Leicester Tigers inflicted Toulon’s first European defeat of the season with a hard-earned 25-21 win at Welford Road on Sunday.
The defending champions outscored their hosts two tries to one but the 9-14 penalty count was heavily to Toulon’s disadvantage in a seesaw battle that went right down to the wire. The defeat is Toulon’s first loss in European competition to an English side.
It was all-square at the interval as Toulon recovered from a slow start to overturn a 13-point deficit.
Leicester had raced to a 13-0 lead by the end of the first quarter thanks to a try from Brad Thorn and a couple of Owen Williams penalties. But Toulon faught back to draw level before the break as Bryan Habana touched down and Nicolas Sanchez did the rest from the kicking tee.
A Drew Mitchell try briefly put Toulon ahead in the second half but Williams kept the scoreboard ticking for Tigers and the hosts held a one-point lead with ten minutes to play.
A sixth three-pointer from Williams, struck from inside his own half, proved the killer blow though as Leicester move to second in Pool Three, one point behind RCT and two ahead of Ulster.
In a game filled with a host of star names, Leicester had a series of players back from injury and international duty whilst Toulon did not have a full strength squad, with Leigh Halfpenny and Matt Giteau two of the big names missing.
Leicester, who began the game bottom of their group and in desperate need of a victory, took the front foot with a high line of pressure limiting Toulon’s forward movement.
With eight minutes on the board, Williams kicked the first points, but it could have been more was it not for a timely hand from Sanchez stopping a certain try.
Martin Castrogiovanni, on his big return to Welford Road, was at fault for the next Williams score. Toulon won the penalty, but the TMO got involved and highlighted that the big Italian had hit a ruck after the whistle, leading to the reversal of the penalty.
18 minutes in the home fans roared into life thanks to the first try of the evening. Thorn got it, but it was a moment that Mitchell won’t want to see again. A Matthew Tait kick caused problems, and he failed three times to scoop up the ball, and Thorn bundled over the line, Williams converting for a 13-point lead.
It didn’t take long for Sanchez to get some points on the board for his side, slottiing his first effort of the night. The reigning European champions should have levelled the try scoring on half-an-hour, but Castrogiovanni and Delon Armitage both found themselves just short on the try line, though the ball should have been switched out wide much earlier.
Sanchez kicked a penalty following that, and minutes later the game was level. Habana took advantage of a wayward Williams’ pass, and he managed to stay on his feet before sprinting unopposed over the try line from 60m, allowing Sanchez an easy conversion to see the team’s go in at 13-all.
Williams continued his good display in front of goal after the break, as his penalty restored the Tigers lead, but it looked like all his work was to be undone when Toulon got their second try of the game.
Leicester lost possession from their own scrum, allowing Mitchell an easy try with nobody able to challenge him out wide. Sanchez missed the conversion though, and gave Leicester another way in.
Williams kicked another penalty to snatch back the lead, and the Tigers sensed blood as they bore down on a huge victory over the reigning Champions and group leaders.
Williams kicked his 17th points of the night from another penalty, but when Sanchez got his own with ten minutes to play, just a single point was the difference and the game was left hanging in the balance.
But the young Welsh star Williams was handed a huge chance to decide the game, landing the penalty was from over 50m.
And despite five extra minutes of Toulon pressure, the Tigers held firm, and got the win that kept their European campaign very much alive.
Pens: Williams 6
Tries: Habana, Mitchell
Pens: Sanchez 3
Leicester: 15 Matthew Tait, 14 Blaine Scully, 13 Matt Smith, 12 Anthony Allen, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Owen Williams, 9 Ben Youngs (c), 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Marcos Ayerza
Replacements: 16 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Geoff Parling, 20 Robert Barbieri, 21 Sam Harrison, 22 Freddie Burns, 23 Miles Benjamin
Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Nicolas Sanchez, 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Chris Masoe (c), 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Mamuka Gorgodze, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Xavier Chiocci
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Florian Fresia, 18 Carl Hayman, 19 Juan Smith, 20 Rudi Wulf, 21 Jocelino Suta, 22 Eric Escande, 23 Romain Taofifenua
Venue: Welford Road, Leicester
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)