Who to succeed La Rochelle? The French club, double outgoing winner, puts its title back on the line this weekend in the Champions Cup among the other usual contenders, Leinster, Toulouse, Saracens or why not the South African franchises and their world champions.
Do you ever doze off on Saturday afternoons in front of the Top 14? Do you miss the game at the foot of the XV de la Rose as much as the English-speaking referees and your patriotic impulses are curbed?
Good news: a little over a month after the World Cup final, international rugby is back on Friday with the Champions Cup, the European Cup extended last year to South Africa.
Those who have still not digested the elimination of the Blues in the quarter-finals of the World Cup have another opportunity to rejoice: the (inter)continental competition has been French property for three years.
After Stade Toulouse’s record fifth European title in 2021, La Rochelle won the last two editions, each time beating the Irish from Leinster in the final, whom fate reserved for them this Sunday.
“It will put us in the mood,” salivates La Rochelle winger Raymond Rhule, whose club has necessarily changed its status. “Now, everyone knows that if you want to win, you have to beat La Rochelle. There is respect.”
Change on the benches
Even without their playing master Johnny Sexton, who has retired, Leinster, the main supplier of the Irish team (which also fell in the quarters of the World Cup), is still among the favorites.
The province of Dublin, now coached by world champion coach Jacques Nienaber, has become the bane of Antoine Dupont’s Toulouse, defeated twice in a row in the last four.
Siya Kolisi, surrounded by the president of Racing 92 Laurent Travers (left) and his new coach Stuart Lancaster, November 9, 2023 at Plessis-Robinson / Thomas SAMSON / AFP
The former Leinstermen coach, Stuart Lancaster, has since joined a French bench, that of Racing 92, which dreams of putting its name on the list after failing three times in the final (2016, 2018 and 2020).
The Hauts-de-Seine club will be able to count on its new star, the captain of the South African world champions Siya Kolisi, one of the many Springboks playing abroad.
There are still a few left in the three franchises of the rainbow nation involved in the Champions Cup, Bulls, Sharks and Stormers, with the ambition of this time going beyond the quarter-final stage.
“Write our history”
“These are teams that we are not used to facing, but we know the game of the South Africans, very physical with a lot of speed,” analyzes Toulouse third row Anthony Jelonch to AFP. “They will want to prove that they have their place in the Northern Hemisphere.”
A total of eight French clubs are on the starting line for this 2023/2024 edition, marked by yet another new format, with four different opponents during the group stage, two home matches and two away.
Damian Penaud in his new Bordeaux-Bègles colors, November 19, 2023 in La Rochelle / XAVIER LEOTY / AFP
Bordeaux-Bègles, semi-finalist in 2021, can harbor some ambitions behind its flamboyant three-quarter line, reinforced by Blues winger Damian Penaud, in brilliant form since his return from the World Cup.
In a good dynamic in the championship, RC Toulon makes its return among the “big ones” after two years of absence, and cherishes the secret hope of reliving the glorious European hours of its three consecutive coronations in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
“These are moments and emotions that remain engraved for life and we too want to seek that out,” RCT international winger Gabin Villière told AFP. “We want to write our history and be part of this club’s list of achievements.”
Stade français was twice a finalist in another life (2001 and 2005) and Lyon won the European Challenge in 2022. Surprise team in the Top 14 last season, Bayonne discovers the Champions Cup, the final of which will be played on May 25 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London.