Jonny Wilkinson’s demeanour very rarely gives much away – when the celebrated fly-half won the Heineken Cup with Toulon in Dublin last season his wide smile was the equivalent of any other man doing laps of honour for half an hour – so to see him wearing a mask of anger as he left the field after this enormous upset was telling. The European champions and French league leaders had offered little more than a dominant scrum, and although that looked likely to be enough as Wilkinson chipped over five penalties, the Cardiff Blues pulled a rabbit out of the hat with Gareth Davies’s winning try two minutes from time.
Davies, 29, has had a so-so career, more often spent playing for Cardiff’s Premiership team rather than the region who, in common with the Scarlets, Ospreys and Dragons are all a-fluster as to the financial peril the arguments over future European competition might leave them in. On as a replacement for the much younger Rhys Patchell – who had an topsy-turvy match of knock-ons, over-ambitious drops at goal and a little glimpse of his running – Davies’s intervention turned a sombre Arms Park into an anthemic throng.
It began with a mistake typical of both teams on an afternoon of torrential rain and bright sun, as Toulon made a hash of a pass behind a scrum: Freddy Michalak’s scudding delivery fumbled by Maxime Mermoz. Presented with an unusually good position, Blues attacked through their backs. They could not have expected too much from the callow Cory Allen and Owen Williams up against the vastly more experienced Mermoz and Matt Giteau. But Allen jinked into the 22 and suddenly Toulon were broken. Davies shrugged off Wilkinson and although stopped by Michalak he regained his feet and dived over the goal-line. Leigh Halfpenny’s conversion finished the job, and with Heineken Cup Pool 2 now more open than expected, Toulon’s best consolation is that no team has ever won the trophy by going through the tournament undefeated. Wilkinson’s face suggested he was not interested in any such reflection.
Perhaps it was as well for the Côte d’Azur’s expensively assembled rugby galacticos that Toulon’s voluble owner, Mourad Boudjellal, was not present to see this, or to elaborate on his bizarre midweek comment that his club would snub the English and French clubs’ rebel Rugby Champions Cup next season, as a by-product of his dissatisfaction with Top 14 proposals to limit foreign players.
Cardiff Blues’ problem was a crisis of confidence in their coaching after last week’s first-round calamity at Exeter, who go to Glasgow today. Dale McIntosh has been hired as defence coach, though the “Chief” was finishing his stint at Pontypridd yesterday and maybe credit should go to his Blues predecessor Rob Powell. A new backs coach is due, rumoured to be Iestyn Harris, the former dual-code international. Phil Davies, the man in charge, had been assailed by negative headlines. Funny how things turn.
Toulon had smashed Glasgow in the first half when winning their Pool Two opener last weekend but here the see-saw turned horizontal as Patchell kicked the Blues – who quixotically play in pink in Europe – into the lead. Wilkinson’s first two penalties went over in the 21st and 28th minutes, as Halfpenny, Patchell and the No 8 Robin Copeland each committed gaffes of handling.
Toulon’s brigade of thirtysomethings overhauled the brilliant Clermont in during May’s final, but here they resembled journeyman plodders at times on Cardiff’s artificial pitch. A high tackle by Bakkies Botha allowed Halfpenny to make the score 6-6 just before half-time. It was the Blues’ fielding of four Lions – including the captain Sam Warburton and goal-kicking hero from Australia in June and July, Halfpenny – that made their Exeter performance so mystifying. At home they had to show more pride and nous. It looked dodgy though when Wilkinson steered Toulon 12-6 ahead in the third quarter before he and Patchell each missed once from long distance. Halfpenny’s 59th-minute kick rewarded a rare penalty to the Blues’ scrum, as Scott Andrews was launched skywards. Halfpenny levelled when Delon Armitage stuck a hand in a ruck; then it all looked done with Wilkinson’s fifth penalty after when Halfpenny was judged harshly to have unfairly halted a run blind off the scrum by Josua Tuisova as the wing chipped beyond the full-back. But no; and Copeland said there was a tear in Phil Davies’s eye in the changing room afterwards.
The director of rugby himself said: “It’s not about me. The win was important for lots of reasons. It was good to see Peter [Thomas, the chairman] smiling, good to hear the crowd singing ‘Hymns and Arias’. It shows the appreciation of Welsh rugby supporters – they’ve always admired battling commitment and pride in the shirt.”
Cardiff Blues: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert (R Smith, 40), O Williams, C Allen, H Robinson; R Patchell (G Davies, 73), L Williams; G Jenkins (capt), M Breeze (K Dacey, 76), S Andrews (B Bourrust, 60), B Davies, F Paulo (L Reed, 76), J Navidi, S Warburton, R Copeland.
Toulon: D Armitage; J Tuisova, M Mermoz, M Giteau, R Wulf; J Wilkinson (capt), F Michalak; X Chiocci (E Felsina, 40), J-C Orioli (B Noirot, 40), M Castrogiovanni (C Hayman, 40), B Botha (J Suta, 47), A Williams, J Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage (J Smith, 70), C Masoe.
Referee: JP Doyle (England).