French top flight a significant challenge for Zebo and Jackson

Seven former Munster players are preparing for the new season in France's Top 14

On Saturday, August 25th two Irish players Simon Zebo and Paddy Jackson are scheduled to make their respective debuts in the opening round of fixtures in the French Top 14 Championship.

Zebo is expected to be part of the Racing 92 squad that travels to Toulon while 250 miles down the road Jackson will be hoping to be part of a newly-promoted Perpignan team that will host Stade Francais at the Stade Aime Giral.

The 26-year-old Jackson, released from his Ulster and Ireland contracts, agreed a two-year deal at Perpignan while Zebo (27), who recently scored a try on his Racing debut against Brazil in Georgia, joins his fellow Munster man, Donnacha Ryan at the Parisian club.

Continuing with the Munster theme, former scrumhalf Mike Prendergast, who previously worked with Grenoble and Oyonnax in the French Top 14, is now the backs' coach with Stade Francais.


Dave Foley, Paddy Butler and Sean Dougall, all Pau, hooker Duncan Casey (Grenoble), prop Dave Ryan (Agen), Zebo and Donnacha Ryan are all former Munster players and along with Jackson make up the Irish contingent in the Top 14 for the upcoming season.

In the French Pro D2, Jeremy Davidson has taken over as head coach at Brive having left his role as forwards' coach at Bordeaux and one of his first signings was Stuart Olding.

While the remaining Irish players in that division have experience of French rugby, former Irish international Dan Tuohy, signed for Vannes from the newly promoted Aviva Premiership club, the Bristol Bears.

Ian Costello joins the Wasps coaching team from Nottingham while Connacht stalwart, John Muldoon, who retired as a player at the end of last season has linked up with Pat Lam's Bristol as defence coach.

One good news story is the return to competitive rugby of Ireland U-20 international Niall Saunders, son of former Irish international scrumhalf Rob, who after taking a year out through illness has won a place back in the Harlequins academy.

The talented scrumhalf said in a recent interview: “I’m very excited to have re-signed for the club after what had happened last year, it was something I knew would be a long and tough road back, not only emotionally and mentally but physically as well.

“It’s great to be back in the environment of so many world-class players, to feed off their knowledge and to also work out why they’re at the top of their game, especially the likes of Danny [Care]; someone I think plays the most exciting rugby as a nine in world rugby. It’s been a massive learning curve for myself and I feel I’ve come out stronger in all aspects.”

A couple of former Ulster players, prop Callum Black and scrumhalf Michael Heaney, moved to the Worcester Warriors, a case of returning home for Black.

In the English Championship the greening of Nottingham continues with the arrival of the Irish-born, Canadian international Shane O'Leary and former Leinster academy prop and underage international Oisín Heffernan. There are eight Irish players at the club.


Agen: Dave Ryan
Grenoble: Duncan Casey
Pau: Dave Foley, Paddy Butler, Sean Dougall, James Coughlan (Academy director)
Perpignan: Paddy Jackson.
Racing 92: Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan
Stade Francais: Mike Prendergast (backs coach)

Brive: Stuart Olding, Jeremy Davidson (head coach)
Beziers: Jamie Hagan
Carcassonne: Steve McMahon
Massy: John Madigan, Eamonn Sheridan
Nevers: Frank Bradshaw
Vannes: Dan Tuohy

Bristol Bears: Ian Madigan, Joe Joyce, Conor McPhillips (attack coach), John Muldoon (defence coach)
Exeter Chiefs: Gareth Steenson, Ian Whitten
Gloucester: Paddy McAllister, David Humphreys (director of rugby)
Harlequins: Niall Saunders
Newcastle Falcons: Brett Connon
Leicester Tigers: Geordan Murphy (backs coach)
Northampton Saints: Paddy Ryan
Sale Sharks: AJ MacGinty (USA international)
Saracens: Tadhg McElroy, Mark McCall (head coach)
Wasps: Ian Costello (skills and coach)
Worcester Warriors: Callum Black, Michael Heaney

Bedford Blues: Mark Flanagan, Sean McCarthy
Cornish Pirates: Callum Patterson, Rory Parata, Alex O'Meara
Doncaster Knights: Willie Ryan, Declan Cusack
Ealing Trailfinders: Jack O'Connell, Ben Betts, Willie Ryan, David Johnston, Peter Lydon
Jersey Reds: Brett Herron, Jerry Sexton, Conor Joyce, Mark Best
London Irish: Conor Gilsenan, Fergus Mulchrone, Declan Kidney (director of rugby)
Nottingham:  Shane O'Leary, OisÍn Heffernan, Rory Burke, Danny Qualter, Gearóid Lyons, Shane Buckley, Seán Scanlon, Jordan Coghlan
Richmond: Adam Boland, Seán O'Hagen, Rowen Halsall.

Benetton Rugby: Ian McKinley  (talian international)
Zebre: Ciarán Gaffney, Michael Bradley (head coach)

Viadana: Ed O'Keeffe.

Canterbury Crusaders: Oliver Jager, Ronan O'Gara (backs coach)

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer