Players to watch in the new Top 14 campaign
Changing rules mean fewer overseas stars are likely to head to France to ply their trade
This season, 59 overseas players have signed for clubs in France's Top 14 - but this is likely to be the one of the last of the big import years for the world's richest league, as tightening rules combine with changing attitudes to build a competition that will be mostly 'Made in France'.
Seven years ago, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), alarmed at the number of overseas players flooding into the French game, implemented a quota system.
At the start of the 2010/11 season, these rules said, 40% of players in a professional squad had to have spent at least three seasons in a French club’s youth academy before they had turned 21, or had been licensed to play in France for five seasons before the age of 23. Players meeting this standard are known as JIFF – Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation.
The rules have tightened every season since. As of this campaign, Top 14 sides can have no more than 16 non-JIFF players on their books, including short-term signings and medical cover - and they must name 14 JIFF-qualified players in every matchday squad of 23. They could lose up to 10 points at the end of the season if they consistently fail to do so.
Given the demands of the Top 14 and the need for squad rotation, it is unlikely any club will lose the maximum points, but last season a 10-point deduction would have seen Racing 92, who squeezed into the play-offs, finish below Toulouse in 12th place. In the 2014/15 season, the tightest campaign in recent history, it was the difference between a place in the European Champions Cup and relegation to the ProD2.
As the rules tighten further, two of the league's biggest talent importers, Toulon and Montpellier, have pledged to cut overseas recruitment to zero. Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal has said his latest import spree - which features seven non-JIFF players including ex-England wing Chris Ashton, World Cup-winning All Black centre Malakai Fekitoa, and Argentinian forward Facundo Isa - will be his last, as he looks to build a '100% Made in France' Top 14-winning side in five years.
The tightening rules do not mean the end of overseas players in the Top 14 - not by a long way. But it does mean that monied French clubs will be more choosy in future. They will only want the biggest names in rugby. The marquee players. Even New Zealand will have their work cut out holding on to their stars in the years to come. The lure of that All Black jersey may not be enough to compete with the financial security that comes after a couple of seasons in French rugby.
Given that overseas talent is set to become much rarer in the French top flight, here is a list of freshly contracted overseas players that rugby fans should watch out for in the Top 14 campaign.
Chris Ashton - Toulon
'Le Splash' announced his arrival in the Top 14 with a two-try debut against Pau last weekend - and has set himself a personal target of winning half as many titles with the French outfit as club legend Jonny Wilkinson, who notched up three European crowns and a Top 14 trophy in five seasons. Ashton is a player who regularly divides opinion - it seems few rugby fans can be neutral about him - but there is no denying his try-scoring prowess, and he is already a firm fan favourite at Stade Mayol. No player has scored more tries in European competition, and the ongoing international exile - he has not worn an England jersey since 2014, despite scoring 19 times in 39 games - that finally prompted him to head to France is mystifying.
Aaron Cruden - Montpellier
No tries on his debut against Agen last week, but Montpellier were purring as he pulled the strings. The 28-year-old New Zealand fly-half effectively called time on his international career by signing a three-year €800,000-a-year deal with the ambitious southwest club, making him the second-highest earner in the Top 14, behind Racing 92's Dan Carter. He has clearly already developed a close working relationship with another new signing, South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, to link the club's ferocious pack with a frankly terrifying back line.
Malakai Fekitoa - Toulon
There is an argument that the 25-year-old Tongan-born World Cup-winning All Black centre has never quite lived up to his potential. He was earmarked as a natural-born successor to Conrad Smith in the 13 jersey - but the strength in depth New Zealand boast in midfield, has limited his options. Reuniting with old hand Ma'a Nonu as part of another frightening set of backs at Toulon could well be the remaking of Fekitoa.
Tawera Kerr-Barlow - La Rochelle
What Cruden can do at Montpellier, Chiefs' and New Zealand team-mate Tawera Kerr-Barlow can do too on the other coastline of France. He announced some time ago that his future lies at the Stade Marcel Deflandre home of Top 14 surprise package La Rochelle. The club is determined to push on from last season's breakout campaign - and looks to be building something special. Victor Vito and Brock James guided them to the top of the league last season. With Kerr-Barlow and Blues' Rene Ranger joining for the new campaign, expect another special run.
Donnacha Ryan - Racing 92
Ireland's imposing second row has been a Munster fixture since 2004, but is heading to the outskirts of Paris for the twilight of his career. The southwest Ireland club are said to be furious that the Irish Rugby Football Union failed to offer him a dual contract, despite offering one to international teammate Jamie Heaslip. Munster's loss will be Racing's gain as Ryan will add considerable oomph to the engine room to go alongside the Fijian flair of Leone Nakarawa.
Carl Fearns - Lyon
Fearns is not a new signing for Lyon - he joined the club in 2015, when they were in the ProD2. But he was at the centre of a tug-of-love earlier this year between the club in southeast France and English Premiership side Gloucester. It was announced in November that the Liverpudlian had signed for the Cherry and Whites - but he had second thoughts and it was revealed in May that he was going nowhere, to the obvious and sometimes vitriolic dismay of fans of the westcountry club. There's no wonder Lyon wanted to keep him. He scored seven tries last season, carried more than any other player in the competition, and made more metres than any other forward. Forget the bigger names. This may be the deal of the season in the Top 14.