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Top 14: The best and worst signings in French rugby

Martin Gillingham

One of the worst-kept secrets in French rugby was confirmed as fact on Monday morning when Springbok Francois Steyn announced that he shall be leaving Racing Metro at the end of the season to return to South Africa. In comparison with the club owner Jacky Lorenzetti’s other marquee buys, Steyn has been a roaring success in Paris. Of the others, Sebastien Chabal, the best paid player in France, had long lost his place in the club’s starting XV when he was sacked in February while Juan Martin Hernandez has looked anything but El Mago during his two seasons – a period characterised by long injury lay-offs and modest form.

So, which of the Top 14’s Wild Geese have been truly committed to the cause and, for those who stumped up the cash to bring them to France, proved to be money well spent? On the other hand, which ones have looked pale imitations of their former selves and shown to be little more than mercenaries cashing in on the big bucks?  Here are a dozen of them. You may want to add a few more below.

wilko 300x225 Top 14: The best and worst signings in French rugby

Jonny Wilkinson - thriving on the Mediterranean coast

WORTH EVERY PENNY … Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)

He needs a bodyguard just to get him from the team coach to the dressing-room at the Stade Mayol. He is the most dedicated professional sportsman of our time and kicks goal for fun. He is thriving on the Mediterranean coast and, what’s more, hardly ever gets injured.

STOCK TUMBLING … Juan Martin Hernandez (Racing Metro)

It is five years since the Argentine was at his best and despite having put the worst of his injuries behind him he has passed through this season largely unnoticed. Reported to be leaving Racing at the end of the season. But with Argentina players now committed to an extended Tri-Nations (new name The Rugby Championship) who will want him?

JURY OUT … Gurthro Steenkamp (Toulouse)

The champions don’t make many mistakes when it comes to recruitment and there’s no reason to think the Springbok tight-head will be one of them. But his late arrival because of the World Cup and hip injury shortly after he arrived mean he has yet to have a consistent run of appearances. The next eight weeks – starting with Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final in Edinburgh – will be telling for both himself and his club.

MODEL PRO … Chris Masoe (Castres)

I had a chat with the former All Black when he was standing pitchside at Franklin’s Gardens having been left out of the 23 for the European pool match against Northampton. The coaches had decided to rest him for what was essentially a dead rubber for the side whose prospects of progressing from the pool phase had all but disappeared. Masoe was a bit grumpy. “I want to play,” he said. “I always want to play.” It sums up this model professional. Vying with Jonny for the “Best Buy” award. Off to join England’s World Cup winner in Toulon next season.

U NDER THE RADAR … Gerhard Vosloo (Clermont Auvergne)

There is a band of South Africans playing in France who never quite made it back at home. Vosloo is the best of them. The flanker turns 33 next month but has one of the best engines in Europe. He did two years at Castres and three at Brive before getting snapped up by Clermont for their centenary season.

HOPE YOU KEPT THE RECEIPT … Joe Rokocoko (Bayonne)

46 tries for the All Blacks is a stunning record. Problem is, that is 46 more than he’s got in the Top 14 for his new club Bayonne. The Basque club are now odds-on to be relegated with the image of Rokocoko in the Ciel et Blanc the perfect monument to Bayonne’s failure.

WALES’ LOSS … Lee Byrne (Clermont Auvergne)

He appears to be the forgotten full-back of Welsh rugby but in the Massif Central he is one of the first names on the team sheet. Clermont have five Test full-backs in their squad – the others are Jean-Marcelin Buttin, Anthony Floch, Brent Russell and Kini Murimurivalu – but it is a massive compliment to Byrne that he is currently top of the pile

SEAMLESS ADDITION … Matt Giteau (Toulon)

Mourad Boudjellal has bought his fair share of duds since taking over Toulon but the 92-times capped Wallaby isn’t one of them. Tillous-Borde, Wilkinson, Giteau, Smith, Bastareaud, Palisson and Lapeyre (or Rooney) is the back line Toulon fans hope will take them to Bouclier de Brennus glory in June.

SECOND FIDDLE … Luke McAlister (Toulouse)

Feted in Sale, the former All Black is battling to make the 23 for the big occasions at his new club. He was a match winner at Agen in September but has seen himself fall behind Lionel Beauxis in the race for the 10 jersey as well as Yann David, Yannick Jauzion and Florian Fritz for 12 or 13.

ON THE MOVE … Antonie Claassen (Brive)

The Pretoria-born, Afrikaans-speaking son of a Springbok captain is qualified to play for France and has made a huge impression in his four years at Brive. But he is expected to be on the move this summer with Castres – filling the void left by Masoe’s departure – his most likely destination.

QUIET START … Sitiveni Sivivatu (Clermont Auvergne)

Like his old teammate Rokocoko, the All Blacks wing has yet to set France alight. High point so far was a hat-trick in the Heineken Cup rout of Aironi.

BEST PROSPECT … Noa Nakaitaci (Clermont Auvergne)

The club has won the Espoirs trophy – the club’s second team is currently run by Alex King – for three of the last four seasons and a reason for that is the success of its academy. The 21-year-old Fijian and new France cap Buttin are its two best recent products, Nakaitaci having been spotted playing for Fiji’s junior side. He has dazzled French audiences this winter with his pace and off-loading game.

ESPN rugby expert Martin Gillingham is the lead commentator for the broadcaster’s live coverage of the French rugby union championship, the Top 14. Visit espn.co.uk/tv for more information

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  • Michael Wells

    Hoe’s Shane Geraghty doing? I was sorry it didn’t work out at Saints.


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