European Champions Cup Toulon vs Scarlets : Steffon Armitage puts England dreams on hold with match-winning display

Toulon 28 Scarlets 18

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Steffon Armitage was back in the headlines with a try for Toulon as they made an unimpressive start to their quest for a third consecutive European title here yesterday.

The 29-year-old flanker had been heavily linked with a move back to England with Bath last week to boost his hopes of playing in next year’s World Cup. He now looks set to stay with the reigning European champions, Toulon, and showed no signs of the  distraction as he put in a man-of-the-match display against the Scarlets.

But Armitage’s performance was one of few highlights for the French giants as they kicked off their European campaign with a hard-fought victory. His second-half try from close range after good work by Jonny Wilkinson’s replacement at outside half, former Australian international Matt Giteau, was Armitage’s sixth try for Toulon in Europe.

He looked relieved to let his rugby do the talking after a week when he has rarely been out of the headlines in England or France.

Armitage said: “It’s not been a difficult week – I’m meant to be a professional rugby player and that means being prepared for anything.

“I had loads of different options going around in my head but I was always prepared for the game.

“When you look at the players and the crowd we have at Toulon, it’s amazing. It’s a good experience for me so I am glad to be here still. I just keep my head down and focus on my playing.”

Many expected the French side to use the beautiful autumn afternoon at the Stade Felix Mayol to put down a marker for the rest of the tournament against the struggling Welsh region.

Leigh Halfpenny kicked two conversions and a penalty on his home debut for Toulon

But an error-strewn display from the home side and some dogged Scarlets defensive work kept the visitors in contention for more than an hour.

Yellow cards for Rory Pitman and Emyr Phillips cost them the chance of a losing bonus point but Toulon failed to punish the Welsh side time and time again.

Pitman saw yellow after six minutes for a dangerous tackle on wing David Smith, allowing the Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny to kick Toulon in front on his home debut for the club he joined in the summer.

The Scarlets fly-half Rhys Priestland brought the visitors level with a penalty before Giteau lit the contest up with a wonderful individual try.

But after Halfpenny had failed to add the simple conversion after the ball fell off its tee during his run-up, the Scarlets hit back with a converted try from flanker John Barclay after good work by Scott and Liam Williams.

The Scarlets captain Scott Williams was then at fault straight from the restart when he took too long over a kick and Maxime Mermoz charged the clearance down and went under the posts, with Halfpenny adding the extras.

Wales duo Priestland and Halfpenny exchanged penalties before the interval to give Toulon an 18-13 lead at the break.

Hooker Phillips became the second Scarlets player sent to the bin, this time for using his hands on the floor, after Smith had made a dangerous break for Toulon.

But after going to touch with the penalty, Toulon lost the line-out and the Scarlets were able to clear.

Halfpenny added a long-range penalty with 15 minutes remaining to settle home nerves but they had to wait until nine minutes from the end for a third try. Another good break from Giteau made the room for Armitage to crash over from close range.

With Toulon chasing the bonus point the Scarlets hit them on the counter-attack and Priestland sent Kristian Phillips free out wide for a try in the final minute.

Toulon: Tries Giteau, Mermoz, Armitage; Conversions Halfpenny (2); Penalties Halfpenny (3). Scarlets: Tries Barclay, K Phillips; Conversion Priestland; Penalties Priestland (2).

Toulon L Halfpenny; D Smith (J O’Connor 72), M Bastareaud (R Wulf 69), M Mermoz, B Habana; M Giteau, S Tillous-Borde  (M Claassens 65); X Chiocci (A Menini 41), J Orioli (G Guirado 41), C Hayman (capt),  B Botha (R Taofifenau 58), A Williams,  J Smith, J Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage.

Scarlets L Williams (J Williams 65); H Robinson, M Tagicakibau, S Williams (capt) (S Shingler 69), K Phillips; R Priestland, A Davies; R Evans (P John 65), E Phillips (K Myhill 64), S Lee (R Jones 65), J Ball, J Snyman (60), A Shingler, R Pitman, J Barclay (J Davies 72).

Referee J P Doyle.