The French doors which Irish provinces must unlock

The French doors which Irish provinces must unlock
Jacky LORENZETTI celebrates after his team wins the Top 14 match between Stade Francais and Racing 92 at Stade Jean Bouin on November 10, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Dave Winter/Icon Sport via Getty Images)

The Irish provincial video analysts will be busily plugging into footage of the French Top 14 ahead of this season’s European Champions Cup. All four representatives have been handed French assignments over the next three months - with Connacht getting a double helping.

Munster head back to Racing 92; Leinster face Lyon, a side looking for European redemption after a nightmare debut last season; Ulster meet perennial title bridesmaids Clermont while Andy Friend’s company take on twin Top 14 heavyweights Toulouse and Montpellier.

This is how those French teams have fared so far in a World Cup-affected first third of the Top 14 season.

Pool 1

Leinster, LYON Benetton, Northampton

It cannot be denied: Lyon have enjoyed a World Cup-assisted start to the Top 14 season, losing a minimal number of players to Japan call-ups. It’s also impossible not to be impressed by their form: eight wins in nine matches, 33 tries scored and only seven conceded, a points difference of +165, and a five-point lead at the top of the table.

Former French scrum-half Pierre Mignoni has quickly developed into a rare coaching talent and is already being talked of as a future national coach. Since joining from Toulon, he has stopped Lyon yo-yoing between divisions, consolidated their place in the Top 14, and then made a break for the top six.

Now, he has a point to prove.

Lyon’s first-ever Champions Cup campaign, last season, in a pool containing Saracens, Glasgow and Cardiff, ended in six defeats and no points. Being in the mix for the knockout phase heading into the final round of pool matches will be a minimum target this season.

But they face the toughest of starts. They open their account on Sunday against English Premiership high-flyers Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens, before entertaining Leinster the following Saturday.

One to watch: Pierre-Louis Barassi. If Lyon’s coaches are to be believed, the young centre is the future of the French midfield. This is his stage. Ignore livewire scrum-half Baptiste Couilloud at your peril, too.

Pool 3

Ulster, CLERMONT, Bath, Harlequins

The sight of Clermont’s now-retired hooker Benjamin Kayser getting his hands on European silverware in his final season as a player — after a run of six runners-up medals — was one of the joys of the Challenge Cup last season.

Now back at the top table of European rugby after a season in the second tier, Clermont head coach Franck Azema will be pleased to finally welcome his World Cup returnees after a ponderous early campaign.

Any side would miss the likes of Alivereti Raka, Rabah Slimani, Camille Lopez, Fritz Lee, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Arthur Iturria, and Damian Penaud. That Clermont have is no surprise.

They are sixth in the Top 14, in the middle of a pack of 10 clubs separated by just three points, and were out of sorts — and well beaten — at Toulouse last weekend in front of members of the new France coaching squad, including defence coach Shaun Edwards. They did, however, keep back a few of their more recent World Cup returnees, including Iturria, who has a thigh niggle, and Penaud.

Clermont open their 2019/20 Champions Cup campaign at home to Harlequins on Saturday, and face Ulster at the Kingspan the following Friday.

One to watch: Peter Betham. The Australian has a habit of scoring crucial tries - especially at Marcel Michelin. On his day, he is a more elusive runner than even Penaud, himself a player who terrifies defences for fun.

Pool 4

Munster, RACING 92, Ospreys, Saracens

Speaking of sides missing World Cup players … and coaches … Racing have been desperate for their stars, including Virimi Vakatawa, Maxime Machenaud and Camille Chat, to come home. Even now, all is not entirely well.

Head coach Laurent Travers has looked slightly lost without his long-term flying buddy Laurent Labit, now part of the national set-up.

There is, however, more than a strong hint that his budding relationship with assistant Mike Prendergast is starting to gel.

That is good news for Racing, and not a moment too soon, after they briefly flirted with the foot of the table twice in the early rounds of the season.

They welcome Saracens to La Defense Arena on Sunday, for the final Champions Cup game of the opening weekend. They are at Thomond the following Saturday. They will be without Fiji lock Leone Nakarawa, who has been suspended pending a disciplinary meeting on November 22, after not returning from his post-World Cup holiday as expected.

One to watch:

Virimi Vakatawa. Teddy Thomas scored a hat-trick in the Paris derby on Sunday - but he fed off Vakatawa, who is finally, belatedly threatening to reach his potential. He had a decent tournament in Japan and created midfield havoc on his return to club duty.

Pool 5

Connacht, TOULOUSE, MONTPELLIER, Gloucester

Toulouse

A shortened post-championship pre-season and a double-figure number of players absent on World Cup duty meant the early part of this Top 14 campaign was always going to be difficult for Ugo Mola’s Toulouse.

They have hung in there impressively without their World Cup stars. They’ve won all their home games, and picked up the odd bonus point on the road to sit eighth in the league, two points off third - but, admittedly, a mile behind first and second.

But they are so much better with them as witnessed in their 34-8 win over Clermont on Saturday.

They are still without scrum-half Antoine Dupont, who reportedly played in the World Cup quarter-final against Wales with a back injury that has kept him from training since his return. But Romain Ntamack, Sofiane Guitoune, Maxime Medard and Yoann Huget — along with early returnee Thomas Ramos — made hay while the floodlights shone on a cold evening in Toulouse last week.

If Mola’s comments to the press that Toulouse are taking this competition very seriously this year have gone under the radar, the performance against Clermont made it clear. Toulouse are coming.

They help kick off this year’s tournament at Gloucester tonight, before entertaining Connacht at Ernest Wallon the following Saturday.

One to watch:

Romain Ntamack. World Rugby’s breakthrough player of the year slotted right back into inside centre at Toulouse as if he’d never been away. If he gets a chance, watch out too for Theo Idjellidaine, the teenage scrum-half called up as a replacement for Dupont.

Montpellier

The switch from Vern Cotter — booted upstairs to a Director of Rugby role — to former La Rochelle coach Xavier Garbajosa in search of more open, attractive, rugby has not exactly gone according to plan. For all their South African beef, Montpellier have won just three times in nine outings this season, and once since September 7. Despite being thoroughly underwhelming so far this season, they still sit seventh in the table and are one of just four French top-flight teams with a points difference that’s in the black.

They lost eight players to the World Cup — - including France’s Yacouba Camara, Louis Picamoles and new signing Guilhem Guirado, and eventual World Cup winner Frans Steyn — who’s returning to the club for a short period this week before heading back to South Africa permanently in January.

But even now most of them have returned, a near-full complement has failed to ignite the side. They hobbled to a 19-19 draw at Toulon last weekend — and lost Guirado for five months to injury.

Frankly, Europe couldn’t come soon enough. A break from the rigours of the Top 14 marathon for the nine-match relative sprint that is the Champions Cup could be just what they need.

Montpellier’s first outing of the Champions Cup is at the Sportsground against Connacht on Sunday. They are then at home to Gloucester the following Sunday

One to watch:

Gabriel N’Gandebe. The little Cameroon-born French winger is known as GGV (Gabriel Grande Vitesse) in Montpellier. And, yes, he’s got a step like Cheslin Kolbe and needs about as much room as the South African to cause panic among the defence.

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