Toulon secured their place in the Heineken Cup Final for a second straight year as they beat Munster 24-16 at the Stade Vélodrome on Sunday.
After Saturday's Clermont capitulation, the last-ever Heineken Cup deserved a more stimulating contest to determine the identity of its final two challengers.
Despite the error count and lack of tries, Toulon and Munster delivered in spades, with a sensational showing that went right down to the wire. Both sides, the Irishmen in particular, displayed tremendous heart, with James Coughlan and Conor Murray heroic in the face of star-studded opposition bursting with relentless power and intensity.
If lifeless Twickenham made for a dull and sparse backdrop to semi-final round, then the Marseille arena a day later was everything the occasion demanded; bathed in sunshine, brimming with fervour and passion, and cloaked in a blanket of red.
Skipper Jonny Wilkinson, in his last season of professional rugby, was to finish with 21 points, and boomed over an early penalty from distance to settle the Toulon nerves. But counterpart Ian Keatley did not flinch minutes later, as he equalised following a fantastic turnover from Damien Varley.
Wilkinson added another three after Murray caught opposite number Sébastien Tillous-Borde with a high tackle that enraged the French supporters but was largely innocuous.
More worryingly for Munster, Toulon gained dominance in the scrum from the off, the bulk and power of Carl Hayman weighing heavily upon the spine of Dave Kilcoyne, who hinged and collapsed thrice before a stern warning from Wayne Barnes appeared to galvanise the Munster front-row.
The penalty count continued to rise against Rob Penney's men, as Wilkinson slammed over another long-range effort, but it was Argentine skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe who saw yellow as he flew round the side of a ruck and collided head-on-head with Murray. The whistles rang out again from the indignant Toulon faithful, but Keatley once more held his nerve to land his second three-pointer.
The quality of restarts from both fly-halves was excellent, as high, hanging drop-kicks gave chasers an enticing target to hit and those awaiting their fall to earth a daunting catch with the roar of the crowd and the thundering feet of the opposition ringing in their ears.
Neither side dealt with them especially well, but it was Munster who made a pair of awful handling errors and were duly punished. A knock-on first allowed Wilkinson to sit back in the pocket and cancel out Keatley's effort with a simple drop-goal, then an offside penalty from another spill saw the veteran bring up fifteen points from the tee after Keatley had hit back with three of his own.
Delon Armitage had the last say of the opening forty minutes, as with a lazy swing of his right boot he stretched Toulon's lead to nine points at the interval with a monstrous long-range penalty.
Three minutes into the second half, Munster shot themselves in the foot. Keith Earls' kick was charged down, and with the Irish defence disorganised, Toulon swept forward. The elder Armitage sent brother Steffon galloping for the corner, but Simon Zebo saved the day, dragging the number eight into touch before he could ground.
Yet Munster were not content to accept their get-out-of-jail card and made good their escape, flinging the ball around with abandon in their own 22 and allowing Toulon to pile on the pressure. Again, the red jerseys rumbled inexorably towards the line, again the opportunity was spurned, Danie Rossouw losing the ball metres out thanks to a crucial James Downey hit.
Munster were on the ropes, but their resilience held. They did not yield. In fact, they came out swinging, trundling into the Toulon 22, and eschewing a three-point opportunity in favour of a crack at seven.
They got their reward in controversial circumstances. With the forwards halted, on the five metre line, Murray sniped down the blind side, offloading deftly to Zebo who powered over in the corner. Replays suggested the winger had not grounded the ball, but the TMO was not called for - assistant referee Luke Pearce was right on the spot and gave Barnes the nod to raise his arm.
Keatley banged over a magnificent conversion, and suddenly, the game was transformed. The rugby was now being played at a furious pace, with possession changing hands and the flow disrupted by errors and infringements. The gap was cut to two points; the Toulon fans were growing in frustration, while those from the Emerald Isle dared to dream.
They were awoken with a start on 65 minutes. Earls brought down substitute David Smith with the pair chasing down the latter's hack through, and was promptly sin-binned by Barnes. Wilkinson made no mistake from the tee, and Toulon were revitalised, La Marseillaise echoing round the stadium.
But 14-man Munster rallied brilliantly, camping out in the Toulon 22. Once more, they backed themselves to breach the line rather than trusting in Keatley's boot to reduce the deficit. This time it did not pay off, the ball was spilled in contact for what felt like the hundredth time and Toulon were off the hook.
Munster almost committed suicide as Earls re-entered the fray, overthrowing a lineout metres from their own line. It was Coughlan's fantastic charge-down on Wilkinson, preparing to slot what would have been a match-winning drop-goal that bailed them out yet again.
Ultimately, though, their resistance was broken, as they were made to pay for playing too much rugby in the wrong areas of the pitch, and failing to look after the ball. Wilkinson sealed the defending champions' place in the final with a late penalty, and Toulon held fast in the face of brave Munster attack with the clock red.
Pen: Wilkinson 6, D Armitage
Pen: Keatley 3
Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Jonny Wilkinson (c), 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Steffon Armitage, 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Jocelino Suta, 4 Danie Rossouw, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Xavier Chiocci.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Alexandre Menini, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Virgile Bruni, 20 David Smith, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 Michael Claassens, 23 Konstantine Mikautadze.
Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Casey Laulala, 12 James Downey, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 James Coughlan, 7 Sean Dougall, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Paul O'Connell, 4 Dave Foley, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Damien Varley (c), 1 Dave Kilcoyne.
Replacements: 16 Duncan Casey, 17 James Cronin, 18 John Ryan, 19 Donncha O'Callaghan, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Denis Hurley.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: JP Doyle (England), Luke Pearce (England)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)
By Jamie Lyall