Please note that the kick-off time for this match is 16.30 local time.
The loyal Exiles’ supporters in the Stade Felix-Mayol in the heart of this Mediterranean city and those watching on television in England and elsewhere, will argue over the justice of Sailosi Tagicakibau’s second yellow (and red card) in the 45th minute, the fact that Referee Alain Rowland identified him as the culprit preventing the release of the ball at a ruck, effectively ended any chance the Exiles had of winning this important match.
As it happened the Samoan international’s dismissal ignited a spark among his team-mates and inspired a 20 minute revival that saw London Irish go from trailing the home team by 17 points to drawing level. However, the heroic effort involved in achieving that turnaround meant that Irish had little in reserve when the wave after wave of home attacks came again and three converted tries in the final 12 minutes saw off the Exiles.
The steep-sided stands and terracing of the Toulon stadium provided an appropriate setting for the gladiatorial contest of this Pool 3 tussle. A bright, sunny late December afternoon (that contrasted with weather reports from the UK) and a firm playing surface meant the scene was set for a crucial match for both teams in the context of the qualifying pool. Add in the drama of the pre-match singing and chanting of the local “Pilau-Pilau” haka-like challenge and a big crowd and sporting theatre doesn’t get any better.
There was little to choose between the two teams in the opening ten minutes. London Irish held their own in the set pieces building on the fine performance of the previous week.
The opening score, a penalty by Felipe Contepomi, went to Toulon, as Referee Rowland gave early warning that he was going to take a keen interest in events at the breakdown.
The Exiles drew further encouragement from the lineout where Bob Casey made the first of important ‘steals’. Richard Thorpe and Steffon Armitage were competing effectively at the breakdown despite the efforts of the vastly experienced, Australian international George Smith to dominate that area.
As the opening quarter developed, it was apparent that the Toulon defence was determined to take up where it had left off at Madejski Stadium. The line of blue shirts spread out across their 22 made clear their determination not to be breached with committed, well executed tackles that kept Irish at bay.
Playing with the patience they showed a week earlier, the home team were content to await their chance. That came in the 24th minute and was straight out of the playbook. A Contepomi penalty secured a lineout on five meter from the Irish try line. A clean catch, drive, recycle and there was Olivier Missoup to dive through the gap for the touchdown. Contepomi added the extras, 10-0 to the home team.
On the half-hour Delon Armitage, who gave another accomplished performance at full back, stepped up courageously to strike a long rang penalty from eight metres inside the Exiles’ half. His wind-assisted kick had the length but drifted left of the left upright.
There was no let up in the intensity of the contest as the two sets of forwards competed ferociously in every set piece and breakdown. Tackles were hard and effective as each team in turn ried to secure possession and move the ball through phases.
As the half moved into its final minutes it was the home team’s back row of Missoup, Smith and Joe El Abd ( a blood replacement for Van Niekerk) that were dominating and providing the outstanding Pierre Mignoni at scrum half with a ready supply of quick ball which he used to telling effect.
With two minutes left in the half, his opposite number Paul Hodgson made yet another brave try-saving tackle on the Irish left flank, in the process conceding a penalty. In a reprise of their opening try, Contemponi kicked to touch, Missoup took a clean catch in the lineout, the pack drove, the maul was formed, the ball recycled and this time hooker, Mickael Ivaldi forced his way over the try line for the touchdown. Contepomi kicked the conversion to leave his team leading 17-0 at the break.
The early exchanges of the second half were to prove ominous for the Exiles in more ways than one. With the return of Van Niekerk, Toiulon’s back row had another edge at the breakdown; that combined with Mignoni’s speed of service meant Irish came under sustained attack.
Tagicakibau’s red card came in the 45th minute to add further pressure. Either side of that the home team spurned two overlaps with the try line begging.
Chris Malone brought encouragement for all concerned with the visitors when he opend the scoring with a penalty in the 50th minute.
That triggered a sustained attack by the Irish pack. Showing commendable patience and courage they drove at the heart of the home defence and secured a midfield attacking position from where Hodgson was able to combine with Delon Armitage. The full backs intelligent running line exploited a gap in the home defence before he passed to Malone for the touchdown on the right.The fly half kicked the conversion.
Toulon’s introduction of a series of replacements disrupted their composure temporarily and the Irish forwards mounted another sustained attack. Paulica Ion, Alex Cornbisiero, Richard Thorpe, steffon armitage and Hodgson combining to creat a deserved try for Corbisiero. Malone added the extras to level the score at 17-17.
The spirit of the Irish supporters in the crowd soared briefly only for them to be dampened by a brilliant individual try by Contepomi in the 68th minute. He kicked the conversion to restore a seven point lead.
The score knocked Irish back. Having their all in levelling the score, the reserves of stamina in the 14 players on the pitch were tested to the limit.
An overlap on the lap gave Tom May a clear run in for Toulon’s bonus-point try in the 72nd minute, contepomi kicking the conversion.
Try number five followed in the 76th minute when replacement centre Christian Loamanu touched down. The Argentine international converted to make the score 38-17.
The Exiles competed to the end, retaining possession while the clock wound down until the referee blew his whistle for full time.
Speaking after the match London Irish Head Coach Toby Booth said, “Playing for London Irish obviously counts for a lot when you look at how we responded to the adversity of being behind on the scoreboard and to being down to 14 men. While we have to look at how we got into that position, the intensity and effort we showed against what was an international standard side bodes well for our return to Premiership action.”
Scorers. Toulon: Tries: Missoup (24), Ivaldi (40), Contepomi (63), May (72), Loamanu (76); Conversions: Contepomi 5. Penalty goal: Contepomi (6). London Irish: Tries: Malone (53), Corbisiero (65); Conversions: Malone 2. Penalty goal: Malone (50).
Scoring sequence (Toulon first): 3-0, 10-0, 17-0, (half-time) 17-3, 17-10, 17-17, 24-17, 31-17, 38-17.
R C Toulon: 15. B Lapeyre, 14. R Lamont (rep: P Sackey, 60), 13. G Messina (rep: C Loamanu, 73), 12. T May, 11. R Wulf, 10. F Contepomi; 9. P Mignoni (rep: L Magnaval, 73), 1. L Emmanuelli (rep: S Taumoepeau, 49), 2. M Ivaldi, 3. D Kubriashivilli (rep: M Merabet, 66), 4. J Suta, 5. D Schofield (rep: K Chesney, 60), 6. O Missoup (rep: J El Abd, 73), 7. G Smith, 8. J Van Niekerk (captain)(rep: J El Abd, 34-40).
London Irish: 15. D Armitage, 14. J Joseph (rep: T Ojo, 69), 13. S Mapusua, 12. D Bowden, 11. S Tagicakibau (sin-bin: 22-32, 45-80), 10. C Malone, 9. P Hodgson (rep: D Allinson, 77), 1. C Dermody (captain)(rep: A Corbisiero, 53), 2. J Buckland, 3. F Rautenbach (rep: P Ion, 53)(rep: F Rautenbach, 73), 4. N Kennedy (rep: K Roche, 62), 5. B Casey (rep: B Blaney, 78), 6. R Thorpe, 7. S Armitage, 8. C Hala’Ufia (rep: G Stowers, 49).
Referee: Mr A Rowland (IRFU)