Wallabies coach Michael Cheika speaks ahead of his side’s Test against South Africa.
First played in 1892, the French domestic championship begins in a little over a month, with the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (the French National Rugby League) making key changes to the competition that take effect from 2010/11 onwards.
Next season, 50% of the squad of every Top 14 or Pro D2 club will need to be made up of home grown players. The classifications of this are stringent.
It means that a player must hold a FFR license for at least 5 years after the age of 21, or have spent a minimum of 3 years in a French rugby club academy between the ages of 16 to 21.
Over the next two seasons, this percentage will rise to 70%. Soon the fields of France will no longer be as easy an option for overseas players.
No doubt French rugby will become far stronger for it.
Also, a salary cap of sorts will be introduced, essentially bringing the spending of all clubs to a reasonable medium, and applying principles that will not allow dramatic season to season increases; as well as tightening controls on budget irregularities.
As for the teams themselves, both US Dax and Mont-de-Marsan leave the top division of French rugby, relegated to the Pro D2 (the second tier of French rugby competition).
SCA Albi, who won the promotion match, will return to the Top 14, and will be joined by the Pro D2 champions, the famous Racing-Metro 92 club.
The two “new boys” will face off in the opening round of the championship.
As Toulon has before them, the 2008/09 Pro D2 champions have spent big for their campaign in the top flight, although their spending still pales in comparison with Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal’s club, that boasts another turnover of global superstars.
Toulon’s most prominent signing is arguably Phillipe Saint Andre, who moves to the club from the Sale Sharks and will work alongside former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga. There is also a certain fly half called Jonny Wilkinson who, by all reports, looks to be in the best physical condition of his recently injury plagued career.
Toulon, who may not be able to call on the services of the 2003 World Cup winning pivot early in the season due to England commitments, will face off against Stade Francais in the opening round.
But for Racing, boss Jacky Lorenzetti – head of real estate giant Foncia – has poured millions into recruitment this year, and he is citing a goal for the team to be playing Heineken Cup by 2011.
With all the changes due in the next couple of years, this could be the last year where the big spending and traditional giants of France have their way.
Perpignan last year became just the fourth club to win the title since 1994, as the league in the professional era has been dominated by the big three of Toulouse, Stade Francais and Biarritz.
Despite the massive amounts of media attention surrounding the signing of Dan Carter, the club won their seventh Bouclier de Brennus title without their glamour player.
However, despite glimpse of excellence from the usual club heavyweights such as Stade and Toulouse, there was little doubt that the 2003 Heineken Cup runners up and regular season top qualifiers were the form team throughout the season, proving to their more illustrious counterparts the importance of executing clean and clinical rugby.
Statistically, they were more disciplined and made fewer errors than any other Top 14 side last year.
However, Stade Toulousain will again be the team to beat, disappointed with what would be termed by their standards, failures at both French domestic and European Cup level.
The 17 time French champions and three time champions of Europe have had a few changes in personal, but still have their French test backline and a squad that boasts no less than 18 players who have played test rugby.
The will play against Montauban away to kick off their season.
As always, there will be the dark horses, with Brive having no less than five English internationals now on their books, as well as fast rising centre Riki Flutey, one of only a handful of such players in France selected for Martin Johnson’s new elite squad.
The season kicks off in the middle of August, and will run till May 2010, provisionally the longest running domestic championship in world rugby.
The Top 14 championship
Winner receives the Bouclier de Brennus (or Brennus Shield)
Championship began in 1892
Last three champions
2009: USA Perpignan 22 – 13 ASM Clermont Auvergne
2008: Stade Toulousain 26 – 20 ASM Clermont Auvergne
2007: Stade Francais 23 – 18 ASM Clermont Auvergne
Championship roll of honour
Stade Toulousain – 17
Stade Francais – 13
AS Béziers – 11
SU Agen – 8
FC Lourdes – 8
Stade Bordelais – 7
USA Perpignan – 7