The joyous scene that erupted in this port town’s beguiling theatre of rugby when Jonny Wilkinson scored the match-settling try for Toulon was almost incidental to the Heineken Cup, even though it set the holders of the trophy up for a tasty battle over quarter-final qualification with the Cardiff Blues in Nice next month.
As the feted former England fly-half sidestepped past the Exeter flanker Don Armand to the posts, thousands of copies of the local Var-Matin newspaper were tossed in the air, having been placed on each spectator’s seat in readiness for just such a moment.
“We want Jonny,” sang the throng, mindful of the Toulon owner-chairman Mourad Boudjellal’s comments yesterday morning that the 34-year-old Wilkinson might yet have another year in him, if his body holds up. An alternative scenario is retirement next summer and the signing of Leigh Halfpenny and Toby Flood to replace him.
For Exeter, who by contrast are just getting used to the delights of European competition, this was a brave and in one way bitterly controversial defeat. “To give this competition the credit it deserves we will continue to go flat out,” said Rob Baxter, the Exeter coach, although it would take some unlikely results to keep his side involved.
There was enough ebb and flow – including a forward-pass first-half try to Toulon’s David Smith that had Baxter and everyone else from the south of the France to the Exe estuary utterly baffled – to keep the flamboyant Boudjellal dancing in his touchline vantage point. The millionaire comic-book publisher confirmed he is in talks to bring Wales’s Halfpenny here, while strong rumours surround a move for Flood of England, but the interest in the Wales captain Sam Warburton has cooled. “We will have to replace two players in one [if Wilkinson retires in June],” said Boudjellal, “a playmaker and a kicker with a 90 per cent success rate like Jonny has.”
Bernard Laporte, the Toulon head coach, said Flood’s transfer from Leicester might hinge on Wilkinson’s decision, due to a limit on foreign players. Wilkinson himself made a nod towards this quota issue, saying: “I’m contemplating the decision every day, every match, every week. I’m keeping it very simple and it’s not just about me, it’s about other people as well and the best interests of this club.”
Laporte smiled: “We want Jonny to play forever; he is unique. If he does stop then Halfpenny, who has not signed yet I don’t think, can take the kicks. We speak about Toby, but there are rules in France and we can’t take everyone. We have to see whether Jonny goes or not.”
Toulon’s former England full-back Delon Armitage has agreed a two-year contract extension, but his dual qualification does not count towards the 16 foreigners Toulon are permitted.
Smith’s second try of the match in the 37th minute was awarded when the Television Match Official Dermot Moloney and referee John Lacey somehow approved the pass the wing received from Matt Giteau, who started at fly-half with Wilkinson on the bench. The interpretation that the ball can fly forwards as long as the passer’s hands point backwards is questionable. For the ball to travel ahead of both Giteau and Smith, who shrugged off Jack Nowell and Luke Arscott to score, appeared plain ludicrous.
“The ball went three metres forwards but it seems you’re more likely to see that kind of try awarded when the TMO looks at it than if it is left to the referee and touch judge,” said Baxter. “It’s a decision for the governing bodies. The reality was we had opportunities to score two tries earlier in the game and should have taken them.”
When Giteau converted that try it moved Toulon 12-7 ahead – Smith’s opener had been overturned by a try from Armand created by Arscott’s long pass and Tom James’s step inside Alexis Palisson – and with two penalties each by Giteau and Slade it was 18-13 with 54 minutes gone.
Thereafter Toulon’s heavy mob of Harlem Globetrotter forwards held sway – Ali Williams of the All Blacks in the line-out; the Springbok flanker Juan Smith on the floor – assisted by a generous attitude from Lacey to the home team after the tackle.
Wilkinson jogged on in the 58th minute and within another 10 the lead was 32-13, with his try added to one from a plot familiar from his England days: line-out ball off the top moved into midfield where an inside pass from Wilkinson to the onrushing Drew Mitchell was finished by Xavier Chiocci.
At least the concluding try, by Ben White for Exeter, converted by Ceri Sweeney, gave the wacky wearers of Chiefs headdresses some late fun in the Côte d’Azur sun.
Toulon: D Mitchell; A Palisson (D Armitage 18), M Bastareaud, M Mermoz, D Smith (J Wilkinson 58); M Giteau, S Tillous-Borde (F Michalak 72); F Fresia (X Chiocci 60), J-C Orioli B Noirot 67), C Hayman (M Castrogiovanni 55), J Suta (K Mikaautadze 72), A Williams, J Smith, S Armitage, C Masoe (capt; V Bruni 11).
Exeter: L Arscott; J Nowell, I Whitten, P Dollman (S Hill 67), T James; H Slade (C Sweeney 72), H Thomas (W Chudley 75); B Moon (B Sturgess 67), J Yeandle (C Whitehead 67), H Tui (A Brown 67), D Mumm (capt), J Hanks (D Welch 54), T Johnson (B White 55), D Armand, D Ewers.
Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).