PARIS (AFP) –
Defending champions Toulouse kick off their 2012-13 Top 14 campaign with a home match against Castres on Friday, while Freddy Michalak is eyeing a place in the France squad when he debuts for Toulon.
With scorching temperatures forecast for the weekend in France — with the Bayonne v Clermont match already rescheduled from the afternoon to evening, one might forget that Top 14 remains a winter sport.
Toulouse will be missing several stars when they host Castres, arguably the surprise package of last season’s Top 14.
The likes of France international backs Yannick Jauzion (heel), Yann David (groin) and Maxime Medard (knee) will be missing, as well as Nicolas Vergallo and Patricio Albacete, who will be competing for Argentina in the Rugby Championship.
Back from duty with South African Super 15 outfit the Coastal Sharks is the mercurial Michalak, capped 54 times for France but loved and hated in equal measure for his innate ability to turn games for better or worse.
Michalak has been lured from his beloved Toulouse to play for Toulon, the Mourad Boudjellal-funded Mediterranean club which already boasts ex-England talisman Jonny Wilkinson and Australian playmaker Matt Giteau among its ranks.
“The France team is one of my goals and it’s for that reason I wanted to come back to France,” said the 29-year-old Michalak, who played in the Coastal Sharks’ 37-6 defeat by the Waikato Chiefs in the August 4 Super 15 final.
“The fact that Mourad Boudjellal contacted me very early, at a time when few clubs were sniffing around, made the difference. I hope to finish my career here and go as far as possible with Toulon.”
Michalak is not certain to be a starter for Saturday’s away match at Perpignan, with Toulon still awaiting a licence.
But Toulon coach Bernard Laporte said he wanted him to “be competitive as soon as possible”.
Michalak added: “I don’t feel tired, but I want to respect the life of the squad that has suffered during pre-season training. I’ll play when the coach decides.
“Bernard is someone who helped bring me to the highest level with the France team. He knows me well, I know his desire to win, to take players as far as possible.”
One of Michalak’s teammates at the 2003 World Cup was Raphael Ibanez, who has declared himself “calm and determined” after two months in charge of Bordeaux-Begles, who surprised many pundits by finishing eighth last season after their promotion from the ProD2 second division.
“I’m excited, I’m wondering how this squad of players will express themselves,” said Ibanez, who played in England with Saracens and Wasps after making his name with Castres, Perpignan and Dax.
“This team has a very strong identity which it has been able to create around some foreign players who have been perfectly integrated in the life of not only the club but also the city, and some young French players.
“This balance has pleased the public, a breath of fresh air in last year’s Top 14, which was tense, a really tight competition.
“People speak of this as a season of confirmation, but that’s a bit too cliched for me. What we need is that the team is capable of marking its territory.”
Toulouse v Castres
Bayonne v Clermont, Agen v Racing Metro, Biarritz v Mont-de-Marsan, Bordeaux-Begles v Grenoble, Stade Francais v Montpellier, Perpignan v Toulon