkinson among others, will also have to look for another coach as Philippe Saint-Andre is set to replace Marc Lievremont as national handler after the World Cup.
Toulouse, who open the defence of their title away at Bayonne, at least retained their legendary 57-year-old coach Guy Noves, who turned down the advances of the French Rugby Federation to replace Lievremont.
Noves, who has guided Toulouse to four European Cups and nine domestic titles, admits that he is concerned by the state of his squad as it has been decimated by World Cup call-ups and injuries.
“I would say that it is in a precarious state,” he said. “The majority of the players are in great form, but certain positions are bare.
“It is a team capable of playing really good rugby but which in key areas is in trouble.
“It is vital that we carry on our work and hope that we get back some of the missing players.”
Noves, who says that he was not disheartened by the form of his side despite two defeats in three warm-up matches, has bought cannily in the form of the experienced fly-half Lionel Beauxis, and the two Lukes, former All Black centre McAlister and Wallaby scrum-half Burgess.
However, while the normally fiery Noves has largely held back from commenting on the effect of the World Cup has had on his squad, his backs coach Jean-Baptiste Elissalde gave full vent to his frustration.
“It’s absurd … but that’s how it is. We knew this and it’s a challenge for us,” said the former French scrum-half, adding that such a situation would be unthinkable in football.
“If you asked the big football teams to play without their internationals for 10 or 11 matches they wouldn’t do it, or they’d pull a long face,” added Elissalde, who pointed out that Toulouse have a minimum of 10 and maximum of 17 internationals tied up.
Saint-Andre, who made his name as a coach at English sides Gloucester and Sale, insists that he will not be distracted by his looming new appointment.
He is intent on integrating his new arrivals such as 92-times capped Wallaby fly-half Matt Giteau and two highly-talented but controversial centres in Willie Mason and Mathieu Bastareaud as they seek to rebound from a disappointing season where they missed out on the play-offs.
“For the moment I’m trying to be as focused as possible on the match against Biarritz (on Saturday) and my squad.
“I’m trying to deal with this situation with as much transparency and openess as possible.”
The challenge for Montpellier – who have brought in experienced former France internationals Thibault Privat and Remy Martin – is to try and maintain the momentum which saw them stun everyone who believed they were candidates for relegation to going all the way to the final.
Eric Bechu, joint head coach with former France captain Fabien Galthie, knows that a repeat of such a performance is difficult with a team with more limited resources than rivals such as Toulon and Racing-Metro, who are bankrolled by multi-millionaires.
“We are anticipating a very difficult year. The margin of progress is very narrow. The second season is always more complicated than the first, knowing that we have freshened up the team and that we begin again from zero.”