Top 14 - Game of the Week
Honours even in Top 14 opener
August 14, 2009
Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson has reason to smile after an impressive return to competitive action after 10 months on the sidelines
© Getty Images
Toulon and Stade Francais battled to a 22-22 draw in their Top 14 season opener at Stade Mayol.
High-profile Toulon recruit Jonny Wilkinson kicked 17-points in his first competitive outing in 10 months but his eye-catching effort was matched by Stade scrum-half Noel Oelschig in an entertaining tit-for-tat contest that also saw a yellow card for another former Premiership star - Stade Francais flanker James Haskell.
Stade No.8 Juan Manuel Leguizamon notched the opening try of the game early in the first half but his score was later cancelled out by another from Toulon flanker Thomas Sourice in a match dominated by the boot.
Toulon coach Phillippe Saint-Andre, another off-season addition, fielded several of his summer signings including the British trio of fullback Rory Lamont, winger Tom May and centre Jamie Robinson as well as scrum-half Pierre Mignoni. But he was without inspirational captain Joe van Niekerk and strong-running centre Sonny Bill Williams due to injuries.
Stade coach Ewen McKenzie was forced to field a largely inexeperienced side due to the enforced international rest period but was able to include some of his new faces including England internationals Tom Palmer and Haskell.
Early pressure from Toulon unsettled their visitors and allowed Wilkinson to open his account in France's top flight with a second minute penalty that was greeted by a roar from the home crowd. The England No.10 was then unlucky not to double his tally with a well-taken drop goal a few minutes later but the referee ruled out his effort after consulting the television replays.
Stade bounced back with some incisive rugby and their good work was rewarded with Leguizamon crashing through the tackle of Toulon's Dewald Senekal for the opening try. Oelschig added the conversion before his side's indiscipline at the breakdown immediately offered Wilkinson the chance to reduce the deficit - but he was unable to punish their shortcomings.
Toulon continued to struggle in the set scrum and that pressure allowed Oelschig to stretch his side's lead with a well-taken penalty just past the quarter hour but Stade failed to capitalise further on their dominance up front.
As a result the Paris-based side suffered when Mignoni, leading the side in the absence of Van Niekerk, charged down a clearance kick from Stade fly-half Brian Liebenberg. The Toulon No.9 was beaten to the loose ball by team mate Sourice who claimed the score and the conversion from Wilkinson brought the sides level.
Another strong run from Argentine international Leguizamon drew a further error from the Toulon forward pack soon after but Oelschig was just wide of the mark with the subsequent penalty.
With the clock running down, some quick thinking from Mignoni had the Stade defence scrambling back and fullback Guilliaume Bousses was forced to concede the attacking scrum. Toulon lock Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe then took his side to within inches of the line before Haskell was penalised for a blatant offside offence.
The blindside was sent to the sin-bin as his compatriot Wilkinson slotted over his second penalty to give his side a narrow lead at the break.
Oelschig wasted no time in levelling the scores after the re-start with his second penalty but Wilkinson restored his side's lead as he continued to confound those who had suggested his career was over after a dislocated knee cap curtailed his final Premiership season with Newcastle last year.
The former Falcons star then offered further evidence of his return to form by opting to go for the posts from just inside his own half. His effort had just enough on it to reach its target and give his side a little more breathing room.
Haskell returned to the fray with no further damage to the scoreboard and was later joined by French international duo Julien Dupuy and Mathieu Bastareaud with the introduction of the latter prompting a chorus of boos after the controversial end to his summer tour with Les Bleus.
Leguizamon failed with an attempted drop goal on the hour but his audacious effort caught the hand of Toulon lock Olivier Missoup before it was touched down by scrum-half Matt Henjak. Replacement prop Saimone Taumoepeau was penalised at the resulting scrum allowing Oelschig to bring Stade to within three points with his third penalty.
Stade gifted another chance to Wilkinson soon after the re-start but received another reprieve as the influential No.10 failed to find his range.
Toulon's defence frustrated Stade as they looked to restore the balance but they were still able to orchestrate enough time and space for Oelschig to slot a superb drop goal.
Wilkinson responded with an even sweeter effort a couple of minutes later - sending the ball through the posts from 40m out. But again the cool-headed Oelschig replied in kind with his second drop goal in the closing minutes of the game.
A knock on from Wilkinson brought the curtain down on what was for him an otherwise impressive display with a share of the spoils arguably the fairest conclusion to the contest.
Wilkinson, who has been ravaged by injury problems over the past six years, was happy with how things went on his return to competitive action.
"I felt good physically and it was important for me to play 80 minutes," the 30-year-old told L'Equipe. "I scored 17 points, but the most important thing was that we didn't win.
"But the atmosphere was incredible. At one moment, I had just kicked a penalty and I asked myself what had happened in the stadium such was the noise. I hope that there will be a lot more moments like this."
Toulon: R Lamont, T May, J Robinson, M Kefu, S Sinoti, J Wilkinson, P Mignoni, L Emmanuelli, S Bruno, D Kubriashvili, D Senekal, R Skeate, O Missoup, T Sourice, JM Fernandez Lobbe
Replacements: J Djoudi, S Taumoepeau, F Auelua, J Suta, S Fauque, C Marienval, M Henjak
Stade Francais: G Bousses, R Raine, G Messina, M Gasnier, D Camara, B Liebenberg, N Oelschig, R Roncero, L Sempere, R Gerber, A Marchois, T Palmer, J Haskell, P Rabadan, JM Leguizamon
Replacements: M Blin, D Attoub, B Kayser, A Flanquart, R Dibel, J Dupuy, M Bastareaud