It was French flair versus English grit as Exeter Chiefs welcomed the all-stars of Toulon to Sandy Park on Saturday. It was certainly a daunting task, with Bernard Leporte’s side boasting names such as Botha, Wilkinson, Giteau and Habana.
However, it was the men from Devon who started better, with Castrogiovanni fumbling the ball under the shadow of his own posts off the kick-off, allowing Chiefs to build some early pressure. Only a try-saving tackle in the corner by Toulon’s captain, Jonny Wilkinson, denied Jack Nowell a try after just two minutes of play. Fortunately Chiefs were playing with a penalty advantage so the play was bought back, allowing Steenson to give them an early 3-0 lead.
This lead was short lived, however, as two minutes later a punchy break from Toulon’s hooker Craig Burden got him behind the Chiefs defence, and he gave a spectacular offload for loose-head Florian Fresia to bundle over for the first try of day. Wilkinson was unable to provide the extras.
Errors continued to slip into the Toulon play; Matt Giteau clearing the ball only as far as a team mate’s back, giving Chiefs a scrum in a very promising position. Again the French side’s defence held firm, a bone-shattering hit from French international Bastareaud floored Steenson, forcing the Chief’s fly-half off the pitch after just 20 minutes to be replaced by the young Henry Slade.
The first half continued to be a rather scrappy affair, with both sides frequently fumbling passes and giving away penalties at the break down. The two sides appeared to be forcing it, both playing as though they were chasing the game, a sign of the mutual respect for their opposition.
Both sides did show glimpses, Toulon were camped on the Chiefs line for a considerable amount of time before Chiefs turned it over in the ruck, allowing Matt Jess to burst up the pitch- this time only denied by an unfortunate bounce of the ball following his chip and chase. A further two penalties from the boot of Slade and one by Wilkinson meant Chiefs went into half time 9-8 up, deservedly so.
The uncharacteristic errors continued to plague Toulon’s game in the second half, and Wilkinson missed three consecutive penalties in ten minutes. The physicality of the encounter was plain to see; neither side was giving an inch and as the second half continued some of the super-stars of the Toulon starting line-up, including Habana and Williams, were forced off the pitch. This allowed Laporte to utilise his high calibre bench- with a host of internationals including Carl Hayman and Maxime Mermoz coming on to further Toulon’s on-pitch quality.
As the second half wore on Chiefs began to build some momentum, settling into the game. Moments of brilliance from Chief’s youngsters Nowell and Slade allowed them to build pressure and let the pack get the upper hand in the scrum. However they were unable to capitalise as handling errors let them down at crucial times. Time and time again Chiefs got themselves within touching distance of that elusive try but the wall of red held firm and frustration began to sneak into Chiefs’ attack as the error count rose.
As the game entered the final quarter the experience of Toulon began to shine through. Barnstorming carries from Botha and Masoe led the charge as wave after wave of attackers pounded the Chief’s defence. They were unable to break through though despite coming close on several occasions.
A strong carry from Masoe off the base of the scrum bought Toulon within ten meters, then Wilkinson was dragged down just inches from the line. The Toulon back line spread it wide from the break down, utilising an overlap. Nowell scrambled well to make a fantastic try-saving tackle in the corner to prevent replacement Suta from crossing the whitewash.
Chiefs, however, knocked it on at the lineout, allowing Toulon to continue to build the pressure. They won a penalty at the scrum and opted for points. Following a very uncharacteristic performance with the boot, Wilkinson decided a change of kicker was needed and this time Giteau stepped up to the tee amidst boos and chants of “we want Jonny.” Safe to say the Toulon captain may not be in favour of a trip back to the South West any time soon. Giteau slotted the penalty to bring the score to 9-11 entering the final stages if the game.
After 74 minutes Wilkinson dropped into the pocket to land a trademark drop goal off his well cultured left boot, making the score 9-14. Chiefs were forced to throw everything at Toulon, running the ball from all areas of the pitch. The Toulon defence held firm, forcing the Chiefs runners into lateral attacks as they failed to make any significant headway.
As they entered the final play Chiefs had possession, camped in the opposition’s territory. However, they gave away a penalty in the ruck, and Wilkinson punted for touch, bringing the game to an end with a final score of 9-14.
For a neutral observer, the game would have been a little bit of a disappointment. Toulon seemed off their game, lacking intensity and were lacklustre in attacks- not showing the expansive, running rugby that won them the Heineken Cup last season.
Chiefs on the other hand showed glimpses of why they are so highly respected. They played a whole team performance as always, and all of them were out on their feet after giving their all. Stand out performances came from the two youngsters Nowell and Slade, who shone the brightest despite all the world-class talent on show.
This result leaved Chiefs in third place of Pool 2 behind Cardiff Blues and Toulon, leaving them with some considerable making up to do if they are to progress out of the pool stages.
Mike Stanton, Sport Editorbookmark me