A French juggernaut with an English captain at the helm is all that stands in the way of glory for Saracens after Jonny Wilkinson steered the champions into another Heineken Cup final on Sunday.
Munster put up a ferocious challenge in Marseille but apart from a brief spell in the second half when they scored the game’s only try, Toulon always looked on course for the Millennium Stadium next month. Toulon will now attempt to become only the third side to retain the Heineken Cup but the Man of the Match, Steffon Armitage, was the first to admit that this performance will be insufficient if they are to follow Leicester and Leinster into the history books.
“We will need to put in an even bigger performance for Saracens. They had a good win at the weekend as well and it will be 50-50 in Cardiff,” he said.
He produced another magnificent performance and it was needed against a Munster side who initially refused to buckle, but in the end the sheer might and ability of Toulon yielded the opportunities and Wilkinson didn’t disappoint. “There were only a few occasions in the second half when I felt this was getting too tight but I had the faith in the boys that when it would come down to it we would be able to put in the defensive effort which was needed,” he said.
“It is some competition. I played in England for eight years and never won anything, always got beaten up by everyone so it is good to be on the other side and hopefully we can go on to do everyone in Toulon proud in the final.”
Munster were playing in a record eleventh semi-final, but their coach Rob Penney will now depart for Japan having failed to reach a final in his two years in charge.
“I am gutted for this group, they are hurting. It has been a great pleasure to be part of this European competition. It is just so disappointing the lads haven’t been able to fulfil their dreams but they are capable of pushing on.”
His side were hanging on at the interval after Wilkinson converted a cheap penalty in front of the posts and Delon Armitage landed one from 55 metres on the stroke of half-time for an 18-9 lead, with the French side outscoring Munster 9-6 when flanker Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe was in the sin-bin.
Toulon went for the kill after the restart and looked to have got it when a Keith Earls clearance was charged down and recycled across the field, but Simon Zebo did enough to force Steffon Armitage’s foot into touch.
It could have turned into the second one-sided semi-final of the weekend, but Munster responded to the reprieve by producing their best segment of the match, taking the game to the holders with a series of drives. They showed great ambition to go for the corner with a penalty and were rewarded for their bravery by getting the game’s only try, scrum-half Conor Murray peeling over and Zebo bursting through the challenges of Drew Mitchell and Steffon Armitage to score.
Ian Keatley, who had kept Munster in the game in the opening half with three penalties, landed the conversion to leave them just two points adrift at 18-16 after 54 minutes. Keatley missed just one kick, when he was short with a penalty from halfway which would have put them ahead for the first time, but just when it seemed that Toulon were in serious trouble, disaster befell Munster. Earls was binned for pulling back David Smith and Wilkinson made no mistake with the penalty after 64 minutes to put Toulon 21-16 in front.
Munster then went to the corner with a penalty nine minutes from time despite being only five behind.
“We would back ourselves any day of the week with the great maul that we have got,” said Penney. “There is always the discussions about whether we should have gone for the sticks, but it had yielded a try and we hoped it would again, but they defended it well.”
Toulon closed out the game and set up their 24 May final date in Cardiff when Wilkinson slotted another penalty just before the end.
Scorers: Toulon – Penalties: J Wilkinson 6, D Armitage. Drop goal: Wilkinson. Munster – Try: S Zebo. Conversion: I Keatley. Penalties: I Keatley 3.
Toulon: D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana (D Smith, 49); J Wilkinson (captain), S Tillous-Borde (M Claassens, 63); X Chiocci (A Menini, 66), C Burden (JC Orioli, 59), C Hayman (M Castrogiovanni, 75), D Rossouw (K Mikautadze, 63), J Suta; J Smith, J Fernandez-Lobbe, S Armitage.
Munster: F Jones (D Hurley, 73); K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey (JJ Hanrahan, 65), S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 65), D Varley (captain, D Casey, 76), BJ Botha, D Foley (D O’Callaghan, 65), P O’Connell, CJ Stander, S Dougall (T O’Donnell, 56), J Coughlan.
Referee: W Barnes (RFU).