Tight Top 14 tussle in prospect


World rugby's most star-studded domestic competition, France's Top 14, begins this weekend, with last season's surprise champions Stade Francais out to defend their hard-earned crown.

The Parisian club had failed to even reach the play-offs for the previous five seasons, but, after finishing fourth, managed to down Racing Metro – now Racing 92) – Toulon and Clermont Auvergne in consecutive weeks to claim their first title since 2007.

South African flanker Willem Alberts and vastly experienced Australia scrum-half Will Genia are Stade's big-name off-season recruits, while skipper Sergio Parisse will again be one of their key men.

Clermont, Toulon and Toulouse were the teams to finish above Stade Francais at the end of the regular season and all three harbour strong title ambitions again this term.

Champions Cup holders Toulon may have lost forwards Carl Hayman, Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha, but they have splashed the cash again to secure the services of Paul O'Connell, Duane Vermuelen, Quade Cooper and Ma'a Nonu.

And there will also be a change in the coaching set-up come January when Bernard Laporte is scheduled to hand over the reins to current assistant Diego Dominguez.

Toulouse are another side under a new coach, with Ugo Mola replacing Guy Noves, who will take charge of the France after the Rugby World Cup.

The 2012 Top 14 champions have not been as active on the recruitment front as some of their main rivals, but with the likes of Corey Flynn, Imanol Harinordoquy and Thierry Dusatoir on board, will surely be among the pace-setters again.

The same can be said of Clermont, who, having lost six Top 14 and Champions Cup finals in the last eight seasons, are desperate to lose their nearly-men reputation.

Their back division will again be among the most exciting in Europe, with Nick Abendanon, Wesley Fofana and Noa Nakaitaci almost unplayable when firing on all cylinders and the recruitment of Hosea Gear, David Strettle and Scott Spedding means that coach Franck Azema has a plethora of backline options at his disposal.

Racing 92 are also likely to be in the hunt in for glory following a busy time in the transfer market, with the likes of Jamie Roberts and Johnny Sexton moving on and Dan Carter and Chris Masoe coming in.

Of the sides that finished outside the top six last season, Bordeaux-Begles have shown plenty of ambition by drafting in southern hemisphere trio Adam Ashley-Cooper, Sekope Kepu and Luke Braid, while newly promoted Pau have snapped up New Zealand stars Conrad Smith and Colin Slade, along with veteran Scottish prop Euan Murray.

Montpellier, meanwhile, have opted to sign no fewer than 11 South African imports as they bid to improve upon last season's eighth-placed finish, with brothers Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Demetri Catrakilis, CJ van der Linde and Pierre Spies among those heading for the Altrad Stadium.