Cardiff Blues pulled off one of the great comebacks to lift the Amlin Challenge Cup with a fine 28-21 win over Toulon on Sunday.
Cardiff Blues pulled off one of the great comebacks to snatch the Amlin Challenge Cup with a rip-roaring 28-21 victory over Toulon in Marseille on Sunday.
The Welsh region came to France as underdogs but left as deserved winners of Europe's second-tier tournament after a rousing second-half display that simply left Toulon without the answers so many expected them to provide.
With the carnival atmosphere building a good three hours before kick-off the stage was set for the big occasion, and neither team disappointed.
You would have been mistaken for thinking it was a home game for the big-spending French side, who have felt heartbreak in the Top 14 and Europe this season, spurred on by close to 50,000 delirious fans decking the stadium out in red and black.
But the noise did little to affect the Blues who took the game to their favoured opponents with plenty of gusto and in Casey Laulala spades of style.
A knock-on by Jamie Roberts from the kick-off saw Toulon surge forward, only a second knock-on from a Blues hand preventing a certain try and dream start for Toulon.
A fired-up Blues scrum – the same unit that came in for heavy criticism in the semi-final – muscled up and shunted the much-vaunted Toulon eight off their own ball and frantically cleared to touch. The tone was set. This was going to be a brutal battle played out at a relentless tempo.
It was the Blues who drew first blood, Halfpenny silencing the whistles of the crowd with a 50-metre effort. But Jonny Wilkinson, kicking with near silence in contrast, level matters with ten minutes on the clock.
And it was Wilkinson's quick-thinking that almost provided the game's first try, a quickly taken line-out and beautiful pass wide to Juan Fernandez Lobbe spoilt by a poor final pass with the line at Toulon's mercy. But the warning signs were there for the Blues.
The whistles did little to disturb Ben Blair, as he stepped up to knock over the Blues' second penalty as Toulon found themselves guilty of not rolling away. Once again sloppy passing cost Toulon as, with the Blues stretched in their own twenty-two, another pass went to ground and the pressure was lifted. But with the calibre of players in the Toulon ranks one got the feeling it was only a matter of time before the passes stuck.
But before that the curse of poor passing almost cost Toulon, one too many fancy flip passes almost seeing Jamie Roberts set the Blues free. Tense to say the least as the crowd once more ratcheted the noise levels as Wilkinson struck a majestic second penalty from wide out on the left to peg the Blues back again.
Finally Toulon made it count, and with relative ease as they swept from one end of the field to the other before Sonny Bill Williams danced hi way over for a score that set the stadium rocking. Turnover ball deep in their own twenty-two was sent wide, and from there the Blues were left chasing shadows.
Wilkinson added the extras and Toulon suddenly looked worthy of their favourites tag. As if to confirm that Xavier Rush, charging at full tilt, was sent reeling by a monstrous hit from Joe Van Niekerk. A penalty ensued shortly after and half-time couldn't come quick enough for the Blues.
As early as the 45th minute the writing was on the wall for the Blues, who struggled to live with the pace and energy of Toulon's play. Lobbe turned three points down with a quick penalty, his decision almost vindicated, as had it not been for a deliberate knock-on Toulon would have had a second try. Wilkinson stepped up to attempt his fourth shot at goal, but the kick drifted wide before the Toulon pivot crumpled in a heap to play no further part in the game.
After nearly 50 minutes the Blues started to play to their strengths, sending Roberts over the game line, producing the quick ball Casey Laulala thrives upon.
The result was instantaneous as Roberts rounded off a period of pressure by crashing in under the posts. Blair converted and once again the scores were level.
Only now Toulon were without their general at fly-half, and adept a player as Tom May is, Wilkinson he is not. Still he composed himself to give his side a narrow lead, only for Blair to level things up with twenty minutes to go.
With a renewed composure to their game the Blues built patiently, with the impressive Laulala once again at the centre of it all, and eventually Toulon ran out of numbers as a lob pass found Halfpenny in space and the little wing scampered over.
Blair's conversion drifted agonisingly wide and Toulon lived to fight another day. Time was with them but still they insisted forcing the game when the percentage plays would have suited them better, and enabled them to play their rugby in the right areas of the field.
When Bradley Davies barged over following Laulala's hard work the game was as good as up, Toulon lacking the guidance and control in their game since Wilkinson's departure. This time Blair made no mistakes and the lead was up to twelve with ten minutes to play.
There were chances still for Toulon, and one can't help but feel had it been Wilkinson, and not May, taking the ball with holes to aim at Toulon would have made a game of it. As it was May stepped inside and had no choice but to hold on and concede the penalty,
This remarkable game was still not done. Bodies lay strewn all over the field as both sides fought for their lives.
Ultimately the endless waves of Toulon pressure told as Thomas Sourice galloped over untouched, the missed conversion leaving Toulon chasing a converted try that would have forced extra-time.
Credit to Toulon, who launched one last attack, but the Blues hung on to become the first Welsh team to win European silverware.
For Cardiff Blues:
Tries: Roberts, Halfpenny, Davies
Cons: Blair 2
Pens: Halfpenny, Blair 2
Tries: Williams, Sourice
Pens: Wilkinson 2, May
Cardiff Blues: 15 Ben Blair, 14 Leigh Halfpenny, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Chris Czekaj, 10 Ceri Sweeney, 9 Richie Rees, 8 Xavier Rush, 7 Martyn Williams, 6 Maama Molitika, 5 Deiniol Jones, 4 Bradley Davies, 3 Faao Filise, 2 T Rhys Thomas, 1 Gethin Jenkins.
Replacements: 16 Gareth Williams, 17 John Yapp, 18 Scott Andrews, 19 Paul Tito, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Darren Allinson, 22 David Flanagan, 23 Dafydd Hewitt.
Toulon: 15 Clement Marienval, 14 Gabi Lovobalavu, 13 Tom May, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Jeremy Sinzelle, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Matt Henjak, 8 Fotunuupule Auelua, 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Joe van Niekerk, 5 Ross Skeate, 4 Esteban Lozada, 3 Davit Kubriashvili, 2 Phillip Fitzgerald, 1 Saimone Taumoepeau.
Replacements: 16 Sebastien Bruno, 17 Laurent Emmanuelli, 18 Tim Ryan, 19 Jocelino Suta, 20 Thomas Sourice, 21 Mafi Kefu, 22 Pierre Mignoni, 23 Tana Umaga.