France centre Remi Lamerat says Clermont are off to a flyer in the Top 14 thanks to the work done in pre-season

Paris (AFP) - Clermont coach Franck Azema could only look on in anguish as his side imploded to finish ninth in the Top 14 last year, a huge 15 points off a place in the top six.

The start to the new term, however, has been exceptional, the Michelin-backed giants and 2017 champions beating Stade Francais 42-20 last week after having racked up an impressive 40-17 away win over a first-choice Racing 92 and a season-opening 67-23 mauling of Agen.

“It bodes well for what’s coming up,” warned centre Remi Lamerat.

“Victory obviously makes things easier and lends a different atmosphere to what we’ve known recently.

“We’ve been able to benefit from a vastly different pre-season from recent seasons as we’ve started with a lot of energy.”

And that has shown, with a dynamic Clermont backline also featuring ex-England full-back Nick Abendanon and fleet-footed Samoan flyer Tim Nanai-Williams having run in 16 tries in their three encounters.

“We’re lucky to have a good number of players on deck and that gives you a hell of a lot of competition,” Lamerat said.

“The time for rotation will come at a later date, which will give the coach some headaches.”

There was not much squad shuffling Azema could do last season in a team ravaged by injury, the coach adding: “We won’t be satisfied with these three first matches to take our foot off the gas.

“We have several things to improve on to better our game, to make it more complete.

“Every day we must go looking for the little details that will allow us to progress a little more towards the successful game we’re aiming for.”

- Youthful Teague -

As for Bordeaux-Begles, the Rory Teague-coached side have enjoyed a mixed start to the season, notching up a bonus-point 41-19 victory over Pau before losing 20-8 to Stade Francais and then eking out a 9-9 draw last week with last season’s beaten Top 14 finalists Montpellier.

“I’m far from worried because we’ve bagged ourselves seven points. We’re not stressed,” said Bordeaux captain and France prop Jefferson Poirot.

Like Clermont, Bordeaux had a troubled season last year, finishing one spot behind their rivals as Teague took over from Jacques Brunel, who left to head up the France international team.

Teague, just 33, has drafted in a coaching team with an average age of 35 and shaken up training methods.

“The coaching staff and players understood the need to change things,” said Teague.

“The only thing that matters to me is to make this club great and that everyone works towards that.”

The only other unbeaten team in the league, Toulouse, with two wins a draw, face a tough away trip to Montpellier on Sunday.

Grenoble and Perpignan, freshly promoted from the ProD2, have the chance for a first win when they come head to head.

Grenoble have lost their three games (against La Rochelle, Toulouse and Pau) by a combined total of just 13 points, while Perpignan were thrashed by Stade Francais, before suffering narrow defeats by Agen and Lyon.

One high-profile import enjoying the Top 14, however, is Perpignan’s former Ireland fly-half Paddy Jackson.

“I’m very happy to be back out on the pitch,” said Jackson, who had his Ulster and Ireland contracts terminated after a rape trial in which he was nevertheless unanimously acquitted.

“I’ve missed it a lot. I’ve only one desire and that to play the most possible… I think I can give more.

“I know there’s expectation and I don’t want to disappoint. I’m a perfectionist.”

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Saturday

Bordeaux-Begles v Clermont (1245), Grenoble v Perpignan, La Rochelle v Lyon, Toulon v Agen (1600), Racing 92 v Castres (1845)

Sunday

Pau v Stade Francais (1030), Montpellier v Toulouse (1450)