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Top 14 preview: French domestic season set to return with a bang

Clermont's players celebrate their TOP14 final victory
Image: Clermont's players celebrating their TOP 14 final victory at the Stade de France

The Top 14 returns on Saturday as ASM Clermont Auvergne get the defence of their title underway against Bordeaux-Bègles, live on Sky Sports Arena.

After falling agonisingly short in last season's Champions Cup final, Franck Azema's men dusted themselves off to lift the Bouclier de Brennus at the Stade de France just 22 days later.

Our Sunday fixture will see the Stade Felix Mayol opening its doors as RC Toulon welcome Pau, live on Sky Sports Action from 3.55pm.

Twenty-four rounds of matches will determine the end-of-season positions before the usual set of barrages and semi-finals to determine the two finalists.

The Stade de France will again play host to the 2018 TOP 14 Final on Saturday, June 2.

As ever with the Top 14, there are a whole host of star-studded names arriving for a taste of French domestic rugby.

Montpellier welcome Louis Picamoles into their ranks and the France international has immediately been made club captain for the forthcoming season by their new head coach Vern Cotter.

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Picamoles is set to be part of a strong 8, 9 and 10 spine at the club with Aaron Cruden and Ruan Pienaar also joining the ambitious side.

Elsewhere, the European Cup's all-time leading try scorer Chris Ashton joins RC Toulon as does Malakai Fekitoa. Donnacha Ryan arrives at Racing 92 and Tawera Kerr-Barlow will boost La Rochelle's half backs.

Tawera Kerr-Barlow of the Chiefs dives over for a try during the Round 15 Super Rugby match
Image: Tawera Kerr-Barlow will be a signing to watch this TOP 14 season

La Rochelle surprised many with their performances last season - finishing top after the regular rounds - but will be far from dark horses this time around.

Patrice Collazo's side start with away trips to Brive and Stade Francais Paris respectively before heading back home to host Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel Deflandre in Round 3.

Oyonnax arrive back courtesy of being PRO D2 champions while Agen were promoted through the play-offs. Both face tough tasks to re-establish themselves back in the top flight.

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Bordeaux-Bègles are now led by former Italy head coach Jacques Brunel with Joe Worsley and Rory Teague part of his coaching team.

Leroy Houston, formerly of Bath Rugby, has been named in their training squad for their opening match having joined from the Queensland Reds as is fellow new recruit Adrien Pélissié.

Clermont Auvergne are starting the season with a few injuries to contend with including scrum-half Morgan Parra, who suffered a knee ligament strain in pre-season.

Alexandre Lapandry will captain them on the road at the Stade Chaban-Delmas with Charlie Cassang starting at scrum-half and Greig Laidlaw providing the cover on the bench.

Wesley Fofana, Isaia Toeava and Noa Nakaitaci are all still recovering from their respective injuries.

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Toulon are also moving into the new season under a new management structure.

Fabien Galthie takes charge as head coach with Fabrice Landreau and Marc Dal Masco looking after the forwards. Manny Edmonds takes the role of backs coach and the expectations from Mourad Boudjellal on the collective team will be high.

New signings Chris Ashton and JP Pietersen are named in their squad preparing for their first home game alongside more familiar faces like Ma'a Nonu and Mathieu Bastareaud.

Chris Ashton dives over to score the opening try against Clermont Auvernge
Image: Chris Ashton scoring his 37th European try at BT Murrayfield

Toulon's final pre-season outing was a 14-17 loss against Lyon and their head coach has said that it had focused his team.

Pau finished the 2016-17 season in ninth place and Sunday afternoon could signal a return to the Mayol for Steffon Armitage as part of their back row.

One member of Pau's squad that will be keen to get a good run of games under his belt will be Conrad Smith, who hardly featured last season due to a broken ankle followed by a broken cheekbone.

The new Top 14 season promises to be as dramatic as ever and we'll be bringing you all of the action as it unfolds on the road to the final in Paris next May.

Watch Bordeaux-Bègles hosting Clermont Auvergne on Saturday from 7.40pm on Sky Sports Arena. Before Toulon face Pau on Sunday from 3.55pm live on Sky Sports Action.

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