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Michael Taylor 14th Aug 2009 - 8:45

Wilko leads exodus but will the British rule?

The English exodus to France's Top 14 has certainly caused a stir in the off-season but will any of the former Guinness Premiership stars be able to stamp their authority on the stylish rugby found in the Gallic league?

Undoubtedly the move that grabbed most people's attention was ex-Newcastle Falcons star Jonny Wilkinson's shock move to regular strugglers Toulon.

The former IRB World Player of the Year maintains his status as a box office sensation but concerns over fitness are always going to linger, especially when they always seem to come true.

Perhaps the switch to France's sunny south coast will aid his health worries and see him regain the form that brought him, and England, so much success - it doesn't seem too likely though.

However, other signings, the likes of Wilko's old team-mate Tom May, ex-Saracen lock Kris Chesney and Munster's Timmy Ryan could turn Toulon from strugglers to genuine title contenders. If you think so then you can back Toulon at a tasty looking 14/1 to win Top 14.

A big test certainly lies in wait for the revamped squad in Friday night's season opener against perennial title challengers Stade Francais (6/1 to win this year's title) at a packed out Stade Mayol.

Francais coach Ewan McKenzie, like Toulon's Phillippe Saint-Andre, was also keen to freshen things up in the short off-season and he moved swiftly to bring in England regulars James Haskell and Tom Palmer.

The duo should go straight in to Friday's squad in the absence of key players Pascal Pape and Mauro Bergamasco, and they'll be expected to perform right from the go.

Whether or not the season opener will provide us with a glimpse of a potential end-of-season play-off encounter is debateable but, nevertheless, it promises to offer the new ESPN customers a great initial taste of French league rugby.

It isn't just Toulon and Stade Francais that have heavily invested in UK and Irish talent this year though, with Brive perhaps making the most interesting acquisitions.

Current England scrum half Andy Goode found life in Brive (a big 25/1 for Top 14 success) much to his liking and he could find it even better now with the arrival of national acquaintances Jamie Noon and Riki Flutey to the Stade Amedee-Domenech.

Flutey, in particular, had become one of the stars of both the Guinness Premiership with the London Wasps and had forged his way into a starting shirt with Martin Johnson's England.

The Maori centre should light up the Top 14 and could provide the inspiration Brive need to challenge for a first domestic championship in their long history.

As for defending champions Perpignan (6/1 for Top 14 glory), they've decided to stick close to what won them their first title since 1955.

Led by the ever reliable Nicolas Mas, the defensive powerhouses will once again look towards star number eight Henry Tuilagi and Jerome Porical to provide the attacking threat.

The side to beat though looks to be David Skrela's Toulouse (9/4 favourites for the title) with their host of French international stars.

Frederic Michalak, Clement Poitrenaud, Vincent Clerc and Yannick Jauzion are just four of the reasons why the 2008 Heineken Cup runners-up pose such a claim to landing a second title in three years.

Coach Guy Noves was bitterly disappointed following their weak semi-final exit at the hands of Clermont (11/4 second favourites) last season and he'll be determined to go one better this time around.

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