Wilkinson boot puts Connacht to sword
Reality came crowding in on Connacht last night as their great European adventure came to an end at the clammy hands of French gentry in the Sportsground.
An heroic home effort just wasn't sufficient as Jonny Wilkinson's 14 points supplemented a controversial try in first-half injury-time by Mafileo Kefu to edge Toulon into next month's decider.
The defeat now narrows their route to a Heineken Cup place to a lonely prayer that either Munster or Leinster are crowned European champions in Paris on May 22. In other words, Connacht are no longer masters of their own destiny.
Their existence is so wrapped up in fret and worry, this kind of occasion has an almost liberating feel. Cynicism is suspended, the numbers-crunchers take a back seat, doomsayers fall silent.
By kick-off the old dog-track was bathed in lovely dappling sunlight and the wind, gusting strongly in late afternoon, had tapered to a whisper. The floodlights were on, but almost as ornamentation. It felt about as forbidding as a presbytery lawn.
Still, Connacht were roared back to the dressing-room after their warm-up and the sell-out attendance then did their damndest to simulate a 7,000 strong drum-roll.
A lone male singer belted out 'The West's Awake' from the half-way line and he was still in full flow as Toulon emerged to a smattering of polite applause.
Four orange flares were lit by the pavilion and the man on the tannoy invoked to those gathered to "give it up for your team, CONNACHT!". This wasn't the coliseum, but it did have the beguiling purity of a small community holding tight together.
The team absorbed the message too. Ian Keatley's first-minute penalty conversion was immediately followed by a John Muldoon line-out steal. Whatever the quaintness of the setting, Toulon knew a serious battle loomed.
Wilkinson drew them level with a 10th-minute penalty, but the game already had a loose, frenetic pattern. Luke Rooney, Gabiriele Lovobalavu and the stunning Johann Van Niekerk all made gusting breaks right down Connacht's spine, only to be repelled by desperate cover defence.
At times, the sheer bulk of the French looked set to overwhelm their hosts. Yet, a penny was dropping too.
Wilkinson began settling into the pocket with telltale regularity, as if in cursory acknowledgement that tries might not perhaps be available on the cheap here.
He had already pulled two drop-goal attempts wide when a third effort, in the 26th minute, sailed regally over at the College Road end to edge Toulon 9-6 ahead, the two No 10s having already exchanged another brace of penalties.
Wilkinson then landed a monster penalty from near half-way to make it double-scores, yet there wasn't the faintest sense of capitulation in the vanishing sunset. Just seconds earlier, Niva Ta'uaso had been a greasy palm away from a certain try-scoring intercept on a loose Wilkinson delivery.
And, when Keatley nailed his third penalty in the 37th minute, Connacht looked set fair for an ovation off at half-time.
Yet, deep in injury-time (in fact, so deep we had slipped into the 51st minute), Toulon essentially won the game.
Eight times, Wayne Barnes awarded them five-metre scrums (five times with the option of a penalty) and, endlessly, Connacht's pack crumpled under the press of Toulon beef. After six, Jamie Hagan was called ashore, replaced by a bulkier Robbie Morris. It made no difference.
Toulon sensed weakness and were not for turning now. The eighth scrum wheeled just as they wanted it and scrum-half, Matt Henjak, put Mafileo Kefu in under the posts.
Wilkinson converted and, suddenly, a bristling contest had been tipped out of kilter, Toulon taking a 19-9 lead to the dressing-room.
A huge Keatley penalty just after the resumption suggested there was still the argument of defiance in Connacht, but this business was uphill now.
Keatley was sacrificed for the introduction of quarter-final hero, Miah Nikora. Yet, Toulon were shuffling their deck too. Wilkinson, a beaten semi-finalist in this competition three times previously, made way for Sonny Williams and the French began replenishing their pack with fresh muscle.
Yet, it was Connacht who seemed to find new energy. The hour mark arrived with them pinned in the Toulon '22' and, twice, Frank Murphy almost sniped over from quick ruck ball.
Travel-sickness is one of the great clichés endured by French teams on the road, yet there was the palpable sense of Toulon's taste for the challenge beginning to wane now. With tidier execution, the game was unquestionably there for Connacht. Suffice to say a wage packet should never be taken as a precise measure of a man.
In the 73rd minute, Ta'auso's right wing break almost unhinged the French, but support was late arriving. No matter, the green current was insatiable now.
Substitute, Conor O'Loughlin, spilled yards from the line, the traffic now resolutely one-way.
Yet, hard though Connacht thrashed, the opening would not come and the last, decisive shriek of Barnes' whistle had the sound of a lone trumpet. Connacht's European adventure was over, their future hanging in abeyance.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy; T Nathan (B Tuohy 20), N Ta'auso, A Wynne, F Carr; I Keatley (M Nikora 55), F Murphy (C O'Loughlin 70; B Wilkinson (R Loughney 49), S Cronin, J Hagan (R Morris 40); M Swift (B Upton 59), M McCarthy; J Muldoon, J O'Connor, G Naoupu.
TOULON -- L Rooney; G Lovobalavu, M Kefu, T May, C Marienval; J Wilkinson (S Williams 56), M Henjak (P Mignoni 69); S Taumoepeau, P Fitzgerald (S Bruno 55), T Leaaetoa (T Ryan 64); J Suta, E Lozada (K Chesney 64); J Van Niekerk, T Sourice (O Misseud 55), J Fernandez Lobbe.
Ref -- W Barnes (RFU).