French Top 14

Five Burning Questions For Top 14 Teams Heading Into 2024

Five Burning Questions For Top 14 Teams Heading Into 2024

After a tumultuous start to the Top 14 season, there's no clear favorite, and former powers are slumping. Take a look at what some clubs need to do in 2024.

Jan 2, 2024 by Briar Napier
Five Burning Questions For Top 14 Teams Heading Into 2024

As one year closes, a new year arrives.

And like just about every calendar year in French rugby, there is bound to be plenty of hijinks, drama and world-class play to come with it.

The Top 14 had its share of twists and turns in 2023, and with 11 rounds of play now finished in the league’s 2023-2024 slate, multiple teams will be looking to establish resolutions for their clubs for the months remaining in both their domestic and continental campaigns.

Here are five questions to take note of for Top 14 teams, as 2023 closes and 2024 gets underway:

Who Is The Clear Favorite?

Unlike the 2022-2023 regular season, in which giants Toulouse and La Rochelle were stellar all year and clearly the cream of the crop in the Top 14, the league will enter 2024 with no outright title favorites. Five clubs are locked in at 7-5 records and separated in the table by just four points. 

Racing 92 is the leader and has looked like the most consistent side for the most part, but even that was thrown into question last weekend after Bayonne stunningly came back from a 17-3 halftime deficit to win 27-23, propelled by two tries in the final six minutes. 

Some clubs across the league made up ground, while others slipped up in response — one of those teams, in particular, will be talked about more in-depth later in this article — and thanks to results elsewhere, Racing still holds the top spot going into the new year, even with a bit of shaky form that has included two defeats in its past three fixtures. 

For neutrals, the Top 14 appears to be setting up to have a calamitous title fight; for supporters who have teams involved in the mess, it’s going to be a tense few months with what’s sure to be plenty of ups and downs.

Can Pau Keep Pace?

The most surprising, and arguably interesting, team of the Top 14 this year, Section Paloise — which is used to battling to avoid relegation whenever it is in the top flight — has surged up the standings to start the 2023-2024 season and been jostling with the very best in France, ending a round at the top of the standings for the first time in club history earlier this year. Last season, the team finished 12th.

Big names dot the side, including breakout star center Emilien Gallieton and offseason signee/New Zealand all-time caps leader Sam Whitelock. Pau has been playing like a dangerous unit at times, but opportunities to strengthen its case as a true title contender frequently have slipped through its fingers.

Case in point: Pau, following Racing’s loss last weekend, had the opportunity to go to the top of the table with a win against newly promoted Oyonnax, with Whitelock (who had been sitting out due to a concussion) making his first start for the club in the meantime, setting the stage up for a celebratory end to 2023. 

Instead, the Oyomen rolled to a 34-13 win, with Argentine fly-half Domingo Miotti kicking through a stellar 19 points off the tee to sink Pau. 

Though most Pau supporters probably would’ve taken fourth place on 31 points to close 2023, the thought of what could’ve been could frustrate the club, if consistent play begins to wane.

Will La Rochelle Recover?

Just when Top 14 fans started getting used to La Rochelle being a mighty force in French rugby, Les Maritimes started to fade — and fade hard. 

The back-to-back Champions Cup winners and Top 14 runner-up for two of the past three seasons, Stade Rochelais has had a miserable start to its 2023-2024 campaign by its lofty standards; it has spent much of the Top 14 season, sitting in the bottom half of the league table and out of the Champions Cup places, whereas in Europe, the club’s three-peat hopes are in danger of disappearing completely, as it has been beaten in its two pool-stage games, leaving them out of the knockout stages as of this writing. 

Signs of a recovery, at least domestically, are here and there, with La Rochelle looking back to old form one week before slumping to a loss the next, but last weekend’s victory over Toulouse in a rematch of last season’s playoff final at least looked like a major step forward for the club. 

Against Toulouse, itself not looking great in the league (seventh on 27 points), La Rochelle had one of its best performances of the season by beating the heavily rotated reigning champions 29-8, propelled by a 24-point first half, which allowed coach Ronan O’Gara’s side to close the club’s tumultuous 2023 on a high note. 

Is Montpellier A Lost Cause?

The Top 14 winner two seasons ago, and the Challenge Cup champion twice since 2016, Montpellier’s golden era is crashing down, and the drop is staring it directly in the face. 

Les Cistes’ start to the season has been nothing short of disastrous and chaotic. After winning just one of its opening seven matches in the Top 14, the club’s brass sacked head coach Richard Cockerill and brought in Patrice Collazo (formerly of La Rochelle, Toulon and Brive) to try and salvage the season. 

Mixed in with the controversial hiring of Bernard Laporte — who resigned from his posts as World Rugby vice chairman and French Rugby Federation president following a corruption scandal — as the club’s director of rugby, the drastic moves have done little to help Montpellier’s ongoing push for survival. 

The club is rock-bottom in the league table on 12 points to close 2023 with just two wins from 11, sitting five points from the relegation playoff with a brutal slate of Toulon, Pau, La Rochelle and Racing 92 scheduled on the docket in Montpellier’s next four Top 14 matches. 

An uptick in form needs to come soon, or Montpellier’s relegation to Pro D2 will arrive that much quicker.

Will France Lift The Champions Cup?

Since the Champions Cup began for the 1995-1996 season, no nation has ever claimed four titles in Europe and South Africa’s top international club rugby competition. 

Can France in 2024 become the first to do so? 

Time will tell, but for a country that has had at least one team in every Champions Cup final since the 2011-2012 season (except for 2018-2019), France’s participating clubs certainly will give it their best shots. 

The country is on a three-year winning streak in the Champions Cup, considering that La Rochelle is a two-time holder and Toulouse wore the crown before La Rochelle’s back-to-back wins, beating Les Maritimes in the all-French Champions Cup final of 2020-2021. 

Halfway through the pool stages in this season’s competition, it seems as if France will have plenty of representation in the knockout stages; exactly how much is the bigger question.

Bordeaux-Begles and Toulouse both are topping their pools at the moment with 2-0 records, and they hold lopsided point differentials, as they each look bound to be among this year’s top contenders for the trophy. 

Lyon and surprise debutant Bayonne also are positioned in places to advance, while the route to the Round of 16 for France’s other four teams in the tournament — Racing 92, La Rochelle, Stade Francais and Toulon — requires all to have to make up ground. They all sit at 0-2 in the pools. 

Keep an eye on all of the Top 14 sides in the Champions Cup, as the final two games of pool play get going in mid-January, solidifying the league’s qualifiers for the knockout rounds.