It would be stretching a point to suggest that Toulon brought a sultry piece of sun-kissed Provence to the wintry union outpost of Berkshire yesterday, but their rugby certainly had a pungent whiff of the bouillabaisse about it and it left London Irish deep in the soup as far as this Heineken Cup competition is concerned. Jonny Wilkinson was his usual perfect self on the goal-kicking front – indeed, the Great Horizontalist performed rather well in all departments, negotiating virtually the whole game without finding a new way of injuring himself – but there was more to the Frenchmen than a lone Englishman. Far, far more.
For starters, there was the South African back-rower Joe van Niekerk, who, but for the serious injuries that have punctuated his career with Wilkinsonesque regularity, might now be every bit as celebrated as Jonny-boy himself. Van Niekerk's virtuosity here was jaw-dropping, his broken-field running every bit as inspired as his kicking from hand, which in turn was as masterly as his passing off either hand. As a demonstration of the No 8's art, this was as complete as it gets.
"He was the difference between the teams, to be fair," acknowledged Toby Booth, the London Irish coach. "It's fairly evident that their game plan revolves around him, and while we knew what was coming – Toulon held a training run at Reading University and we had about 40 phone calls telling us what they were planning to do – he caused us massive problems. In a hard-fought, competitive contest, he was the true quality act. Sometimes, you have to put up your hand and admit these things." Van Niekerk had plenty of support: the Fijian centre Gabriele Lovobalavu was like Seilala Mapusua with knobs on – it must be a very long time since the Exiles' favourite Samoan found himself bettered by a fellow Pacific islander at club level – while the Toulon flankers, Olivier Missoup and Joe El Abd, ensured that Wilkinson spent most of the game in an armchair.
It was particularly good to see El Abd making the best of himself, a year and a half after leaving Bristol. As no player ever gave more of himself in a fruitless cause than the 30-year-old breakaway did at the Memorial Ground, no player is more deserving of a season or two in the sun.
If Booth was less than distraught at this defeat – "Given the stuff we've been playing just recently, this was a step in the right direction," he said – he must have been aware that Toulon could have scored five tries rather than one. Nigel Owens' refusal to award the visitors a penalty try midway through the third quarter raised the age-old question of what referees actually see when they are out there in the middle. Certainly, the former England wing Paul Sackey struggled to comprehend the decision, having set off in pursuit of Lovobalavu's toe-poke and been brought to earth by Paul Hodgson in wholly illegitimate fashion.
Then there was the slightly peculiar approach taken by the Toulon centre Geoffroy Messina, who attempted a pass off the floor when already over the London Irish line – a pass so unexpected that no player on earth would have caught it. What was more, London Irish scored their try in first-half stoppage time only because the Frenchmen managed to butcher a score of their own. Had the visitors won by 20 points, there could have been no complaint from the Home Counties audience.
Toulon's reputation as a "kick first, play later" outfit did not bear much scrutiny: while they were strong at close quarters – "If that's not the most expensive pack around, it must be the biggest," said Booth – they were also strikingly imaginative with ball in hand. Six points to the good through a brace of Wilkinson penalties, they scored the opening try on 28 minutes when the outside-half hoovered up some spilled ball in his own half and moved it towards Van Niekerk, who had already split the Exiles asunder with a 40-metre run into the 22. The Springbok found Lovobalavu with a one-handed flick-pass before taking the return and freeing Rudi Wulf on a joyous gallop to the line.
Even with 50 minutes left on the clock, there seemed no obvious way back for the Exiles. Yet they had a little stardust of their own in the shape of Delon Armitage, and it was the full-back who maximised Sailosi Tagicakibau's bold run out of defence, combining with the impressive young wing Jonathan Joseph before sliding a weighted kick into the Toulon in-goal area and beating Benjamin Lapeyre to the touchdown.
When Ryan Lamb, who had one of his in-and-out days, knocked over a penalty just shy of the hour mark, London Irish were somehow within three points. But Wilkinson, so relentless when it comes to the marksmanship duties, moved Toulon clear with two more kicks of his own, and by the time Daniel Bowden dragged the home side back within range with a straightforward three-pointer in front of the sticks, the contest was as good as over.
Asked whether reports of Wilkinson's decline had been exaggerated, Booth laughed. "I didn't see much sign of a decline out there," he responded. "One of the reasons we lost is they had a 100 per cent kicker and we didn't."
"Also, I saw him stop George Stowers full-bore, 10 metres out from the line. If he's still doing that..."
At the start of the weekend, none of the four teams in this season's European "group of death" were feeling terribly well, having lost a game apiece. On this evidence, Toulon are the ones showing signs of recovery. "When we played Munster in Limerick, we were too soft," admitted Van Niekerk. "We did not stand up to them and were taught a lesson, so we spent the week leading into this game talking about being more aggressive."
That they were, and it is difficult to see them being any less so when London Irish travel to the Riviera for what might be a painful return match this weekend.
London Irish: Try D Armitage, Conversion Lamb; Penalties Lamb, Bowden. Toulon: Try Wulf; Conversion Wilkinson. Penalties Wilkinson 4.
London Irish: D Armitage; J Joseph, E Seveali'i, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau (T Ojo 76); R Lamb (D Bowden 75), P Hodgson (D Allinson 81); C Dermody (capt, A Corbisiero 81), J Buckland, F Rautenbach (P Ion 69), N Kennedy, R Casey (K Roche 77), R Thorpe, S Armitage, C Hala'ufia (G Stowers 56).
Toulon: B Lapeyre; P Sackey, G Messina (C Loamanu 87), G Lovobalavu, R Wulf; J Wilkinson (T May 87), P Mignoni (L Magnaval 71); S Taumoepeau (B Basteres 59), S Bruno (M Ivaldi 59), C Hayman (M Merabet 81), D Schofield, K Chesney (J Suta 66), O Missoup, J El Abd (T Sourice 83), J Van Niekerk (capt).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
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