IT WILL BE absolutely criminal if English rugby fans are denied the sort of weekend the Exeter Chiefs supporters enjoyed in the south of France as their team once again did them proud in defeat.
The estimated near 1,000 who made the journey to the Mediterranean coast will be talking about this trip for a long time to come.
The bonhomie between rival supporters both pre and post-match – and during the game – was something to behold, and a feature rarely seen in the round-ball game.
However, if Premiership Rugby chiefs do not have a change of heart, this could be the last jaunt to France for Exeter’s special following for a long time.
Supporters need to be listened to. Talking to people on the sun-kissed Cote d’Azur, there appears absolutely no appetite for trips to South Africa, an Anglo-Welsh League or an expanded Premiership.
Maintaining the current status quo, in terms of being involved in a slightly-tinkered-with Heineken Cup, seems to be the preferred option, but will the money men take any notice?
On the pitch, Exeter will once again look back on what could have been as they tore into their star-studded opponents – boasting only 535 international caps in their starting line-up this time compared to the previous week’s 825 – from the off.
They scored one superb touchdown in the first half, with Luke Arscott’s intelligent, long pass picking out recalled winger Tom James, who cut inside French international Alexis Palisson and off-loaded to Don Armand, who made light of the last defender to score his first try for the club. And, with Henry Slade’s simple conversion, Exeter had a shock 7-5 lead.
However, three other glorious chances went begging, with Jack Nowell and Arscott both failing to spot, or use, supporting players after exquisite line breaks, while Arscott was denied close to time with a superb try-saving tackle which prevented him from grounding the ball over the whitewash.
Exeter were also dealt a cruel hand by Irish television match official Dermot Moloney, who inexplicably awarded a try to Toulon winger David Smith – his second of the game – after 27 minutes, even though Matt Giteau’s pass to him looked at least two metres forward.
The first half was all about former Australian international fly-half Giteau, who turned in an imperious display after being handed the number ten shirt ahead of England World Cup winning hero Jonny Wilkinson.
He played a key part in Smith’s first-half try double, while his five from seven record with the boot kept the scoreboard ticking over throughout the game for the hosts.
Giteau exchanged penalties with Slade – who belied his tender years with another composed performance – just before the break to make the score 15-10 at the interval, and again in the opening period of the second half to leave the scoreline 18-13 as the match entered an enthralling final quarter.
Before the second of Slade’s successful kicks, England flanker Steffon Armitage missed his own gilt-edged chance to score a try for Toulon, as the ball was dislodged from his grasp as he crossed the whitewash.
As at Sandy Park seven days before though, Wilkinson was to break Exeter hearts – not with a dropped goal this time but with his ball-in-hand skills.
Introduced as a 58th-minute replacement, he initiated two tries in the space of six minutes to finish off Rob Baxter’s men.
His superb inside pass helped full-back Drew Mitchell create a try for replacement prop Xavier Chiocci, while neat footwork saw Wilkinson score the second himself under the posts.
That bonus-point touchdown sparked the Toulon supporters’ traditional and spectacular response of throwing copies of the local Var-Matin newspaper into the air.
Even at 32-13 behind, Exeter – who lost Tom Johnson and Phil Dollman to injuries – refused to lie down, and White fought his way over for his sixth try of the season, converted by Ceri Sweeney, but another score to snatch a losing bonus point eluded them.
The result saw Toulon move to the top of Pool Two and remain on course to defend their title, though they will have to play a lot better than this if they are to taste glory once more in Cardiff in May.
Exeter, meanwhile, despite seeing their hopes of reaching the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup realistically ended, still have an Amlin Cup quarter-final spot within their grasp, especially if they can secure a bonus-point win over Glasgow at Sandy Park when the competition resumes next month, and Cardiff Blues lose in Toulon.
Before then though, the Chiefs need to quickly halt their five-match losing streak in all competitions by seeing off Newcastle Falcons in the Aviva Premiership next Saturday.