Updated: Friday, 15 August 2014 11:00 | By Agence France-Presse

All-Conquering Toulon open up French Top 14 post-Wilko era

Toulon open the defence of their Top 14 crown against Bayonne on Friday with a sprinkling of foreign talent making up for the absence of Jonny Wilkinson and Joe van Niekerk.


All-Conquering Toulon open up French Top 14 post-Wilko era

France's Top 14 rugby captains pose for photographers during their presentation in Paris, on August 11, 2014 - by Dominique Faget

The Mourad Boudjellal-financed club won not only the Bouclier Brennus last season, but also the European Cup for a second successive year.

Key squad members Wilkinson and van Niekerk have since both retired, ex-All Black prop Carl Hayman taking over the captaincy of a star-studded team bolstered by the arrival of Wales and Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny and Australian utility back James O'Connor.

The back-row is boosted by the signings of Georgian giant Mamuka Gorgodze from Montpellier and South African Gerhard Vosloo from Clermont, while France international front-row forwards Fabien Barcella, Guilhem Guirado and Alexandre Menini have been snapped up from relegated Biarritz and Perpignan.

Halfpenny was left in no doubt about the weight of expectation coming in to Toulon.

"It's a huge challenge coming to Toulon, a challenge I was looking for in my rugby career. It's a challenge in rugby and in my life," said Halfpenny, who was elected Player of the Tournament in the 2013 Six Nations and Man of the Series in the British and Irish Lions' triumphant tour of Australia later that year.

"The team here is fantastic, full of quality players from around the world.

"Its success speaks for itself over the last couple of years and I'm very excited to be part of it."

But Halfpenny will certainly not have it all his own way, given the strength in depth of the squad, notably with current full-back Delon Armitage in sparkling form last season.

"Looking at the squad, there's quality in every position, it gives you massive confidence. There's huge competition for places," the Welshman admitted.

Toulon coach Bernard Laporte added: "Six finals in three years and three titles for Toulon, it's fantastic.

"I can understand that it might be tough to get going again after a title, aged 34 or 35, it's human, you no longer have the same hunger or determination.

"The eight newcomers will have to bring their appetite, a desire to integrate into the team and prove they deserve to be in the club."

Halfpenny is one of the latest raft of Welsh players to join the exodus from the Principality as the row between the Welsh Rugby Union and four regions drags on.

Outstanding centre Jonathan Davies has left Scarlets for Clermont, while towering lock Luke Charteris teams up with international teammates Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate and Mike Phillips at Racing-Metro.

Racing will likely be one of the clubs contending for league honours after its expensively-assembled squad showed what it was capable of after finally gelling at the end of last season.

Clermont have seen coach Vern Cotter take over the Scotland national team, and hardened lock Nathan Hines (Sale), winger Sivivatu Sitiveni (Castres), full-back Lee Byrne (Dragons) and centre Regan King (Scarlets) have all also moved on.

But Davies is just one of a number of exciting players to join, others including All Black winger Zac Guildford and English full-back Nick Abendanon, whose free-running game could be perfectly suited to the Top 14.

Montpellier finished second after the regulation season last year and have attracted one-time Australia captain Ben Mowen and Kiwi lock Tom Donnelly to what should be, once again, a dynamic team.

Toby Flood was Toulouse's key signing, the accomplished England fly-half and goalkicker successfully pried away from Leicester just one year away from the 2015 World Cup.

Toulouse, four-time European champions and multiple winners of the French league, struggled through last season with an underpowered pack, but coach Guy Noves has brought in All Blacks Corey Flynn and Neemia Tialata, and veteran France No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy from Biarritz.

And who would write off Castres, champions in 2013 and losing finalists last season? The club have cleverly negotiated the off-season transfer market and should represent a threat throughout the long season.

However, Castres will have to do without Sivivatu for over three months after it was revealed on Tuesday he had undergone shoulder surgery. 

Much is also expected of Stade Francais after their promising youth-led attack last season, Grenoble, Bordeaux-Begles and big-spending newcomers Lyon expected to finish mid-table.

Bayonne, Brive, Oyonnax and La Rochelle are the betting man's quartet to be battling to avoid the two relegation spots.

Fixtures (all times GMT)

Friday

Bayonne v Toulon (1845)

Saturday

Clermont v Grenoble (1245), Bordeaux v Lyon, Brive v La Rochelle, Castres v Stade Francais, Toulouse v Oyonnax (all 1630), Montpellier v Racing-Metro (1845)

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