Champions of Europe? Toulon are still standing and will probably work their way out of their Heineken Cup pool thanks to the points accrued yesterday but, on this form, their defence of the title stands on shaky ground – as shaky as Jonny Wilkinson’s goal-kicking at Sandy Park where his return was one success from five attempts.
Not that Wilkinson’s contribution was restricted to his place kicking. “He is not a robot, you know,” Bernard Laporte, Toulon’s director of rugby, said. Yet the former England fly half knocked over the dropped goal that made Exeter’s task all the harder, he asked questions of the home defence and his distribution is as good as ever.
But the No 10 with his future before him is Henry Slade, to whom Wilkinson was a childhood hero. He had never seen Wilkinson in the flesh before, never mind sharing a pitch with him for an hour, but the England Under-20 player offered maturity beyond his years when he came on midway through the first half to replace the injured Gareth Steenson.
“A lot of teams would have struggled if their number one fly half went off so early,” Rob Baxter, Exeter’s head coach, said and Steenson, who suffered damage to his shoulder and neck in a heavy tackle by Mathieu Bastareaud, may not make the return fixture next weekend. But Slade’s line kicking and his running posed the kind of threat that Exeter could not sustain for long enough.
They held a one-point lead until the 66th minute, their scrum performing miracles, but there remained the sense that Toulon, able to retain possession far longer, would find a way to eke out victory. They had to turn to Matt Giteau for the penalty that restored their lead after Wilkinson had missed three consecutive kicks, all from more than 46 metres, but the fly half applied the coup de grâce before having stitches in a cut eyebrow.
The great South African wing Bryan Habana, however, endured a Heineken Cup debut to forget for Toulon – the 30-year-old lasted just 38 minutes before being forced off with a hamstring injury and was replaced by Rudi Wulf.
Exeter will take great heart from going toe-to-toe with the champions. A capacity crowd cheered them to the echo, even when they relinquished an early lead to the only try of the match: Craig Burden, the Toulon hooker, made the breakthrough, Ali Williams supplied a neat scoring flip into the hands of Florian Fresia, the prop who is one of the young, home-grown players of whom Laporte has such high hopes.
Steenson’s second penalty before he went off kept Exeter hopes high and Slade put their noses back in front just before the interval. But every time Exeter found themselves in the opposing 22, they conceded a penalty and when they were in possession, only Jack Nowell looked likely to break Toulon’s defensive line; since the young wing also made a try-saving tackle on Wulf, Nowell’s season continues on an upward curve.
But in the second half, Exeter found themselves penned in their own half and tried too hard to play their way out. It is hardly a fault, heaven knows, but they will be critical of their own decision-making in running from their own 22 when a hefty thump would have won more ground. “Sometimes it’s just about relieving pressure,” Baxter said, and there will be plenty of that at the Stade Felix Mayol next Saturday.
Exeter Chiefs: L Arscott; J Nowell, P Dollman, J Shoemark (I Whitten, 67), M Jess; G Steenson (H Slade, 21), D Lewis (H Thomas, 57-75); B Moon (B Sturgess, 72), J Yeandle (C Whitehead, 67), H Tui (A Brown, 57), D Mumm (captain), D Welch (J Hanks, 67), T Johnson, B White (K Horstmann, 62), D Ewers.
Toulon: D Mitchell; A Palisson, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana (R Wulf, 38); J Wilkinson (captain), S Tillous-Borde (M Claassens, 75); F Fresia (X Chiocci, 57), C Burden (J-C Orioli, 32), M Castrogiovanni (C Hayman, 54), B Botha (J Suta, 32), A Williams, J Smith (V Bruni, 61), S Armitage, C Masoe.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).
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