Top 14 season preview: 10 players to watch in 2018-19

Finn Russell (L), Gael Fickou (C) and Simon Zebo (R) are all players to watch out for in the Top 14 this season. ESPN/Getty

The new Top 14 rugby season gets underway on Saturday, with Montpellier, Toulon, Racing 92 and Clermont among the teams tipped to challenge defending champions Castres for the French title.

With plenty of new arrivals out to make their mark and with lots of young talent looking to shine, James Harrington casts his eye on the top 10 players to watch this campaign...

Johan Goosen - Montpellier

Who won't be watching Goosen's return to French rugby with interest? You know the story: In December 2016, Goosen walked out on a recently signed five-year big-money deal with Racing 92, months after winning the Top 14 title in Barcelona, and returned to South Africa to reportedly work on a stud farm.

Now, after two years out in the retirement wilderness, Goosen is back in France, after Montpellier owner Mohed Altrad bought him out of his Racing contract for a reported €1.4 million (£1.25m). He had a couple of outings with Pro14 side Cheetahs at the end of last season to get his eye back in, and Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus will surely be among those wondering if Goosen still has 'it'.

Gael Fickou - Stade Francais

Just a year's worth of patience could have saved Stade owner Hans-Peter Wild the €700,000-plus (£627,000) it took to prise Fickou from the final year of his contract with Toulouse. But Wild is not one to prevaricate once he's made a decision and decided the fee was worth it, which puts all the pressure on Fickou to be firing on all cylinders from week one.

The France centre joins a Stade setup that has had a close-season overhaul so comprehensive that it is effectively a new club. Fellow ex-Toulousain and France international Yoann Maestri also has a six-figure performance bounty on his head, after the club paid a similar sum to extricate him from a deal with La Rochelle.

Baptiste Couilloud - Lyon

Following last season's breakout campaign, Couilloud faces a series of challenges for his place in the national team. Lyon's 21-year-old scrum-half smashed through the ranks of quality young French No. 9s to become a regular in the Les Bleus squad last year, but knows he will face stern competition from Top 14 rivals this season.

Bordeaux's Gallic permashrug Baptiste Serin wants his shirt back, Toulouse's Antoine Dupont has a point to prove on his return from long-term injury while at Stade Francais, Arthur Coville will be waving his under-20 Six Nations and world titles under the noses of the French coaches. But there's something about Couillourd. He has all the talents and all the will. As future successors to Morgan Parra and Maxime Machenaud, France look to be in a strong position.

Charlie Ngatai - Lyon

Injury robbed Ngatai of what arguably should have been a crate of All Blacks caps, but international rugby's loss is Lyon's gain. With Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Jack Goodhue and Rieko Ioane filling All Black centre stocks, it's no great surprise that the 28-year-old Ngatai has opted to make money while the body holds.

He has all the attributes a direct, speedy and punchy Lyon team would want, and is set to make big waves in the Top 14. Watch out, too, for young teammate and world under-20 champion Pierre-Louis Barassi. Word is the club expects big things from him this season.

Simon Zebo - Racing 92

If pre-season social media is anything to go by, the words 'duck' and 'water' apply to Zebo's transition from Munster to Racing. Language was never going to be a barrier at multi-national Racing, but it no doubt helps that Zebo speaks French well.

The winger's record for Munster and Ireland speaks for itself. The only question that remains is whether he can translate that, as well as his pre-season success, into eye-catching performances when the Top 14 gets serious from this weekend.

Finn Russell - Racing 92

The man Racing chose to replace Dan Carter. No pressure, then. To be fair, Carter's gloried star was on the wane when he left Paris for Japan in the summer, as injuries and a concurrent dip in form saw him increasingly play second-fiddle to Pat Lambie towards the back end of the season.

With South African Lambie likely to be out until at least November following his injury in the Champions Cup final, the Scot looks set for an early season run in the No. 10 shirt. Word is that former Glasgow teammate and local Racing hero Leone Nakarawa played a big role in convincing Russell that moving to the outskirts of Paris would be a good career move. The Fijian could be right.

Lucas Bachelier - Perpignan

Just 18 games into his senior career, former France under-20s captain Bachelier seemed destined for a legendary career in the sang et or of Perpignan. Then, in January 2017, during a ProD2 match against Colomiers, he picked up a knee injury that kept him sidelined for 18 months.

The ridiculously talented flanker, now 23, only returned to action for the first time in pre-season. France aren't short of backrow stocks, with young stars such as Cameron Woki, Sekou Macalou, Judiciel Cancoriet and the 18-year-old Jordan Joseph all on the international radar, but you can bet a fair few euros that Les Bleus coach Jacques Brunel is paying close attention to Bachelier. Certainly, Perpignan need him to spend plenty of time on the pitch this season if they're going to survive in a tough Top 14.

Mathieu Babillot - Castres

Speaking of talented backrowers, France's coaching staff have finally realised what Castres' fans have known for some time -- Mathieu Babillot, 24, is worth his weight in gold. Despite his relatively tender years he was club vice-captain last season, and the defending champions have tied him to a long-term deal that keeps him at the club until 2022.

It's clear that Castres are lining up Babillot as successor to ageing captain Rodrigo Capo Ortega. France, too, could arguably do worse in the long term.

Alivereti Raka - Clermont

Chris Ashton broke the Top 14 try-scoring record during his year in Toulon -- but had he stayed fit, Clermont flyer Raka would surely have pushed him all the way. As it was, a torn ACL against Saracens in the Champions Cup ended his season in December 2017 -- when he had scored 13 tries in 11 outings in all competitions.

In all, he has scored 25 tries in 34 appearances for the 2016 Top 14 champions. After eight months out, he's back to give defence coaches the vapours -- and showed he has lost none of his scorching pace, nor his eye for the tryline, in a pre-season outing against Canada.

Daniel Brennan - Montpellier

Props don't often make it in to players-to-watch pieces such as this, but the barnstorming French-qualified front-row son of Toulouse, Leinster and Ireland's Trevor is worth the entrance fee.

He is still, officially, on an academy contract at Montpellier, the side he joined in the summer from boyhood club Toulouse. But you can expect the world under-20 winner to learn more than a few new tricks from Jannie du Plessis, who has taken on a scrum coaching role with the academy alongside his day job at the first team. Senior outings may be few and far between this campaign, but Brennan's very definitely one for the future for France.