Jonny Wilkinson's masterclass for Toulon gives Cardiff the blues
Cardiff Blues 14 Toulon 22
An hour before kick-off Jonny Wilkinson was one of three figures on the Cardiff Arms Park pitch, one was being interviewed and the other was a member of the Toulon coaching staff kicking the ball back to him. Wilkinson's search for perfection will go on long after retirement – in his garden, the car park, on spare ground, anywhere with space enough to swing a boot and bounce a ball.
It is a harsh judgment on the brilliance of Leigh Halfpenny to suggest that, had he the left foot of Wilkinson at his disposal, Cardiff might have been the team walking off with the points if not designs on the Heineken Cup.
Halfpenny scorched the earth in the cause of his team, his early try just one example of the potency of his extraordinary pace. In open space he is a one-man wrecking ball, but on this day two missed penalty kicks and a failed conversion cost Cardiff momentum as well as points.
Wilkinson also missed a penalty, but that was his only blip. Five more went over and a conversion to seal a match that for the most part the visitors controlled.
The try Toulon conceded came in Cardiff's first attack, and what a strike it was, fly-half Ceri Sweeney missing out Jamie Roberts in the line to release Tom James, who sped across the half way line taking Halfpenny with him. A neat pass inside found Halfpenny at full tilt. Nothing would stop him from there.
With the sun flooding the far side of the ground and a blue sky framing Cardiff Arms Park, the early try whipped the crowd into a frenzy. The appearance before them of an expensively-assembled, all-star cast, which included one of their own, prop Gethin Jenkins, meant the Cardiff citizenry had little need of the early score to fire their engines.
After last week's late capitulation at Sale, Cardiff needed to strike back here to maintain hopes of progressing to the knockout stages. Halfpenny's magic stride made anything seem possible.
But Toulon glittered in midfield, too, with Frédéric Michalak busy beside the industrious Wilkinson and Matt Giteau and Mathieu Bastareaud all quick hands and sharp angles outside them. And behind every artiste is a heavy breathing unit ready to snap you in two. The hits were plentiful and fierce.
Indeed after Wilkinson missed the chance to put Toulon 9-5 ahead, the first-half's major talking point was provided by Delon Armitage, who appeared at first hand to have hammered Gavin Evans into submission with the use of his shoulders. The tackle went unpunished.
The crowd cried for Armitage's head, but replays revealed his innocence after Evans lost his footing momentarily before impact, skewing perceptions of the challenge, which might have evolved to include the use of Armitage's arms.
Referee George Clancy's lenience was still a surprise, not least to Armitage, who missed 17 weeks of last year for a string of indiscretions. Perhaps this is a turning point, though he will need the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, to look more favourably on the exiles in France to resurrect his international prospects just yet.
The drift of English talent across the Channel has claimed, among others, both Armitage brothers. The pair reminded a British audience of their international credentials here. Steffon, though quiet for long periods, went over for the Toulon try in the second half, benefitting from another explosive Giteau break and quick response from Michalak, who flicked the ball into the path of the No 7 two metres from the line.
He is quick to the breakdown and nimble on his feet. With the ball in his hands and a white line beckoning Armitage fairly smashed through the tackle on the line.
That score came three minutes after Halfpenny had reduced the arrears to a point. Wilkinson's conversion established an eight-point cushion and drilled the fight from Cardiff hearts. The contest was close but Toulon controlled the tempo, and when fatigue set in the Frenchmen replaced the likes of Bakkies Botha with Simon Shaw. Neither are at the peak of the powers but between them they can still wreak combined havoc for 80 minutes in this company.
As the match entered its final phase Bastareaud, Giteau and wing David Smith broke across the gain line with menaces, dragging the tiring Cardiff defence deeper towards their own line.
This is what big money buys, fast legs that hurt when the margins become stretched. The Cardiff back row of Sam Warburton, Andries Pretorius and Josh Navidi smashed into tackle after tackle, aided by some hefty charges by JRoberts, but the heat was rarely applied in the Toulon 22.
With seven minutes remaining Halfpenny slotted a penalty from 40 metres to reduce the arrears to five and at least invite the idea of a late push for glory.
Wilkinson skewered that notion with another lethal penalty two minutes later. Each time Cardiff threatened Toulon had the answer. The Frenchmen march on with two wins from two, while Cardiff are already facing exclusion from European rugby's premier competition.
Wilkinson's late strike carried the added sting of denying Cardiff a losing bonus point since it extended the lead to eight points.
Cardiff Blues: Try Halfpenny; Penalties Halfpenny 3. Toulon: Try S Armitage; Conversion Wilkinson; Penalties Wilkinson 5. Cardiff Blues L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, G Evans (D Hewitt, 27), J Roberts, T James; C Sweeney (J Tovey, 61), L Williams; T Filise, M Breeze, B Bourrust (S Andrews, 22), B Davies, L Reed (J Down, 61), J Navidi, S Warburton (R Copeland, 68), A Pretorius (capt). Toulon D Armitage; V Martin, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, D Smith; J Wilkinson, F Michalak; G Jenkins (A Sheridan, 62), M Ivaldi, D Kubriashvili (C Hayman, 52), B Botha (S Shaw, 62), J Suta, J F Lobbe (P Gunther, 62), S Armitage, C Masoe.
Referee G Clancy (Ireland)
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