Sunday 24 September 2017

Wilkinson brushes off misses to steal the show

Exeter 9 Toulon 14

Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson in action against Exeter at Sandy Park yesterday. Photo: Tim Ireland
Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson in action against Exeter at Sandy Park yesterday. Photo: Tim Ireland

Eddie Butler

Here's an age-old story. With six minutes remaining, one Jonny Wilkinson stopped in his tracks, re-adjusted his balance and dropped a sweet drop goal. Instead of being vulnerable to defeat with a late penalty, the defending champions of the Heineken Cup could be beaten only by a try.

Only Jack Nowell, buzzing and industrious on the right-wing, had ever looked likely to score one for Exeter. Toulon, far more conscious of the need to be deeply serious unto the very end – as opposed to their late carelessness in Cardiff in October – kept the supply low in the closing moments. There would be no rousing finish for Exeter. Jonny had done it again.

It was not quite as simple as that. Having missed with his first place-kick, a not entirely unmissable conversion of a try by prop Florian Fresia (who took a quite brilliant flick-on pass from second-row Ali Williams), Wilkinson landed his next effort, a simple enough penalty. And then proceeded to miss again and again ... and again.

In between these misses – headline-making misses if it went on like this – Exeter edged in front, courtesy of three penalties. Gareth Steenson landed two before coming off very much second best in a collision with the ever forthright Mathieu Bastareaud. Steenson's replacement, Henry Slade, landed a fine effort from out wide to give his team a one-point advantage after 33 minutes.

The time looked as if it might be significant, because for the next 32 minutes the scoreboard did not move. Toulon at times looked wonderfully inventive, flicking passes inside and out, probing for gaps. But they could not quite penetrate the second line of defence, until, that is, the flying Bryan Habana came off his wing and, at full burst, ran into clear space.

Suddenly though, he was hobbling, his had hamstring gone. Was it to sum up Toulon's day?

For their part, Exeter had shown a similar spirit of adventure, refusing to kick, even when deep in their 22. They had passed their way, too, into space, but never into complete freedom. The reward for this enterprise by all the three-quarters and most of the forwards – Dave Ewers was always a route-one option – was the single-point lead.

Toulon came out for the second half, claimed the ball and went all heavyweight, rumbling their mauls and giving the scrum their undivided attention.

They swamped the breakdown area when Exeter still carried their scraps by hand, and were awarded a pile of penalties by the referee, Alain Rolland.

But Jonny kept on missing. True, a couple were realistically a bit out of the range of the old boy, but he was not finding the ball's sweet spot.

Perhaps he wouldn't be required. Toulon were creating chance after chance now. Matt Giteau tried to tease a little kick through, when an overlap looked the more inviting option. The ball was touched down in-goal harmlessly.

Toulon won another penalty, and one kicker gave way to another. As Matt Giteau teed up the ball, a chant went round the ground: "We want Jonny, we want Jonny." The Australian was not distracted. Then England's favourite exile kept a straight face and nailed his drop-goal. Four points, professionally accumulated when it mattered, eased the champions through.

They had been tested in a new corner of England for them, but had responded on the road. The two clubs meet again, with Exeter, bruised by consecutive defeats in Glasgow and at home, going to the Mayol, a city-centre stadium where "We want Jonny" is not the kindly refrain of Sandy Park.

Scorers – Exeter: G Steenson 2 pens, H Slade pen. Toulon: F Fresia try, J Wilkinson pen, dg, M Giteau pen.

Exeter: L Arscott; J Nowell, P Dollman, J Shoemark (I Whitten 66), M Jess; G Steenson (H Slade 20), D Lewis (H Thomas 56); B Moon (B Sturgess 72), J Yeandle (J Hanks 66), H Tui (A Brown 56), D Mumm, D Welch (C Whitehead 66), T Johnson, B White (K Horstmann 61), D Ewers.

Toulon: D Mitchell; A Palisson, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana (R Wulf 37); J Wilkinson, S Tillous-Borde (M Claassens 76); F Fresia (X Chiocci 56), C Burden (J-C Orioli 33), M Castrogiovanni (C Hayman 53), B Botha (J Suta 32), A Williams, J Smith (S Bruni 60), S Armitage, C Masoe.

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).

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