Challenge Cup: Five takeaways from Toulon v Benetton as Sergio Parisse leads French side past out of sorts Italians

Adam Kyriacou
Sergio Parisse challenge cup fixture between Toulon and Benetton

Following Toulon’s 23-0 Challenge Cup semi-final victory over Benetton at Stade Mayol, we pick out five takeaways from Sunday’s fixture.

Sergio Parisse rolls back the years

He might be 40 years of age when the Rugby World Cup kicks off but on this form, Italy would be wise to take another look at their excellent number eight.

Parisse looked sprightly against Benetton, and it felt like he lifted his game when Charles Ollivon was red-carded, taking the lead and driving his players on.

The assist for Duncan Paia’aua on four minutes caught the Italian defence napping as he showed superb vision and confidence to get Toulon on the board.

But it wasn’t just the flashy stuff that caught the eye, as Parisse’s determination and leadership helped inspire Toulon to this great victory and a final place.

Toulon stand up tall defensively

That leads on to Toulon’s defence as, despite being down to 14 players as early as the sixth minute, they never really seemed troubled by this Benetton outfit.

Benetton scored a total of 123 points in their most recent four games in all competitions, so to be nilled for 80 minutes will hurt and credit to Toulon for that.

The Italians just couldn’t find territory or possession in Toulon’s red zone, and when they did the hosts cranked the intensity to force an error or a turnover.

These are hallmarks of a side working for each other, and their defensive effort will delight Frank Azema as they push for Challenge Cup and Top 14 glory.

Benetton a shadow of recent selves

Those aforementioned points that Benetton had scored in April led many to believe they could cause Toulon a good deal of problems at Stade Mayol today.

However, they failed to fire a shot in a hugely disappointing showing that left us scratching our heads, especially with Ollivon sent off so early in the game.

Their season is now over, and it is a shame it has ended in this fashion, as a decent United Rugby Championship campaign in which they won eight games out of 10, coupled by making the Challenge Cup semis, ultimately concludes with a whimper. The debrief will be a painful one as to not turn up on the big occasion will sting.

Big decisions

A game jam-packed with big decisions for referee Karl Dickson, continuing this weekend’s EPCR theme.

The first of which was for Toulon captain Ollivon, who Dickson issued a red card too. The officials have been directed to favour a yellow card over a red in contentious decisions.

In reviewing Ollivon’s action, Dickson was resolute in his decision-making despite the influence the fans tried to have on the decision. Even when advised to have another look at the incident, the Englishman was convinced that a red card was needed. Thankfully, for Toulon, their captain’s sending-off had little impact on the final result. The French international was a tad unlucky that he was given his marching orders, and will hope that he will be available for his side’s run into the final fixtures in the Top 14.

Meanwhile, Gabin Villiere was incredibly lucky for his indiscretion that denied Benetton a possible try. The speedster’s slap down near his own try-line was eerily similar to his French teammate, Thomas Ramos, against Leinster on Saturday. Ramos visited the sin bin for his actions, but Villiere escaped punishment for his. The intentional knock-on law polarises fans and pundits alike, and with three examples of it this weekend, it’s unlikely to change.

While those two decisions will drive a debate, Siua Maile’s sin-binning was a straightforward call. The 26-year-old stupidly took Paia’aua out after his kick. The Toulon centre was unlikely to play much of a role in what happened after his kick, and the actions of Maile was a microcosm of Benetton’s performance. The Italians were wasteful with their opportunities and simply ineffective in so many facets of play against 14 men.

Game management

Toulon needed clear heads after captain Ollivon was sent off, and they got it from the likes of Parisse, Baptiste Serin and Dan Biggar.

The half-backs were particularly brilliant in marshalling their troops around the pitch. The combination of Serin’s accurate box kicks and Biggar’s brilliance in the air made for a challenge that Benetton just couldn’t handle, and Toulon profited.

The way the duo controlled proceedings, and it was easy to forget that Toulon was, in fact, playing with a man down.

Little changed when Ihaia West replaced Biggar in the final half-hour of the game. Toulon dominated the aerial game, and when they didn’t win possession in the air, they won the drop zone battle by diving on any loose ball and driving Benetton bodies backwards.

Serin is back playing some of his best rugby once again and will undoubtedly be back in contention for Les Bleus.

READ MORE: WATCH: Sergio Parisse rolls back the years with a SUBLIME kick in the Challenge Cup semi-final