Connacht 12-19 Toulon, European Challenge Cup semi-final, April 30
Toulon fight past gutsy Connacht
April 30, 2010
Toulon wing Gabiriele Lovobalavu scraps with Connacht's Frank Murphy
© Getty Images
A try just before half-time from centre Mafileo Kefu gave Toulon a 19-12 victory over Connacht at the Sportsground to set up their dream European Challenge Cup final in Marseille.
The glitzy French Top 14 side, fresh from finishing second in the league to champions Perpignan, were made to fight every step of the way by a Connacht side lacking in star names but overflowing with heart. In front of a packed house the home side did not give an inch, scrapping and cajoling their more illustrious opponents for the full 80 minutes in an enthralling contest.
Toulon's delight at the final whistle was evident for all to see and they now have a final at the Stade Velodrome against Wasps or Cardiff Blues to look forward to. Jonny Wilkinson complemented Kefu's try with 14 points from the boot while Ian Keatley kicked all of the home side's points.
Gavin Duffy won the game's first penalty after little more than 20 seconds, and roared on by the home faithful Keatley made no mistake from dead in front. The ferocity in the home crowd was matched by the visitors on the field though and Connacht were left chasing shadows in the opening minutes. Fullback Luke Rooney was inches away from adding the finishing touches to a Wilkinson cross-kick and almost sparked a score with a rasping blindside break.
Wilkinson slotted the levelling penalty but while Toulon utterly dominated territory and possession Connacht held firm. A Tom May drop-goal slid wide and Wilkinson saw a similar effort also fall harmlessly past the uprights. Wilkinson finally procured the lead for his side with a long-range penalty but a clumsy offside handed the three back to Keatley immediately. Connacht had ridden their luck in the early stages but with an opportunistic score the crowd remained in fine voice, the volume dipping only slightly as Wilkinson finally found his range with a drop-goal.
Toulon No.8 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe terrorised Connacht as the first-half progressed, alternating between rollicking bursts in the loose and telling, physical forays into the breakdown battle. His surge along the blindside opened Connacht up, but Gabiriele Lovobalavu knocked on at the crucial moment.
As Toulon's frustration built Wilkinson was relieved to see Niva Ta'auso knock the ball forward as he pounced on a loose pass for an intercept, the Toulon pivot composing himself moments later to knock over his third penalty from distance. Another obstruction by Toulon at the kick-off allowed Keatley to take another bite out of the deficit but a rare lapse in discipline as the half petered out allowed Toulon a vital foothold.
Having won a penalty, Toulon elected for a scrum five metres out and after 10 minutes of resets and the threat of a penalty try, Matt Henjak plucked the ball from the base and fired an inch-perfect pass to Kefu, who carved clean through Connacht's defensive line to score under the posts.
Immediately after the break Keatley reduced Connacht's arrears with his fourth penalty but the home side were again forced to absorb massive pressure. Wilkinson missed with another drop-goal attempt after Keatley had marginally overcooked a clearance and Connacht were able to clear their lines when Toulon's over enthusiasm at the breakdown cost them.
After an hour Connacht finally punctured Toulon's 22, hacking away at the visitors' defence through their forwards, noticeably former Highlanders No.8 George Naoupu. Toulon scrabbled across to soak up the pressure and eventually had to haul Sean Cronin into touch inches from the try-line. Connacht were not to be deterred and through Jonny O'Connor and Cronin they again took up the charge close to the Toulon line.
With safe ball from a scrum Connacht went again, bashing away at Toulon inches from the whitewash. Time and again the forwards rumbled on, only for the aggressive away defence to come out on top in the form of a desperate turnover and pressure-relieving penalty. Miah Nikora, on for Keatley, sent a 47m penalty just wide of the sticks and Connacht saw another opportunity go begging when a breakdown penalty wasted a brilliant outside break and offload from Ta'auso. With moments remaining another burst from Cronin had the Sportsground crowd on their feet, but all that they could applaud was the bravery of their side as again the ball rolled Toulon's way, this time decisively.
There was pride in defeat for Connacht coach Michael Bradley despite the frustrating nature of his side's loss. "I think first of all it was a great day for Connacht. The ground and the place and the people - everything was set up for a famous day. The quality of the opposition shone through in the end. Toulon were well able to sustain the carries that we were attempting on the park. Their defence was strong and they were good in the collisions.
"In cup matches we need to learn at this level to take our chances, and I think we had three or four chances in the second half in particular, five yards from their line, and got nothing out of any of them. That was the game really. From our point of view, I think the Toulon try right on half-time was avoidable. If we could have thought our way out of that one a little bit better.
"It was a magnificent effort by the forwards, in particular, to sustain the volume of pressure in that corner and then to cough up. A slight of hand and a bit of footwork by Kefu was disappointing. We lost the game by seven points, and there were plenty of opportunities there."
Toulon director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre was a relieved man, adding, "It was tough. We created three or four opportunities which we didn't finish, but I think our defence was good and the commitment of the team was fantastic," he admitted. "I am very pleased for the guys, but we should have scored two or three tries in the first 20 minutes, as we created so many opportunities. We just didn't finish them. In the end it was very tough, but we have won 11 games consecutively and this is very good for the confidence and trust of my team."