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Chiefs pass Toulon examination but ultimately fail to make the grade

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 09, 2013

Exeter Chiefs fly-half Henry Slade runs at Toulon  captain Jonny Wilkinson in the Heineken Cup match at Sandy Park  Picture: Dan Mullan/Pinnacle

Exeter Chiefs fly-half Henry Slade runs at Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson in the Heineken Cup match at Sandy Park Picture: Dan Mullan/Pinnacle

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Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter is a great one for seeking to learn useful lessons from every passing game, which is what should, in time, make this masterclass of just doing just enough to win worth the pain of defeat.

By the final whistle, the French side with a geographical array of superstars had got their maths spot on when it mattered most, and a 14-9 victory that seemed harsh at first was probably deserved.

If nothing else, though, in Henry Slade and Jack Nowell, Baxter can now be certain he has a couple of straight-A star pupils who looked like old hands in the Heineken Cup.

For a decent period in the middle of the game, Chiefs had the reigning European champions wondering whether their first trip to Sandy Park might end in ignominous defeat as Chiefs took a 9-8 lead into half-time and some way out the other side.

But as much as Toulon struggled to overturn the deficit, so Chiefs were unable to increase it. Then, slowly but surely, the visitors strangled the attacking ambition of the home side with a mixture of tactical nous and extreme physicality.

Nowell had started the match on the right wing, but Slade's introduction came sooner than may have been planned after fly-half Gareth Steenson failed to recover from a monstrous hit by Toulon's charging rhino of a centre, Mathieu Basteraud.

With 20 minutes elapsed, it appeared a pivotal moment in the match, more so as Chiefs were by then 8-6 behind after two Steenson kicks had been successfully slotted either side of Toulon prop Florian Fresia's fourth-minute try and a Jonny Wilkinson penalty.

The nature of the visitors' opening score seemed ominous at the time; a couple of missed Chiefs tackles, two one-handed offloads from Matt Giteau and Ali Williams before Fresia bounced over. If Chiefs could be carved open like this, what chance did they have?

But while the sell-out crowd inside Sandy Park were considering the portentious answer to that question, they may have missed Wilkinson do just that with what should have been a regulation conversion. This was a more accurate sign of what lay ahead, even if one of the world's great left boots made amends seven minutes later, with a harder kick, to put Toulon 8-3 in front.

At that point, the game could have descended into something the Chiefs would rather forget. Instead, their reaction was memorable.

Eight minutes and multiple phases later, Chiefs were rewarded with a penalty from a scrum which referee Alain Rolland considered the visitors to have taken down.

Steenson, from near the Toulon ten-metre line, had just enough power left to pursuade the ball to drop over the bar but it proved his final act.

The introduction of Slade is not always universally welcomed at this time of year, but if there were any reservations among the home faithful at trading Steenson's golden boot for a golden boy, they were soon dispelled.

Slade ran different angles, threw flat passes which allowed his team-mates to more readily puncture a formidable defensive line and the tone of the match changed.

In one attack, scrum-half Dave Lewis broke through and ran clear, before a lack of surrounding team-mates forced him to kick to touch. Chiefs wing Nowell then took off with the spoils of a spilled Bryan Habana pass as Toulon started to make errors in the face of determined resistance.

Sadly for Nowell his long kick upfield bounced and bobbled along until it went dead. Had it spiked in the hard ground and dutifully sat up, he might have been more justly rewarded.

It felt as though the home side had to make the pressure count and following two great line breaks from Slade and Nowell which almost took them to the whitewash, eventually they forced another penalty. Slade stepped up and quite rightly put Chiefs ahead from close to the touchline.

Toulon were further afflicted soon after when Habana took off on a dangerous-looking break but pulled up sharply. Moments later the South Africa wing was hobbling off, with what looked like a bad hamstring pull.

Chiefs' 9-8 half-time lead may have been slender but as the second period wore on it certainly led a charmed life. Wilkinson missed two penalties – one inside his own half, the other ten metres closer – as Toulon started to exert pressure.

Despite the let-offs, Wilkinson's increased involvement told its own story. Even though the former England number ten drifted a third attempt wide of the posts when Haydn Thomas, on for Lewis, was penalised the first time he took a pass, Chiefs' inability to break new ground in attack or put Toulon under any sustained pressure was worrying.

When they again infringed at the breakdown, the chants of 'We want Jonny, we want Jonny' fell on deaf, unsympathetic ears. Wilkinson deferred duties to Matt Giteau and the former Australia international made no mistake.

Now with a marginal lead of their own, Toulon sensed their chance. Another wave of attacks left Chiefs a man or two short and, when the ball found its way to Wilkinson in space with five minutes remaining, his dropped goal was as accurate as it was oddly familiar.

Chiefs launched one final assault, knowing a converted try would still be enough. Phase after phase of play brought them closer to the Toulon line and even then it seemed the dream may yet come true.

But eventually, agonisingly, Rolland raised a hand and blew the final whistle for a failure to release in the tackle. Toulon's players and representatives on the sidelines jumped in the air with a fairly even mixture of delight and relief.

It had been a harsh, physical education for Chiefs, but it was also a test passed. Knowing they can more than hold their own against the big boys of European rugby will be a lesson well learned when they do it all again this weekend.

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