French Top kicks off basking in glow of World Cup

26th October 2007, Comments 0 comments

26 October 2007, PARIS (AFP) - Basking in the glow of its excellent hosting of the rugby World Cup, French clubs get their domestic championship, the Top 14, under way this weekend with a raft of international star signings taking part.

26 October 2007

PARIS (AFP) - Basking in the glow of its excellent hosting of the rugby World Cup, French clubs get their domestic championship, the Top 14, under way this weekend with a raft of international star signings taking part.

Percy Montgomery, who booted South Africa to the final win over England, and Springbok captain John Smit will this season play in the colours of Perpignan and Clermont respectively.

Another big signing is that of All Black scrum-half Byron Kelleher by Toulouse, who say goodbye to mercurial outside-half Frederic Michalak, a long-time signee with South African Super 14 outfit the Natal Sharks.

Montgomery will be joined at Perpignan by abrasive Samoa No 8 Henry Tuilagi and Scotland scrum-half Chris Cusiter, and the Catalan club is sure to be banking on some solid home support having already sold 9,200 season tickets.

Biarritz, league winners in 2006, have snapped up Montgomery's international team-mates Ashwin Willemse, a winger, and lock Jacques Cronje.

Reigning champions Stade Francais get their campaign off under way on Saturday against Clermont, the team they beat 23-18 in the play-off championship final last season.

But the high-rolling Parisian club has been hit hard by a number of pre-season injuries and the late arrival of players returning from international duty.

Coach Fabien Galthie will be without Argentina trio Rodrigo Roncero, Ignacio Corleto and Juan Hernandez, as well as new Scottish recruit Simon Taylor, Stephane Glas and Sylvain Marconnet, France's most capped prop whose absence from the France squad because of failing to recover full fitness following a broken leg cost them dearly.

Four members of France's World Cup squad, David Skrela, Lionel Beauxis, Remy Martin and Dimitri Szarzewski, might have to wait before enjoying their obligatory week of rest, while two others - veterans Christophe Dominici and Pieter De Villiers - do rest.

Reinforcements are desperately needed given Stade's disastrous pre-season results.

They have lost friendlies to Bourgoin (18-3) and Bayonne (35-3), drawn with second division side Beziers (7-7), and recorded their only win over Italian outfit Treviso (42-10).

"We're not at the level where we'd like to be," admitted Galthie, who has seen the club's budget rise to 15.5 million euros from 11.8 million last season.

"For three years, we've been achieving 72 to 73 percent victories in our games in both the European Cup and Top-14.

"We have a certain mindset and technique that allows us to ensure the minimum. We mustn't panic even if it's a little tough."

Under-achieving Toulouse, buoyed by the signing of Kelleher, will boast a strong squad despite the departure of Michalak, Wales captain Gareth Thomas, Benoit Baby, Trevor Brennan, Yannick Bru and Jean Dubois.

They have signed outstanding No 8 Shawn Sowerby, who missed Stade Francais' winning campaign last season with a broken leg, Yohan Montes, Scottish back Marcus di Rollo and Argentina's Alberto Basualdo.

Clermont, beaten league finalists on a record eight times, will seek to recreate the forward-driven form that nearly took them to the peak last season.

Aside from Bok skipper Smit, the club has signed France No 8 Julien Bonnaire, who had an outstanding World Cup, centre Baby from Toulouse, and canny outside-half Alex King, who was part of Wasps' European Cup-winning team last season.

Auch and Dax are this season's newly promoted clubs, and the latter suffered a bombshell before their first game against Toulouse on Friday when coach Marc Lievremont was this week unveiled as France's new coach in place of Bernard Laporte.

Five rounds of the Top 14 will be played during the Six Nations tournament, meaning strength in depth in every squad will be essential for success come Spring.

AFP

Subject: French news

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