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France's great domestic gamble begins

The reform of the French domestic structure in 2014 prefaced the country’s international success. Now it’s all change again.

2012 champions Lons - with Laëtitia Grand and Lise Arricastre - return to the top division with a win

In 2014 the FFR reformed the country’s elite club structure, switching at the top from the long-standing “Top10” to form a “Top 8”, giving four extra weekends for international training, as well as ensuring that the strongest teams played each other.

It was a controversial move, but did produce arguably women’s rugby most competitive league, and also has been followed by a period of unprecedented success for French teams internationally which reached its peak in the past 12 months, with France finishing winning the Six Nations, third in the 2017 fifteens World Cup, third in the 2017/18 World Series, and finalists at the 2018 Sevens World Cup.

But now that is all changing. Largely for political reasons (ie. promises to clubs during the election campaign for the FFR President) the Top 8 is now the Top 16, with the leading teams last year being joined by the top 8 teams from last year’s second tier Armelle Auclair.

The 16 teams have been divided into two pools of 8 with the top teams playing off at the end of the season.

Each pool contains four teams from last year’s Top 8, but this means that some classic encounters from previous years will not happen in 2018/19 (apart from possibly the playoffs). Lille will not play their great rivals Montpellier in the regular season, and there will be no more Toulouse derby games between Stade Touloussian and Blagnac.

In addition there have been some important personnel changes, most particular with Lille losing the Ménager twins, Romane and Marine, to Montpellier, who are also boosted by the return of Gaëlle Mignot from her year in England at Richmond. Camille Grassineau has also been signed by Stade Francais for their first season in the top league

Last weekend saw the first round of games in the new structure, and the outcome was perhaps predictable.

Where Top 8 teams met former Armelle Auclair sides the results were all one-sided games – although still not as one-sided as games we have seen in England Premiership or New Zealand’s Farah Parmer. Even so the first four games saw an aggregate score of 174-7.

In Pool 1 last season’s Top 8 basement side Romagnat (only one win last season) thumped Rouen 45-0 away from home, while champions Montpellier comfortably saw off Stade Francais 41-7.

In Pool 2 it was a similar patter, Bobigny (7th last year, with also just one win) returned from Tarbes with a 33-0 victory, while last year’s beaten finalists Toulouse came up with the day’s biggest win, a 53-0 beating against Stade Bordelais.

Other games were between sides who last year were in the same league. From last year’s Armelle Auclair Lons – national champions in 2012 – returned to the top league with a 36-12 win over Stade Olympique in Pool 1. The new structure also allowed Caen to return to the top, but with a less happy start as they fell 22-0 in Grenoble.

Of the all Top 8 clashes last season’s semi-finalists Blagnac were not unexpectedly pushed hard by last year’s 5th place Rennes before winning 26-18, leaving just one surprise result on the opening day.

Lille, who lead the Top 8 throughout most of last season before stumbling at the semi-final stage, now have a new coaching team and opened the season at the main Stadium Lille Metropole. Unfortunately they did get the start they were hoping for as the took on Bayonne - sixth in last season’s Top 8 – and lost 19-27.