Ulster on road to nowhere after humbling by high-flying Toulon
WHEN referee Leighton Hodges blew for full-time, the Stade Felix Mayol’s PA system pumped out AC/DC’s Highway to Hell while a weary Ulster made their way off the park.
The crowd-pleasing number wasn’t directed at Ulster.
It was aimed at sending Toulon’s satisfied supporters out into the night with the anthem in their ears while being sated with what had taken place and the fact that they had made the quarter-finals again as the French giants bid to be crowned champions for the third year in a row.
However, you couldn’t help but wonder if Ulster’s future in the newly streamlined Europe just might be heading somewhere in the direction of the song title.
Yet even from this wreckage, there was still no overwhelming feeling of pessimism, despite some rather glaring issues being thrown up.
After all, this was a record defeat for the men in white in terms of the total racked up against them, the last being the day that Wasps beat them 56-3 in 1997-98, when the competition was still in its infancy.
The eight tries Toulon ran in also equalled the number Wasps managed way back then.
When you consider that this time 12 months ago Ulster turned Montpellier over on their own patch on their way to six wins from six in the pool, it only made Saturday’s experience all the more depressing as they ended their already terminally damaged interest in the competition.
From finishing top of their group last season, Ulster are facing the reality of ending up bottom of Pool Three should they fail to defeat Leicester Tigers on Saturday, with the Premiership side still chasing a last eight place as a best runner-up, never mind what Toulon do to the Scarlets, who are one point ahead of Neil Doak’s battered squad.
The way the star-studded Toulon side scorched away in the second half to nail down their first try bonus of the campaign was something to behold, never mind the damage it was doing to an Ulster side now having an extremely makeshift looking backline, with scrum-halves Michael Heaney and Paul Marshall firefighting as best they could after the loss to injury of Louis Ludik (broken rib), Paddy Jackson (dislocated elbow) and Stuart Olding (arm/elbow issue).
Doak also had to go into this clash without key players Andrew Trimble, Chris Henry, Nick Williams, Luke Marshall, Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson and Wiehahn Herbst, who are all sidelined. However, Jackson’s score sat well alongside some of Toulon’s best efforts, and after Mike McComish got over for his first of the day, the visitors were just trailing by 13-10, with Jackson missing both tricky conversions.
For the next 10 minutes, the French stars looked unsettled and their crowd fell silent until just after the half-hour when, with Jackson lying on the turf injured and Ruan Pienaar not looking great after being hit on the ground, Ulster failed to get the ball off the park and Toulon swept left to score.
Bryan Habana made no effort to actually be behind Mathieu Bastareaud when he took the scoring pass, but the try still stood despite Ulster protests..
Five minutes later, the game was up as Bastareaud rolled over the line despite Rob Herring’s brave hit. And with Leigh Halfpenny in lethal form from the tee, Ulster were suddenly 27-10 down as half-time was called.
After the restart, Jared Payne was held up over the line by Maxime Mermoz and Bastareaud, and Toulon rolled out a play from the training paddock with Juan Smith peeling around the front of a lineout and giving Martin Castrogiovanni a sniff of the line which skipper Roger Wilson couldn’t prevent from resulting in Toulon’s targeted bonus try.
It was then party on for the home side, and they duly delivered, with Steffon Armitage getting his first and Mamuka Gorgodze smashing over after his team-mates launched a sweeping and irresistible move downfield.
It was then Armitage again from a rolling maul, and at 55-10 things looked bleak.
So, more credit to the visitors that the carried hard into Toulon’s 22 for Payne to score – another one chalked down to the TMO with the wait for McComish’s first being interminable – before McComish got the bonus off another maul and Pienaar converted.
At 55-22, Toulon just had to have the final say, and Armitage got his hat-trick and Halfpenny hit the post to miss his one and only kick of the day. Cue Highway to Hell.
TOULON – L Halfpenny; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud (R Wulf 66), M Mermoz, B Habana; N Sanchez (D Smith 69), S Tillous-Borde (E Escande 59); X Chiocci (F Fresia 56), G Guirado( J-C Orioli h-t), M Castrogiovanni; J Suta (K Mikautadze 64), R Taofifenua; J Smith (M Gorgodze 59), S Armitage, C Masoe.
ULSTER – J Payne; L Ludik (I Humphreys 24), D Cave, S Olding (M Heaney 44), M Allen; P Jackson (P Marshall 32), R Pienaar; A Warwick (C Black 64), R Herring (J Andrew 71), B Ross (D Fitzpatrick 52); A O’Connor, F Van der Merwe (L Stevenson 60); C Ross, M McComish, R Wilson (R Diak 51).
REF – L Hodges (Wales).