The Top 14 makes its return this weekend with a host of blockbuster encounters and many of France’s Grand Slam heroes set to feature.
With Les Bleus riding high on a ten-match winning streak, including the clean sweep in the 2022 Guinness Six Nations, the French domestic game is riding high and there is a lot to look out for on the opening weekend.
On Saturday, defending champions Montpellier travel to Heineken Champions Cup holders La Rochelle, while on Sunday heavyweights Bordeaux-Bègles and Toulouse meet in a clash of two of the biggest contributors to the France set-up.
BATTLE OF THE CHAMPS
The big game on Saturday comes in La Rochelle, where Philippe Saint-André’s Montpellier will be hoping to make a winning start on the road.
They take on the European champions who are packed full of French internationals and led by skipper Grégory Alldritt.
His battle with Zach Mercer will be worth the price of admission, while the most intriguing head-to-head could come in the midfield. With Louis Carbonel joining in the summer, Montpellier now have lots of options at fly-half, but find themselves a little thin in the centres, which could see Italy’s Paolo Garbisi shifted to inside centre.
He will be a dangerous playmaker in that role, but will not have it easy in defence against Jonathan Danty, La Rochelle and France’s battering ram in the midfield.
Tighthead props Uini Atonio and Mohamed Haouas will also have big roles to play, the former now first choice for Les Bleus, with Haouas his back-up at the moment.
HALF-BACKS ON SHOW IN BORDEAUX
Attention on Sunday will be focused entirely on the Stade Chaban-Delmas, where Bordeaux-Bègles host Toulouse.
The two sides both fell in the semi-finals last year and will be hoping to make amends, led by their all-international half-back pairings.
As it stands, Toulouse’s Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack are the first-choice pairing for France, with Bordeaux’s Maxime Lucu and Matthieu Jalibert next in line.
Jalibert has never been afraid of a little competition though, and will be looking to make an impression against his rival for the No.10 jersey.
Toulouse are also set to give debuts to a trio of newcomers, Italy’s Ange Capuozzo, France full-back Melvyn Jaminet and outside centre Pierre-Louis Barassi, with the last of those potentially facing off with Yoram Moefana, one of his main rivals for a place in the France squad.
Even without injured players like Cyril Baille and Thibaud Flament, this will be a game that Fabien Galthié is paying close attention to with a view to the Autumn Nations Series.
AROUND THE GROUNDS
Elsewhere, Finn Russell will have a big role to play for Racing 92 after a summer off. The Scotland fly-half was rested for the tour of Argentina and will want to hit the ground running against Castres.
That game should also see Cameron Woki make his debut for Racing after his summer move from Bordeaux back to his home city.
Meanwhile, in Toulon there will be some big opportunities for Jean-Baptiste Gros, looking to step up in Baille’s absence for France, and the skipper Charles Ollivon, aiming to hit top form after his international comeback in Japan.
And while Morgan Parra’s international days may be behind him, his first match for new side Stade Français will capture the imagination, coming against a Clermont team for whom he made more than 300 appearances in more than a decade.