Exeter Chiefs 9 RC Toulon 14
There have been some notable first for Exeter Chiefs since they arrived in the top flight: a first Premiership victory, a first European victory and a first appearance in the Heineken Cup. But their wait for a first defeat of a reigning European champion goes on, as they fell just short of Toulon in a pulsating encounter at Sandy Park.
The 14-9 scoreline could not hope to tell the story, but in truth does reflect in some measure the difference between the sides. Not that Chiefs were in any way outclassed by their star-studded opponents, far from it, but when crunch moments came the home side just lacked the killer touch to make them count.
Chiefs coach Rob Baxter had hoped that his side would make a flying start against the visitors, and they did just that, blasting their way into the Toulon 22 from the kick off and forcing a penalty.
With referee Alain Rolland playing advantage, wing Jack Nowell almost went over in the corner but his foot found touch. With play brought back to just outside the Toulon 22, Gareth Steenson slotted the kick and Chiefs were 3-0 to the good.
The visitors hit back almost immediately after fine work by the forwards in the back line created enough of an overlap to allow Florian Fresia a prop’s sprint to the line. However, Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson missed a relatively straightforward kick to the left of the posts and it stayed at 5-3.
Wilkinson made amends for that miss after 14 minutes, though, finding his range with a penalty, after Exeter had been penalised for not releasing, from the left of the posts to make it 8-3.
Toulon certainly looked dangerous in broken play, but Chiefs were able to briefly tie them up and earned their reward with a penalty awarded when the visitors were adjudged to have taken the scrum down.
Steenson, further out this time, made no mistake and his kick just crept over to make it 8-6. However, he was off the field soon after, having not quite recovered from an earlier knock and was replaced by Henry Slade.
The introduction of the young fly-half brought about a change in attack for Chiefs and soon they were taking the game to their lauded visitors. Toulon were always dangerous in attack, but some solid defence and a quick turnover saw scrum-half Dave Lewis break in midfield, although a lack of surrounding team-mates forced him to kick to touch.
But the match had changed and it wasn’t long before Chiefs were back on the scoreboard. Again it came from Toulon ball as they won a penalty from a scrum and built pressure before a long pass to Bryan Habana on the left wing sold him short and Chiefs wing Nowell took off.
Unfortunately for him and the packed stands cheering his every step, his long kicked bounced and bounced along until it rolled behind the dead-ball line. It was shocking luck, but again signaled the intent of the home side.
More sustained attacking from Chiefs saw back-rower Ben White almost find Tom Johnson but his pass went straight into touch. 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 line, eventually they forced another penalty. Slade stepped up and quite rightly put Chiefs ahead.
Toulon, wounded by a spirited and intense fightback from Chiefs, were further inflicted soon after when Habana took off on a dangerous-looking break but pulled up and Rolland stopped play. Moments later the South Africa wing was hobbling off, with what looked like a bad hamstring pull.
Chiefs held out for the remaining few minutes and went into half-time with a richly-deserved 9-8 lead.
They started the second brightly, too, but so did Toulon, who quickly went to their battering ram of choice, Mathieu Basteraud to punch holes in the Chiefs defence.
Following a penalty in midfield for offside, Wilkinson tried to slot from inside his own half, but his attempt fell short and Chiefs ran it back almost to where it came from before they were again penalised by Rolland. Ten metres further forward, Wilkinson then missed to the left of the posts and Chiefs supporters allowed themselves a small gasp of amazement.
Wilkinson’s increased involvement told its own story, though; Toulon had been stung and were asserting themselves with better and more sustained periods of possession.
But that did not damped Chiefs’ enthusiasm, with Nowell again making a great break from midfield, before they were penalised for not releasing when it looked as though they might be about to break through.
Haydn Thomas, on for Lewis, was penalised almost with his first touch for going to ground and up stepped Wilkinson again from the halfway line. The result was the same, though, with another kick running out of steam in front of the posts.
Toulon again came back at Chiefs, moving the ball from right to left, before Rudi Wulf thought he had gone over in the left corner, but Nowell’s tackle forced his foot into touch and Chiefs had escaped. For once at Sandy Park, the TMO was able to make a quick, simple, decision.
From the resulting scrum, Toulon moved the ball into position and drew the penalty and following a brief discussion, opted to kick. The chants of ‘We want Jonny’ fell on deaf ears, though, and it was Matt Giteau who stood over the kick. The former Australia international made no mistake and once again the visitors were back ahead.
Chiefs huffed and puffed, tried to break down the Toulon defence, but too few times did they break through and Toulon satisfied themselves with strangling in defence and waiting for errors. They did not benefit from too many, but they were by now camped in enemy territory and there was something inevitable about Wilkinson’s drop goal, slotted with familiar ease, which made it 14-9 with five minutes remaining.
There was still time for one final, agonising attack as the seconds ticked away. Phase after phase of play brought them closer to the Toulon line, cheered and cajoled all the way by their adoring supporters, before Rolland raised his hand a blew his whistle for a failure to release in the tackle.
Once again, Chiefs had come so close, just not close enough.
Exeter Chiefs: Arscott; Nowell, Dollman, Shoemark (Whitten, 67), Jess; Steenson (Slade 21), Lewis (Thomas 57, Lewis 76); Moon (Sturgess, 73), Yeandle (Whitehead, 67), Tui (Brown, 57); Mumm (capt), Welch (Hanks, 67); Johnson, White (Horstmann 62), Ewers.
Toulon: Mitchell, Palisson, Basteraud, Giteau, Habana (Wulf 38), Wilkinson (capt), Tillous-Borde, Fresia, Burden (Orioli 33), Castrogiovanni (Hayman 53), Botha (Suta 32), Williams, Smith (Bruni, 60), Armitage, Masoe. Replacements: Chiocci, Mermoz, Claasens.
Referee: A Rolland