Monday 19 February 2018

Toulon do it the hard way against Cardiff

Toulon 43 Cardiff 20

Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson
Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson

Mike Averis

Toulon -- the European champions and 3/1 with the bookies to retain their title -- put their season back on track yesterday, but it was far from pretty.

Three penalty tries and two rapid yellow cards shown by the English referee Greg Garner settled things after Cardiff Blues had shown the champions are far from invulnerable.

Down to fifth in the French league after losing to Grenoble last week and something of a curate's egg in the Heineken Cup -- where they crushed Glasgow and then came unstuck in Cardiff -- Toulon picked a team to bully the Blues.

A huge shove two minutes into the second half -- after Cardiff had been unlucky to go to the interval two points down -- saw Garner run under the posts and show tighthead prop Benoit Bourrust yellow. Four minutes later, the Toulon lineout drive was moving even faster when Ellis Jenkins put on the brake by hauling things down. He went to the sin bin; again Garner ran under the posts.

Against 13 men, the Toulon wing David Smith rubbed Welsh noses in the mud after a huge cut-out pass from Jonny Wilkinson and that was that. In six minutes, Cardiff had gone 21 points and two men down and any hope of further progress in the Heineken Cup went out of the window, while Toulon can look forward to a home quarter-final. However, for 40 minutes in the south of France things could have gone either way.

Toulon, in turmoil, could have regretted moving the game to the larger Allianz Riviera stadium in Nice. However, Wilkinson immediately made them feel at home, taking 90 seconds to convert his first penalty when the Blues were caught cold by the pace of Rudi Wulf. Three minutes later, their pack put the squeeze on in the scrum for the first time and from that penalty Wilkinson worked his big men up field, before Chris Czekaj went too high and Cardiff were six points down with a wing in the sin bin.

However, Toulon are not the team that won the title last season and it was the Blues who made the best of being down to 14 men, Leigh Halfpenny chipping in with a couple of penalties before Czekaj returned. Wilkinson returned the compliment to reopen the gap but, much as Grenoble had done, Cardiff refused to show the champions any respect.

Feathers ruffled by the Cardiff pressure, Drew Mitchell made a mess of his clearance kick and when the No 8 Robin Copeland caught the deflected ball and ran it back, Cardiff's Samoan lock Filo Paulo bumped off tackle after tackle for the first try of the game. Halfpenny landed the conversion, but just when the Blues thought they might take a lead to half-time, Wilkinson redressed the balance with his fifth penalty conversion.

Last week, Toulon's owner Mourad Boudjellal had some harsh things to say about his well-paid imports and he looked pretty glum at half-time in Nice before European order was restored. With the deficit 36-13, Wilkinson having converted Smith's try, Sam Hobbs got one try back for the Blues, but Garner rounded off his day with a third penalty try for the hosts and his fourth yellow -- for Copeland -- 30 seconds from time.

Scorers -- Toulon: 3 penalty tries, D Smith try, J Wilkinson 4 cons, 5 pens. Cardiff: F Paulo, S Hobbs try each, L Halfpenny 2 cons, 2 pens.

Referee: G Garner

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