O'Gara wants more as Racing end Toulon era
Racing 92 19 Toulon 16
Toulon's three-year reign as European kingpins was rarely pretty and perhaps it was inevitable that the end would be tough to look at.
This was no plucky underdog story as one cash-rich behemoth beat the other, but at least the Champions Cup will have a new name on it this season and on this evidence the long wait for an English winner may not go on much longer as Racing 92 will need massive improvement if they are to progress further.
They will face Leicester Tigers at Nottingham Forest's City Ground in two weeks' time and there must be serious doubts about whether their marquee signing Dan Carter will be available after he got through this win on one leg, while captain Dimitri Szarzewski and France centre Alexandre Dumoulin limped off during the first half.
The Premiership side comfortably accounted for Racing's City rivals Stade Francais at Welford Road yesterday and won't lose a whole lot of sleep when reviewing this game.
Still, it felt like a big moment for the Parisians, who packed out their antiquated stadium with blue and white-clad supporters and, a year after Saracens stole a similar-style clash at the death, it was they who engineered a match-winning penalty for Maxime Machenaud to secure the result.
That he was kicking and not Carter told its own story. Despite having France international Remi Tales on the bench and Springbok No 10 Johan Goosen in the centre, the coaches left the €1m-a-year star man out there for the duration.
"He got a knock in his knee," Racing assistant Ronan O'Gara explained. "It ended the kicking and it ended a lot more than that, he had no acceleration.
"He said he was okay to play on but mentally it would have given them too much of a bonus of a buzz by withdrawing him. If he is capable of playing on one leg then he is that important to us; obviously there wasn't a risk to his long-term health and he felt he could continue."
He kicked his side's opening penalty and converted Juan Imhoff's second-minute intercept try, but by the time Racing scored again after half-time, France scrum-half Machenaud had taken over the kicking with mixed results.
At that stage, Toulon had shown some of their champion quality to fight back to level at 10-all at half-time with Josua Tuisova brilliantly creating a try for Charles Ollivon, and Jonathan Pelissie adding a conversion and a penalty.
Despite some epic defensive hold-outs at both ends, the second half was all about the goal-kicking scrum-halves, who were struggling to deal with a tricky wind.
The lead changed hands and both men missed crucial kicks, but with the scores tied at 16 apiece, Machenaud held his nerve to deliver the victory.
"At half-time I was afraid the game was going away from us but we got it together and showed good character, which was really pleasing; we just controlled the ball a lot better," O'Gara said.
"It has to be (a moment for Racing). We did everything to nearly let Toulon get through and I think mentally it would have been just a shattering blow.
"We lost in the last minute to Saracens (last year) and, if we had lost today at home to Toulon . . . If we were going to beat Toulon it should be today and we just about did it.
"There is no culture of winning in the club, there are no values and there is no culture of previous good things so that is very important to try and do that, but you can only do that by your actions speaking louder than words.
"So you have to be doing that. All well and good preaching that during the week but if you are not doing the business on Sunday then it is a waste of time so this will give us a boost, and it will either go one or two ways.
"We can kick on and go one or two ways, we can either play very well against Leicester and kick on or else we fall in love with ourselves and think we have beaten Toulon and the job is done."
The three remaining English teams will thank them for taking out the champions, who have not been close to their best this season after being deprived of the services of Paul O'Connell through retirement and Leigh Halfpenny, who leads a long injured list.
They haven't been hugely popular champions, but O'Gara has plenty of respect for what Bernard Laporte's side have achieved.
"You have to pay heed to Toulon. It's the first time in 10 knockout games they've been beaten and I think you have to have played at a high level in any sport to appreciate how good a team they are and how difficult that is to do, to go quarter-final, semi-final, final three years in a row," he said.
"It's an incredible achievement, because every team is trying to do it. There's only two cups every year and they can say, 'well, they've the biggest budget' - they don't have the biggest budget, they recruit really shrewdly, they play for each other and they largely come over when they've potentially finished their Test careers and find motivation to kick on and achieve at club level.
"So, I think they're an exceptional team. They didn't play exceptionally well today, neither did we. I thought it was a pretty average game, but it was all about the result, no matter how you got it."
Racing 92 - B Dulin; J Rokocoko, J Goosen, A Dumoulin (M Andreu 10), J Imhoff; D Carter, M Machenaud; E Ben Arous (K Vartanov 79), D Szarweski (capt) (C Chat 24), L Ducalcon (M Castrogiovanni 70); L Charteris, F van der Merwe (M Carizza 58); W Lauret (W Lauret 70), B Le Roux, C Masoe.
Toulon - D Armitage; J Tuisova, M Mermoz (M Bastareaud 75), M Nonu, J O'Connor; M Giteau (T Taylor 62), J Pelissie; F Fresia (X Chiocci 18), G Guirado (capt, C Orioli 65), R Manasa Saulo (L Chilachava h-t); M Gorgodze, R Taofifenua; J Smith (T Lassalle 65), C Ollivon (S Armitage h-t), D Vermeulen.
Ref - W Barnes (England)