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At first sight a losing bonus point may appear a scant return for all of the team’s efforts, but it was the Exiles’ first league point in any tournament since the Aviva Premiership win over Sale Sharks on 31st October. Another and more significant positive was the much improved performance of the forwards in the set pieces against a top class opposition pack, evidence of the hard work put in on the training pitch during the week.
Toulon’s Director of Rugby, Philippe Saint-Andre paid his hosts the compliment of bringing his strongest available team to Madejski Stadium. Wherever one looked among the backs and forwards, there was a quality player of proven class ranging from French international scrum half, Pierre Mignoni, to All Blacks Carl Hayman and Rudi Wulf, to Springbok Joe Van Niekerk and last but not least, Jonny Wilkinson.
Pre-match media speculation that the England World Cup winner was past his prime proved to be well wide of the mark as the former Newcastle Falcons’ star graced Madejski Stadium with another outstanding performance that displayed his command of the fly half’s role – whether it was his 100 per cent kicking with five out of five, or his courageous tackling, especially his crunch hit on George Stowers, or his passing and general game management. He generally ensured his team were on the front foot throughout.
If Wilkinson was the stand-out performer in the Toulon backs, then the star of the forwards was the captain, Joe van Niekerk. The former Springbok gave a master class of the No 8’s role whether in the set pieces or in open play, he was the most influential player on the pitch and arguably the crucial difference between the two teams.
Conditions were as good as could be expected for an entertaining match – cold yet dry, bright with a slight wind. In addition, a firm pitch provided a quality surface for open, running rugby.
Toulon kicked off and there was no mistaking their aggressive intent from the early exchanges, a very different opening from their earlier fixture against Munster. Irish withstood the challenge and didn’t lose time in taking the game to the visitors. Ryan Lamb had a chance to open the scoring in the fifth minute but his penalty attempt drifted wide.
Wilkinson and his full back Benjamin Lapeyre tested Delon Armitage with two ‘Garryowens’ in quick succession but the England full back showed that he wasn’t to be threatened by the tactic with two clean catches and a refreshing desire to counter-attack with ball in hand at every opportunity.
Fifteen minutes into the match the Exiles had the first warning sign of the threat posed by the Toulon backs when a clever chip by Mignoni over the advancing home defence was followed up by Wilkinson, it took a perfectly timed tackle by James Buckland to prevent a certain try. However, the England fly half quickly punished Irish for basic transgressions with two penalties in the 17th and 19th minutes.
The Exiles continued to take the game to Toulon, in the process creating attacking field positions but to their frustration, poor execution nullified the hard won advantage resulting in turnover ball. And when that happened the visitors took every chance, it took a brave tackle by Delon Armitage to halt a rapier like rampage through the defence by Van Niekerk.
The signs were ominous for the home team and sure enough in the 26th minute Referee Owens played advantage after Irish had knocked-on. The ball was passed to Van Niekerk in left midfield. He attacked at pace and exchanged passes with inside centre Gabi Lovobalavu before passing to speedy winger Rudi Wulf who raced in to touchdown under the posts. Wilkinson added the extras to stretch his team’s lead to 13-0.
There was no lack of effort by both teams as the half moved towards half-time. Competition at the breakdown was fierce and honours were even; both defences tackled tirelessly with Irish’s Paul Hodgson having to show characteristic bravery on more than one occasion.
With two minutes remaining Sailosi Tagicakibau intercepted a forced pass deep in his half on the left and counter-attacked. The ball moved quickly via Elvis Seveali’i and Jonathan Joseph to Delon Armitage on the right. The full back showed consummate skill in chipping the on-coming Toulon defenders and winning the chase to collect the ball and score a welcome try. Lamb kicked the conversion to ensure his team left the pitch at half-time in better spirits having reduced the deficit to 7-13.
It was the Exiles’ turn to show real aggressive intent after the interval as they sought to pick up from where they had left off and secure another score. In a ten minute spell in which possession ebbed and flowed between the two teams, it was Irish that lacked a cutting edge despite regularly putting themselves in positions on the pitch from which to attack.
The Toulon defence coped comfortably with most of what London Irish threw at them and with Wilkinson and full back Benjamin Lapeyre combining well, they were always prepared to build their attacks from deep in their half. One such move in the 49th minute required Hodgson to make a try-saving tackle on Paul Sackey just as he was about to touchdown.
With the Nick Kennedy-Bob Casey partnership functioning as of old, Irish stole two lineouts in succession but the resulting attacks broke down.
The first points of the half went to Irish through a successful penalty kick by Lamb in the 57th minute after Toulon were penalised for not releasing. The fly half had an opportunity to level the score five minutes later but his long range penalty missed.
The next and what proved to be crucial score in the context of the match fell to Toulon when Wilkinson kicked his third penalty in the 65th minute to extend his team’s lead to six points.
With both teams introducing replacements, all the pressure was on Irish as the clock moved against them and a second try proved to be elusive. Inevitably, decision-making suffered as the plays carried a higher risk. With five minutes remaining Irish had another let-off when Toulon failed to capitalise on an attempted grubber kick inside the Exiles’ 22 that ricocheted off the oncoming visitors’ defence.
A minute later Wilkinson’s fourth penalty from out near the right touchline secured a precious away win for his team by stretching the lead to nine points. To their credit Irish pressed form the restart but the visitors’ defence resisted capably. The match was in its final minute when the Toulon backs strayed offside and Dan Bowden, who had replaced Lamb in the 71st minute, kicked the resulting penalty to earn a losing bonus point for the Exiles.
Scorers. London Irish: Try: Armitage (38); Conversion: Lamb. Penalty goal: Lamb (57). Toulon: Try: Wulf (26); Conversion: Wilkinson. Penalty goals: Wilkinson 4 (17, 19, 65, 76).
Scoring sequence (London Irish first): 0-3, 0-6, 0-13, 7-13 (half-time) 10-13, 10-16, 10-19, 13-19.
London Irish: 15. D Armitage, 14. S Tagicakibau (rep: T Ojo, 71), 13. E Seveali’i, 12. S Mapusua, 11. J Joseph, 10. R Lamb (rep: D Bwden, 71), 9. P Hodgson (rep: D Allinson, 74), 1. C Dermody (captain)(rep: A Corbisiero, 74), 2. J Buckland, 3. F Rautenbach (rep: P Ion, 65), 4.N Kennedy, 5. B Casey (rep: K Roche, 72), 6. R Thorpe, 7. S Armitage, 8. C Hala’Ufia (rep: G Stowers, 54).
R C Toulon: 15. B Lapeyre, 14. P Sackey, 13. G Messina (rep: C Loamanu, 77), 12. G Lovobalavu, 11. R Wulf, 10. J Wilkinson (rep: T May, 77); 9. P Mignoni (rep: L Magnaval, 68), 1. S Taumoepeau (rep: B Basteres, 57), 2. S Bruno (rep: M Ivaldi, 57), 3. C Hayman (rep: M Merabet, 74), 4. D Schofield (rep: J Suta, 62), 5. K Chesney, 6. O Missoup, 7. J El Abd (rep: T Sourice, 77), 8. J Van Niekerk (captain).
Referee: N Owens (WRU)