Toulon made it two from two in the European Rugby Champions Cup as they powered past Ulster, winning 23-13 in Belfast on Saturday.
Toulon made it two wins from two in the European Champions Cup as they powered past Ulster, winning 23-13 at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday.
Despite losing fly-half Matt Giteau to injury after 27 minutes, the European champions were simply too strong up front for the hosts, who could not bounce back from last week’s defeat at Leicester.
Steffon Armitage, Juan Smith and Chris Masoe were dominant at the breakdown and in the loose as the French side picked up a valuable away win.
A try apiece from wingers Bryan Habana and Delon Armitage, both converted by Leigh Halfpenny, helped the mighty Toulon prevail.
Halfpenny also contributed three penalties in an imperious kicking display that copper fastens Toulon’s status as tournament favourites.
Ulster responded with a late Craig Gilroy try, as well as two penalties from Irish fly-half Paddy Jackson, but the seasoned Frenchmen, who led at half time, were always in command of this contest.
The match began with perceptible intensity, and the home side did well in the opening few minutes to keep the French galacticos behind the gain line.
Ulster’s aggressive, pressing defence seemed determined to exert massive pressure on Toulon’s superstars. But the hosts were perhaps a little too eager, and gave away a penalty just inside the Toulon half on the three minute mark. Halfpenny was just wide with the resultant kick.
Ulster responded purposefully, and won a penalty at the breakdown. From there, they established field position in the Toulon 22, and went through several phases before coughing up possession, allowing the French giants to clear their lines.
Toulon showed ominous signs of their potential, as powerhouse centre Mathieu Bastareaud battered Ulster in the midfield collisions. One such crash ball in Ulster’s 22 on nine minutes saw the home rear guard infringe, giving Halfpenny a much easier opportunity. This time he made no mistake, and it was first blood to Toulon, as he earned a 3-0 lead.
The metronomic Welsh fullback doubled his side’s advantage on 13 minutes as he nailed another penalty to make it 6-0 to the Frenchmen.
Ulster were competing admirably, but last year’s champions were building up a head of steam, with Bastareaud’s incursions forcing the men in white to ship tackles.
But the hosts rallied well, and on the 21 minute mark Jackson clawed back three points to make it 6-3 to Toulon. The hosts were further heartened when their back row started winning a succession of penalties at the breakdown through the sterling work of Chris Henry.
Ulster had clearly come into the game with a game plan of decimating Toulon’s back-row, and for much of the first half they were making a decent fist of it.
But Toulon always looked dangerous from broken play, and they seemed to have got over for a try in the right wing on 31 minutes when the ball went through several hands before Delon Armitage touched down. Luckily for Ulster, the effort was ruled out for a forward pass from Halfpenny.
As the half time interval approached, Ulster’s brand of pressure rugby, with clever box kicks from Paul Marshall, seemed to be paying dividends. But Toulon, with Halfpenny to fall back on, were the more clinical side, and on 38 minutes the full-back nailed another long distance penalty to earn his team a 9-3 lead.
Calamity for the hosts ensued, moreover, on 39 minutes when Habana succeeded where fellow winger Armitage failed by scoring in the right hand corner. Halfpenny impressively converted to effort to leave it 16-3 at half time.
The scoreline didn’t do justice to Ulster’s efforts, but ultimately the Belfast side failed to convert possession into points.
The second half started with Ulster chasing the game with ball in hand, but too much of their play was flat and behind the advantage line. But the hosts got back on the scoreboard when Delon Armitage was penalised for a high tackle on Stuart Olding on 46 minutes, and Jackson did the needful to make it 16-6.
The hosts made a double substitution on 52 minutes when Callum Black and Nick Williams entered the fray in a bid to inject some momentum.
Jackson had a good chance to reduce the deficit on 55 minutes, but the swirling swept the effort wide. Worse came for Ulster on 58 minutes when a speculative pass by Williams was intercepted by Delon Armitage, and the winger sprinted 30 yards to touch down. Halfpenny converted to make it 23-6.
Ian Humphreys and Declan Fitzpatrick also came on for Ulster, but the hosts were playing catch up by this stage. Ulster made some ventures into the Toulon 22, and set up strong rolling mauls through quality lineout ball; but lacked a cutting edge in the red zone.
In reality, the Toulon defence was fairly impregnable, and the Frenchmen were able to control territory pretty effectively through the twin threats of Giteau and Halfpenny.
Irish winger Gilroy did nip in for a consolation try on 76 minutes, but it had no bearing on the outcome.
A late Jackson kick seeking a losing bonus point also fell short. Toulon thus held on to seal a superb victory that sets them up nicely in their bid to become the inaugural Champions Cup winners. Ulster, meanwhile, are left to wonder what might have been.
Pen: Jackson 2
Tries: Habana, Armitage
Con: Halfpenny 2
Pen: Halfpenny 3
Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Stuart Olding, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Franco Van Der Merwe, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Andy Warwick.
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Clive Ross, 20 Nick Williams, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Darren Cave.
Toulon: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Delon Armitage, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Michael Claassens, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 5 Romain Taofifenua, 4 Jocelino Suta, 3 Carl Hayman (c), 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Alexandre Menini.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Fabien Barcella, 18 Levan Chilachava, 19 Bakkies Botha, 20 James O’Connor, 21 Ali Williams, 22 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 23 Juan Smith.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Tim Wigglesworth (England), Nigel Carrick (England)
Television match official: Rowan Kitt (England)
Timekeeper: Scottie Rankin (Ireland)
Assessor: John Coyle (Ireland)