The Premiership's bottom club Sale were never likely to improve what is shaping up to be another skimpy season for English clubs in the Heineken Cup, but there was pride, if no additional points, for them in the way the Sharks kept the mega-bucks monsters of Toulon on a fairly short leash.
Off the field England's militants will maintain a war footing in fierce defence of their television deal with BT Vision at next Wednesday's meeting of European Rugby Cup stakeholders in London, with a new format yet to be agreed for post-2014.
Toulon have spent big already in search of immediate success. Their team sheet reads like a rugby Harlem Globetrotters, even if some of the stars are as superannuated as Meadowlark Lemon. But if Bakkies Botha, Carl Hayman, Jonny Wilkinson and the nine other thirty-somethings on parade had a whiff of formaldehyde about them – the last time a group as venerable as this arrived in the north west they were heading for a Saga holiday in Blackpool – their accumulated skill and wisdom was always going to be too much for a Sale team with three wins and 11 losses this season, compared with Toulon's 12 wins in 14 as leaders of the French Top 14 and furnace-hot favourites to win this pool.
Wilkinson is a candidate for making a third Lions tour next summer, if the head coach Warren Gatland's "you're never too old" pronouncements are to be believed; Danny Cipriani was not far off being picked for the one in 2009. But both are off England's radar for different reasons: one retired, the other not wanted. The pair of No.10s had to deal with tricky swirling drizzle as they lined up a variety of shots at goal in the first half. Cipriani edged the ledger with two penalties out of four to Wilkinson's same ratio of penalties plus a missed conversion of Toulon's try by the Australian wing David Smith after 29 minutes. It was a route-one affair; the drop-out after Wilkinson's second missed penalty was fielded by the 33-year-old fly-half, and returned as a steepling up and under. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe gave chase and the Argentinian's tap back was scooped up with great skill by Smith before a 40-metre sprint to the line.
So Toulon led 11-6 at half-time, but they had been so tightly structured that their huge advantage in territory often led to nothing more than passes to the touchline followed by a grubber for position that more often than not went dead. They were predictably strong at the scrum and blessed with myriad options in the lineout; operating as they are on a squad budget of about five euros spent to every Sale pound.
Some clever chips by Cipriani to the corner had the home support hopefully singing "na, na, nah, nah…Say-yul" to the tune of "Hey Jude". Ball in hand, though, it was a tough task against a wall of brick-red Toulon jerseys. The former Springbok enforcer Botha was just as likely to step up with a hammering tackle as the 18-and-a-half stone France centre Mathieu Bastareaud.
Cipriani had a pass intercepted by Chris Masoe after 50 minutes but the ex-All Black was easily chased down by Mark Jennings, late of Lymm Grammar School and the England under 20 squad. Sale had their newly re-hired coaching consultant John Mitchell – a player and coach at the club in the 1990s before he assisted Clive Woodward with England and then coached New Zealand – barking orders in the warm-up and from the touchline. And he was heartened by the work on the deck that gave Steffon Armitage – who with his brother Delon has traded in his England chances by going to France – a run for his Euros. "I thought we fought very well," Mitchell said. "I couldn't think of a better side than Toulon to test the character of our group."
But for all Toulon's hundreds of caps – they had as many England internationals, with four, as French ones in their XV, their concentration around the ruck was fitful. Counter-attack served them better. One ponderous home raid was run back at sharp pace by Smith, only to be held up on the Sale line when a transfer left would have found Delon Armitage alone. Wilkinson fired a drop at goal wide with 10 minutes remaining before he kicked a penalty awarded against Sale's scrum. When the replacement scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde was denied a try by plucky cover defence it rounded off a Toulon effort infinitely more functional than flashy. "In the conditions it became a chess game and a kicking fest," said Wilkinson, who also revealed he had revelled in watching England's victory over New Zealand last weekend. "To win that game may just be the biggest turning point and influential moment of the last five years [for England]," he said.
Sale R Miller; M Jennings, C Uys (C Amesbury, 69), J Leota, M Cueto; D Cipriani, W Cliff; R Harrison (E Lewis-Roberts, 60), T Taylor, T Buckley (V Cobilas, 60), R Gray, F McKenzie (K Myall, 55), J Gaskell, R Vernon (A Powell, 51), D Seymour (capt).
Toulon D Armitage; R Wulf, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, D Smith; J Wilkinson (capt), F Michalak (S Tillous-Borde, 69); A Sheridan (X Chiocci, 69), S Bruno (JC Orioli, 55), C Hayman (D Kubriashvili, 75), B Botha (N Kennedy, 68), J Suta (S Shaw, 57), JM Fernandez Lobbe, C Masoe (P Gunther, 55), S Armitage.
Referee L Hodges (Wales).
Pens: Cipriani (2)
Pens: Wilkinson (4)