Top 14

Infobox sports league
current_season=2008-09 Top 14 season
logo=Top14.jpg
sport=Rugby union
founded=1892
pixels=75
teams=14
country=FRA
champion=Toulouse

The Top 14 is a rugby union club competition which is played in France. The Top 14 is at the top of the national league system of Ligue nationale de rugby. There is promotion and relegation between the Top 14 and the next level down, the Rugby Pro D2. The fourteen best rugby teams in France participate in the competition, hence the name Top 14, though the competition was previously known as the Top 16.

The first ever final took place in 1892, between two Paris-based sides, Stade Français and Racing Club, with the latter becoming the inaugural champions. The competition has been held on an annual basis since, with the exception being between 1915 and 1919 because of World War I. The current champions are Stade Toulousain.

History

The first competition was held in 1892, as a one-off championship game between the Racing Club de France and Stade Français. The Racing Club defeated Stade Français four points to three to win the first ever title, though the "stadistes" got their revenge the following year in a repeat of the final. The match official for that first final was Pierre de Coubertin. Stade Français would go onto win a number of titles thereafter. The 1897 and 1898 series were awarded on a points system after a round-robin. Although the competition was called the French championship, entry was confined to just Parisian clubs. The 1899 season was the first to include clubs from outside of Paris, and led to Stade Bordelais (from Bordeaux) winning the final that season, which was also played outside of Paris, in Le Bouscat (a suburb of the city of Bordeaux).

For the following decade the championship game would usually end up being contested by the Racing Club, Stade Français and Stade Bordelais, with Stade Bordelais actually winning five titles during this period. During this time the final was usually held in various stadia around Paris with the exception of 1903 and 1909 where it was held in Toulouse, as SOE Toulouse and Stade Toulousain were finalists respectively. The competition was then won by a number of different clubs before World War I, with teams like FC Lyon, Stade Toulousain, Aviron Bayonnais and USA Perpignan claiming their first titles.

Due to the war, operations were suspended for a number of years. In its place, a competition known as the Coupe de l'Espérance was held which consisted mostly of young boys who had not yet been drafted. The competition was held four times but is not normally considered a full championship. The normal competition returned for the 1920 season, and Stadoceste Tarbais became the first post-war champions, defeating the Racing Club in the final. During the 1920s Stade Toulousain would create its now famous rugby history, winning five championships during the decade. USA Perpignan would also win two championships (their 1925 final victory was actually a second match, as a previous final had ended in a nil-all draw).

During the 1930s the championship game was held only in Bordeaux and Toulouse. The 1930 championship game won by Agen over US Quillan, was the first final to go into extra-time. It would also see Toulon and Lyon OU win their first championship games. During the latter part of the decade, RC Narbonne, CS Vienne and Perpignan all won titles, and Biarritz Olympique were champions in both 1935 and 1939. During World War II no competition was played. After the war the championship final returned to Paris, and was played at Parc des Princes for the next four seasons. The competition during the 1940s was won by a number of different teams, though Castres won in 1949, and then again in 1950. FC Lourdes would become a dominant club during the 1950s, winning five championships, and another in 1960.

SU Agen would go onto win three titles during the 1960s as well. Lourdes were also the champions of the 1968 season, but due to the May 1968 events, the finale was played three weeks behind normal schedule. At the end of regulation time the score was tied at 6-6, and then 9-9 after extra-time. Lourdes were declared champions because they had scored two tries to Toulon’s none and also because it was impossible to reschedule a third final so late, as the French national team were to leave on a tour to New Zealand and South Africa.

Although Béziers won their first championship in the 1961 season, it would be the 1970s which would see a golden era for the club, as they would win ten championships between 1971 and 1984, as well as being runners-up in 1976. Also in the mid 1970s, after being held in Toulouse, Lyon and Bordeaux in recent years, the championship final was taken to Parc des Princes on a permanent basis. During the rest of the 1980s, Toulouse were the dominant team, winning the championship in 1985, 1986 and 1989. Toulon won in 1987 (and were runners-up in 1985 and 1989), and Agen won in 1988 (and were runners-up in 1984 and 1986).

The first match of the 1990s went into extra time, as the Racing Club defeated Agen, winning their first championship since 1959. CA Bordeaux-Bègles Gironde, Toulon, Castres and Toulouse would win the following finals. The 1990s also saw the game of rugby union go professional following the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa. This also led to the establishment of the European Heineken Cup. Including their 1994 victory, Toulouse won four championships in succession. For the 1998 season, the final was moved to the newly constructed Stade de France, the new national stadium. The final, played in front of 78,000, saw Stade Français win their first championship since 1908.

The competition saw an enormous rise in popularity in 2005-06, with attendance up by 25% from 2004-05, and numerous sellouts. On 15 October 2005, Stade Français drew a crowd of 79,502 at Stade de France for their home match against Toulouse; this broke the previous French attendance record for a regular-season league match in "any" sport (including football) by over 20,000. That record was broken on 4 March 2006, when Stade Français drew 79,604 to a rematch of the 2004-05 final against Biarritz at Stade de France. It was broken again on 14 October 2006 with 79,619 as the same two opponents met, and a fourth time on 27 January 2007, with 79,741 for another Stade Français-Toulouse match. [cite web|url=http://www.lemonde.fr/web/article/0,1-0@2-3242,36-860715@51-805390,0.html |title=Le Stade Français sort vainqueur du choc contre Toulouse |language=French |publisher=AFP via "Le Monde" |date=January 28, 2007]

Format and structure

The Top 14 is contested by fourteen professional rugby union clubs throughout France. The domestic season runs from August through to June. Every club contests 26 games during the regular season - over 26 rounds of competition. Throughout the August-June competition there are breaks during the season, as there are also European Rugby Cup (Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup) fixtures that are played during the rugby season, as well as the Six Nations Championship, in which many top French players are involved, as well as a few players from the other European powers. Because the 2007-08 season will begin considerably later than normal in late October as a result of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France, that season's Top 14 will play on the Six Nations weekends and on some of the Heineken Cup weekends.

The Top 14 is organized by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby, which runs the professional rugby leagues within France (Top 14, and Rugby Pro D2). There exists a promotion and relegation system between the Top 14 and Pro D2. The two lowest placed clubs on the ladder after the regular season are relegated to Pro D2, while two clubs come up from Pro D2, specifically the champion and the winner of a knock-out playoff between the next four teams on the ladder. The knock-out stages for the Top 14 consists of two stages - semi-finals and then the final. The top four teams on the ladder qualify for the semi-finals, although in addition to the top four, fifth and sixth placed teams also qualify for the Heineken Cup. The seventh-place team will also qualify if a French club advances farther in that season's Heineken Cup than any team from England or Italy.

Previously in the first phase of the then-Top 16, the teams were divided into two pools of eight. This was followed by a second phase, in which the eight highest-ranked teams played for semi-final spots and the bottom eight teams battled against relegation. In 2004-05, the top division consisted of a single pool of 16 teams, with the top four teams advancing to a knockout playoff at the end of the season to determine the champion. From 2005-06, the top division has been run with a single pool of 14 teams, again with a season-ending four-team playoff.

European competition

The Top 14 also serves as the qualification route for French clubs into the two European Rugby competitions; the Heineken Cup and the European Challenge Cup. A minimum of six French clubs qualify for top level of competition the Heineken Cup. The top six ranked French clubs (on through to six on the points ladder) at the end of the regular season qualify for the following season's Heineken Cup. A seventh Top 14 team can qualify, and this happens if French clubs progress further in the previous season's Heineken Cup then their Italian and English counterparts.cite web| url=http://www.ercrugby.com/eng/31_264.php |publisher=ercrugby.com |accessdate=2007-08-24 |title=Heineken Cup – Key Tournament Rules] The next seven highest ranked French clubs automatically qualify for the Challenge Cup.cite web| url=http://www.ercrugby.com/eng/268_4700.php |publisher=ercrugby.com |accessdate=2007-08-24 |title=European Challenge Cup – Key Tournament Rules] This means that in any season thirteen or fourteen French clubs are participating in European competition.

The French clubs have had huge success in the European competitions. The inaugural Heineken Cup, the 1995-96 season was won by Toulouse, which would lead to two other championships as well (2002-03 and (2004-05). It would also not be until the fifth championship game until there was no French team in the final. In addition, there have also been two occasions where the final was an all French encounter (Toulouse v Perpignan in 2002-03 and Toulouse v Paris in 2004-05).

In addition to the French success in the Heineken Cup, the clubs in the lower European competitions have achieved similar results. The European Challenge Cup, first contested in 1997 was won by a French club four seasons in a row (1997-00), in addition all the championship games were actually against other French clubs. No French team has won the Cup since then, however, French clubs have had less success, as the revised Top 16/Top 14 format has required them to pay more attention to league games in order to avoid relegation. The now defunct European Shield, a repechage tournament for clubs knocked out in the first round of the Challenge Cup that was played for three seasons from 2003-05, was won by a French team each time.

Current teams

2008-09 season

Results

"The scores in green are links to the account of each final on the site of the professional league (LNR). In French. "

Total wins

Stade Toulousain17
Stade Français13
AS Béziers11
SU Agen8
FC Lourdes8
Stade Bordelais UC7
USA Perpignan6
Biarritz Olympique5
Racing Club de France5
RC Toulon3
Aviron Bayonnais3
Castres Olympique3
Section Paloise3

Notes

ee also

* Bouclier de Brennus
* Challenge Yves du Manoir
* Coupe de France

* Super 14
* Top League

External links

*fr icon [http://www.lnr.fr Official site]
* [http://www.itsrugby.co.uk/modules/site/stand.php?id_season=540 French league results (in English)]
* [http://www.finalesrugby.com/ Finalesrugby.com]
* [http://www.Top14Rugby.com/ Top14Rugby.com]


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