Picamoles sets limited Montpellier goals for new season
TOP 14 PREVIEW: Star signing Louis Picamoles was remaining prudent ahead of the Top 14 kick-off this weekend amidst hope Montpellier will finally win the domestic title.
It's been all change at the Altrad Stadium over the off-season with South African World Cup-winning coach Jake White leaving to be replaced by New Zealander Vern Cotter.
The 2016 European Challenge Cup winners have also been busy in the transfer market with Picamoles joining from Northampton Saints alongside All Blacks international Aaron Cruden from Chiefs, South African scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar from Ulster and Springbok centre Jan Serfontein from Bulls.
Alongside the personnel changes, Cotter, the former Scotland and Clermont coach, is expected to implement a more expansive and crowd-pleasing brand of rugby than his predecessor.
But Picamoles, who has returned to the club where he started his career before moving to Toulouse in 2009, was wary of setting the expectations bar too high, committing only to wanting to qualify for the end of season knock-out stages in both the Top 14 and European Champions Cup.
"I'll stop there because the season hasn't yet started and the Top 14 is really tough," said the 31-year-old No.8.
"It's true that there's a huge amount of quality in this Montpellier squad and things have been put in place to perform well - but the season is long.
"And the play-offs are so different to the regular season - anything can happen."
Cotter has made Picamoles, a veteran of 65 France caps, his captain for the new season.
And the esteem between the pair is mutual, with Picamoles insisting the New Zealander was one of the major factors in convincing him to return to Montpellier.
"Because he's known for his experience, his qualities as coach and man," he said.
"We spoke a lot before I took my decision. He can make me improve, but mostly Montpellier."
The club starts its bid for Top 14 success at home to newly-promoted Agen on Saturday.
Agen have signed 25 new players for the coming season, including Fiji flank Akapusi Qera from Montpellier but having been relegated in 2013 and then again at the first time of asking upon their Top 14 return in 2016, survival will be the limits of their ambitions.
Meanwhile, champions Clermont begin the defence of their crown with a tough trip to Bordeaux-Begles, but unencumbered by the weight of history having finally got the losing final monkey off their backs.
Until beating Toulon 22-16 in Paris in June, Clermont had lost 11 of their 12 previous French championship finals, as well as three out of three European Cup finals.
But they suffered a 26-29 defeat by Toulon in a pre-season friendly and will face stiff competition this season.
Three-time European champions Toulon - who beat Clermont in two of those finals - begin their campaign at home to Pau on Sunday with former Montpellier head coach Fabien Galthie at the helm.
And the 2014 French champions have invested in some star names with All Black Malakai Fekitoa joining from Highlanders and England wing Chris Ashton arriving from European champions Saracens.
Scrumhalf Sebastien Tillous-Borde says Toulon are better prepared this season following the last chaotic campaign in which they went through three coaches.
"We've had a tough preparation - it stung! Many things have changed, we've had to adapt but it's been very interesting," said the France international.
"We're working differently in terms of the type of game we want to produce. It's constructive and fulfilling."
Record four-time European champions Toulouse begin with a trip to newly-promoted Oyonnax on Saturday following last year's disastrous 12th placed finish while 2016 champions Racing 92 host Castres and 2015 champions Stade Francais entertain Lyon.
Oyonnax v Toulouse
Brive v La Rochelle
Montpellier v Agen
Stade Francais v Lyon
Racing 92 v Castres
Bordeaux-Begles v Clermont
Toulon v Pau