French Top 14

Top 14 Champions Cup Early Takeaways: La Rochelle's Dynasty Over?

Top 14 Champions Cup Early Takeaways: La Rochelle's Dynasty Over?

La Rochelle's hopes for a Champions Cup three-peat are in serious jeopardy, whereas Toulouse and Bordeaux are among the competition's early standouts.

Dec 20, 2023 by Briar Napier
Top 14 Champions Cup Early Takeaways: La Rochelle's Dynasty Over?

Through two weekends of Champions Cup play, it has been a mixed bag of results for the eight clubs from France’s Top 14 for the 2023-2024 competition.

On one hand, multiple clubs have passed their first two European tests of the season with flying colors and look set up to advance further. 

On the other hand, some clubs have floundered instead of flourished — including an established power that has been the class of the competition in recent years. 

Now, halfway through this season’s pool stages, it is put-up or shut-up time when Rounds 3 and 4 come into play next month, and only 16 of the 24 teams in the Champions Cup can move forward into the next stage.

Can France bring along a heavy contingent to the knockout rounds when the pool stage concludes, or will just a select few earn the right to try and give the Top 14 its fourth successive Champions Cup title?

Here’s a look at what to take away from the performances of Top 14 clubs in Rounds 1 and 2 of the 2023-2024 Champions Cup:

La Rochelle’s Hopes Dashed?

La Rochelle has made three straight Champions Cup finals and won each of the past two editions of European rugby’s toughest and most storied club competition. 

Now, Les Maritimes are in serious danger of not even advancing out of the pool stage. 

Though it admittedly was placed in a stacked Pool D, defeats in the opening two rounds to continental rival Leinster on the opening weekend and the Stormers at the death this past weekend - when Manie Libbok’s last-minute conversion sealed the deal on a thrilling 21-20 win for the South African side - have put coach Ronan O’Gara’s men in jeopardy of an early Champions Cup exit, something La Rochelle hasn’t been used to hearing recently. 

Compounded with a slow start in Top 14 play, in which it won just four matches from its first nine to be placed ninth at the European break, La Rochelle’s form to start the 2023-2024 campaign has been disastrous by its lofty standards, and it must recover soon to stay in the fight for silverware both at home and abroad. 

With the unbeaten Leicester Tigers visiting the Stade Marcel-Deflandre in Round 3 in mid-January, there’s at least an opportunity on the horizon for La Rochelle to exorcise its demons and get back rolling — and the danger of slipping even further and making qualification for the knockout rounds all but impossible.

Bordeaux, Toulouse Off To Flyers

In terms of the French clubs competing in the Champions Cup this season, Bordeaux-Begles and Toulouse have looked the most like world-beaters in the opening two rounds of the competition. 

The two teams lead Pools A and B, respectively, on 10 points apiece with a pair of victories, as both have looked great against European rivals. 

Toulouse, usually one of the yearly favorites to take the Champions Cup, have appeared early to be the side everyone else will be chasing down the stretch; it obliterated Cardiff (52-7) and Harlequins (47-19) in successive weekends. Toulouse’s point differential of +73 is the best of any team in the competition. 

Then there’s Bordeaux, which admittedly played a heavily rotated Bristol Bears side last weekend, but stars like Damian Penaud and Louis Bielle-Biarrey — both of whom scored tries — ensured there was to be no drama and no repeat of the Bears’ Round 1 thriller over Lyon with a 36-17 victory. 

There still is a lot of rugby left to be played, but if there are two surefire bets in French rugby to make a deep European run, those bets might be safest in the hands of Toulouse, already the continent's most successful club with five Champions Cup wins, and Bordeaux, which has never made a Champions Cup final.

Can Racing 92 Recover?

For how stellar Racing 92 has looked for much of the Top 14 season, the complete opposite of that has happened through the club’s first two Champions Cup matches, as the Top 14 leader is 0-2 in the pool stage and in danger of not making it to the knockout rounds. 

Against Harlequins at the Paris La Defense Arena, a Marcus Smith masterclass and second-half comeback doomed the home side in a 31-28 defeat, but Racing at least picked up two bonus points and had a winnable match against Irish outfit Ulster — which had been battered by England’s Bath — on the horizon in Round 2. 

That is, it was winnable, until the northern province ripped out to a 14-0 start and eventual 28-5 lead, while making Racing’s star-ladden squad look off-kilter all night in a 31-15 Ulster win, snapping a three-match winless run with its back against the wall. 

Racing, meanwhile, was left shellshocked and with ground to make up to get to the Round of 16 in mid-January, and needs to get results fast in the Champions Cup to avoid a catastrophic crashing out of the competition — or maybe even European rugby entirely if it isn’t careful — early in the campaign.

Bayonne A Pleasant Surprise

Usually in the thick of relegation fights when it’s made it to the top flight, Bayonne — playing in the Champions Cup for the first time in club history this season — clearly didn’t get the memo that it was supposed to go out of the competition without much fight. 

Yes, Bayonne is winless in Pool C play through two matchweeks, but if the pool stage ended today, the club from the Pyrenees in southwestern France would be in the knockout rounds.

Bayonne first made its presence felt when it picked up a historic draw in Round 1 with Munster, scoring a 75th-minute try from Remy Baget and earning the two points when the Irish club missed what would’ve been a winning drop goal at the death. 

Dared to follow it up in Round 2 as it awaited a visit from the Glasgow Warriors at the Stade Jean-Dauger, Glasgow held on and won a 12-11 war, which was a massive result for the Scots (who became the first team to win at Bayonne in all competitions this season) and their own progression hopes, but Bayonne did at least pick up the losing bonus point. 

It’s an uphill climb to advance for Bayonne now, which has matchups against pool-leaders and Premiership powers Northampton Saints and Exeter Chiefs still to come, but it’s a spirited performance from the French club nevertheless, regardless of where it ends up next in European rugby.

Stade Francais And Toulon In Trouble

Two French clubs that aren’t having good times right now in European rugby, meanwhile, are Stade Francais and Toulon, each anchored to the bottom of their pools with a pair of defeats.

Toulon, in Pool C, at least has the excuse that it played the two leading teams within it close, picking up bonus points against both Northampton and Exeter, as last season’s Challenge Cup winners lost those two matches by a combined four points. 

Still, Toulon certainly is wishing it didn’t start the match so slowly against the Saints or finished so much with a whimper in Northampton this past weekend, as the hosts got a go-ahead try from Tom Lockett in the 77th minute to win it following a strong Toulon fightback. 

Potentially easier matches may be coming for Toulon in the remainder of the pool stages, but over in Pool D’s “Pool of Death,” where Stade Francais sits in last as of this moment, there are arguably no easier matches. 

The Parisians were annihilated by a 28-5 margin in Round 1 by the Sale Sharks, and though a much better performance against the Leicester Tigers came the next weekend, an electric hat trick from Archie Vanes prevented Stade Francais from its first Champions Cup win, going down 27-24 as a host of major opportunities were squandered. 

There won’t be many more chances remaining in the pool stage for either club to recover.