With Racing 92 the beaten finalists last year and Toulon three-time winners before that, expectations are high that French sides can lift the Champions Cup
The Champions Cup starts this weekend and the seven French sides have experienced fluctuating fortunes so far this season in the Top 14. With sackings, sales and scandals dominating the headlines in recent weeks, will the French be able to focus on European competition or will it all turn into another French farce?
Connacht v Toulouse
The days when Toulouse dominated European rugby are a distant memory. It’s seven seasons since they won the last of their four titles and three years since they made it out of the pool stage. As their sporting director, Fabien Pelous, conceded earlier in the week: “We’re a small club in the Champions Cup but we’ll try and surprise everybody,” said the man who won two Heineken Cups with Toulouse. “Our pool is pretty open but no one makes us favourites, and that will be good for us.” They start with a trip to Pro12 champions Connacht, who three years ago stunned Toulouse in France by winning 16-14. Toulouse will look to crush the life out of their hosts up front as they did last Sunday against Clermont.
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A front five including Census Johnston, Joe Tekori and Christopher Tolofua humiliated Clermont in front of their home fans and the prospect of a scrum that welcomes back Thierry Dusautoir, Yoann Maestri and Richie Gray will surely send a shudder through the Connacht pack. On the other hand, the Irish province will draw some comfort from the fact Toulouse have the worst goalkicking record in the Top 14 this season. Admitting that Toulouse “are short on confidence” these days, captain Dusautoir explained the principal objective is to “reconstruct” a side capable of restoring the club’s glory days in Europe. “But there are no magic formulas to be champions.”
Racing 92 v Munster
It hasn’t been the best of starts to the season for the Top 14 champions. Eighth in the table with two wins in their last five league outings, the Parisians have been embroiled in controversy following last Friday’s story in L’Equipe that Dan Carter
, Joe Rokocoko and Juan Imhoff had had cortisone injections prior to last season’s Top 14 final.
Testing week: Racing's Juan Imhoff, Dan Carter and Joe Rococoko are under scrutiny Rugby World
The trio spent Wednesday explaining themselves to an FFR anti-doping committee and the whole affair has taken the gloss of last weekend’s win over Stade Francais in the Paris derby, as well as the news on Monday that Johan Goosen had been named by his peers as the 2015-16 Top 14 Player of the Season. “The controversy has spoiled a little our pleasure,” admitted Racing president Jacky Lorenzetti. “I think above all of our loved ones, and the father of Juan Imoff, who is a doctor, and who knows of his son’s probity.”
Carter sat out the win against Stade Francais but he’s expected to have recovered from a calf niggle and he’s expected to want to prove a point against the Munstermen.
Leinster v Castres
Don’t expect much from Castres in the Champions Cup. Currently tenth in the Top 14 with just three victories in eight matches this season, they’re past achievements in Europe’s premier competition have been largely forgettable. In their last appearance, two seasons ago, they lost all six pool matches and the season before that they managed just two victories. Lacking the star quality and strength in depth of other French sides in the competition, Castres will present a stern challenge at home but are unlikely to have much success on the road against Leinster, Saints or Montpellier.
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The latter beat them 28-19 on Sunday in Montpellier, prompting Castres head coach Christophe Urios to mutter: “I tell myself that we’re on the right road. We have to find the resources to continue to believe it.” Already the local paper, La Depeche, is wondering whether Castres will sacrifice the Champions Cup in order to focus on their domestic campaign. Admitting that the club’s relationship with Europe in the past has been “complicated”, Urious told the paper: “There have been good periods but the majority have been a lot less good…what we can say is that against Leinster and Northampton we are going to give it everything without worrying about whether it’s the European Cup or not.”
Clermont v Exeter
Clermont’s European campaign last season was a disaster. They didn’t just finish bottom of the pool, they did so in humiliating fashion, failing to take a simple shot at goal in the last minute that would have earned them the bonus point needed to qualify for the quarter-final. So they’re on a mission this season, and as coach Franck Azema explained earlier in the week they now know the strength of Exeter having “been surprised by them 12 months ago”.
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Describing their clash with the Chiefs as “the first true test of the season,” Azema added: “It’s a team that is sure of itself, is compact and who believe in their game plan.” Beaten 31-14 at Sandy Park last season, Azema admitted that “there’ll be a whiff of revenge” on their part when they meet on Sunday. One thing Clermont (for whom scrum-half Morgan Parra is uncertain because of a thigh strain) must do is shore up their scrum. Against Toulouse on Sunday they were brutally exposed in the set-piece with Azema labelling his pack “rubbish”.
Northampton v Montpellier
It’s not been the peaceful week of preparation that Jake White would have wanted as his Montpellier side prepare for the trip to Northampton. First came the news that fly-half Demetri Catrakilis has signed for Harlequins for next season, then it was revealed that Henry Immelman is out for six weeks with an ankle injury and on Tuesday night it was announced that Timoci Nagusa won’t be arriving from Fiji until Thursday.
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On top of that White gave a rather mournful interview to Le Figaro newspaper in which he admitted he was “sad” and “disappointed” that president Mohed Altrad had decided to give his job to Vern Cotter from next season onwards. Nonetheless White, who guided Montpellier to the Challenge Cup last season, struck a bullish note in declaring that “I have more confidence in my squad this year, I can make more rotations. So if necessary we can play on two fronts, the Top 14 and the Champions Cup”. Asked if he thought Montpellier could win the Champions Cup, White replied: “I’m a realist. We’re in a group of quality, clearly, but one must know how to manage the pressure in big moments. So one step at a time.”
Toulon v Saracens
This will be the third time these two clubs have met in the Champions Cup and Toulon have yet to lose. But they’ll face a stern test against the reigning champions despite the fact Diego Dominguez seems to have weathered the early storm in the Top 14. With only one defeat in their last five matches, Toulon are building some momentum if not much structure in their backline.
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The arrival of former Bath coach Mike Ford as a sort of Mr Fix-it will only improve Toulon’s shape and direction, and at a press conference earlier in the week Dominguez appeared much more relaxed than earlier in the season. “We’re not tournament favourites this season,” he told reporters. “But all the same we have the experience with certain players who have won it three times. That will work in our favour, as will our supporters who are going to be right behind us because they’ve already tasted success and want it again.” Dominguez was a member of the Stade Francais side that lost to Leicester in the 2001 Heineken Cup final, and the Italian admitted “it’s a dream of mine to win the cup”.
Bordeaux v Ulster
It’s been a curious start to the season for Bordeaux – patches of superb rugby punctuated by poor discipline that has made life more difficult than it should. Saturday’s 27-25 win over Brive was a case in point with Raphael Ibanez’s side just managing to hold on for their fifth win of the campaign after picking up two yellow cards in the final ten minutes, taking their tally for the season to eight (plus one red card).
Back for the Ulster game will be prop Steven Kitshoff, who returned this week from Springbok duty, while Kiwi loose forward Luke Braid is also likely to feature after recovering from a head knock a fortnight ago. Present, too, and no doubt able to give some inside information on Ulster, will be Ian Madigan. The former Leinster fly-half sat out the Brive game but with 79 points already this season, the 27-year-old Irishman has become a key component since his arrival in July. Invited onto a local radio station this week, Madigan impressed his hosts with his French, and he had this to say about how he’s settled in his new home: “I’m learning all the time…for the first five or six matches it was important that I played for the team. I think I’m still only at around 80% but I hope I will be at 100% against Ulster.”
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