Match Report: Toulon 18 – 19 Exeter Chiefs

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A battling Exeter Chiefs side secured a win at the death with a Henry Slade conversion which topped off a valiant second half comeback against French giants Toulon in the opening round of the Investec Champions Cup.

A Stade Felix Mayol, as lively and bouncing as ever greeted the Chiefs on a fair-weathered afternoon in the French city. Toulon had the first 22 entry of the day when a tricky grubber ball forced a handling error from Tommy Wyatt.

Facundo Isa peeled off the back of the Toulon scrum, storming for towards the centre of the posts before a monstrous tackle from Jacques Vermeulen had him spilling ball forward and affording the Chiefs a scrum to exit their 22.

As the tenth minute struck, the intensity ratcheted up a notch. Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, in chasing his own chip, found himself out of position and struck hard in a tackle attempt, taking him out of the action. However, his HIA replacement Olly Woodburn had to wait for the break in play to return the Chiefs to 14 men.

Toulon sensed their opportunity as Gabin Villiere chipped ball down into the Chiefs 22 forcing the backtracking Exeter men to desperately try to track back in time. Tom Cairns found himself fighting over the line to get his hand to the ball ahead of his opposition. After a TMO check, his fingers were deemed to have been the first to ground the ball and Chiefs were given a reprieve.

The first lineoutof the game was claimed by Dafydd Jenkins at a stretch in the air on the halfway line. A nice carry from Vermeulen gave Cairns space to box kick. Dan Frost and his scrum half gave chase as the ball’s bounce was kind to them, allowing them to reach Melvyn Jaminet in time to block the kick.

The ball rumbled into the dead ball area before Cairns could get upon it this time but Chiefs were looking ready to strike. And strike they did through Harvey Skinner on 17 minutes played. A lucky step secured him an interception on his own ten metre line which he then ran in for the opening score. A rowdy crowd distracted the usual calmness of Henry Slade enough to shoot just wide of the right upright with his conversion attempt.

Toulon weren’t to be kept at bay for long though. Light footwork and carving lines in the carry got them into deep Chiefs territory. With a penalty at the breakdown affording them a chance to go for the corner, the big French pack rumbled over at the corner flag with Beka Gigashvili at the base. Enzo Herve then converted the tough score from the touchline.

A second score followed in the 24th minute as the home giants broke down the far wing. Ben Hammersley and Cairns made valiant attempts to tackle the likes of Charles Ollivon into touch, however, the French internationalist was able to get ball away to Scottish internationalist Ben White who sniped over for the score. Being chased down by Hammersley, Herve’s conversion attempt bounced off the crossbar but not through.

Chiefs put their own pressure back on just shy of the half hour. Stringing together the phases through big carries from the likes of Ethan Roots and Greg Fisilau, they had the Toulon men backed to their five-metre line. Some hampering at the breakdown forced a knock-on from the Exeter men though, giving Toulon a scrum on the five metre to try to run the ball out from. A penalty for hands in the ruck helped their cause, as it enabled Jaminet to go for touch.

Trouble brewed for the home side on 30 minutes played as a TMO check showed a shoulder to the head of Hammersley as he returned his feet to the turf from collecting a high ball. After a consultation with his TMO, referee Chris Busby deemed it a yellow card offence for lock Brian Alainu’uese.

Still a man down, when Toulon received a penalty on the edge of the 22 a few minutes later, the experienced Ollivon indicated a shot at goal rather than going for the corner. Herve secured the three points to widen the hosts’ leading gap on the scoreboard.

Collapsing the maul was the error which gave Toulon their next attempt at the posts with three minutes left in the half. Herve secured the points and Chiefs were looking at a tough second half to get back within range of their hosts’ points.

Half-time: Toulon 18 – 5 Chiefs

The second half began with Chiefs looking like a dog after a bone in the hunt for more points. Great pressure in defence forced errors out of Toulon and Chiefs looked to try make the most of any counterattack opportunity afforded to them.

Toulon looked frustrated as Chiefs twice in quick succession turned over ball at the ruck. A prolonged wave of Chiefs attacking phases was ended only by a ball behind Hammersley’s shoulder which was accidentally knocked on in the attempted clean-up from Wyatt. Toulon had the scrum in the edge of their 22 but more pressure was coming as Wyatt ran their clearance kick back at them.

The frustration didn’t linger for long. The hosts spent much of the following 10 minutes in Chiefs’ half looking for an opportunity of their own. However, multiple times they were denied within five metre range of the Exeter line until on 54 minutes, a steal from Hammersley and a break from Woodburn got Chiefs up to the opposite end of the pitch.

Play was stopped at this marker when, just minutes after coming off the bench, Baptiste Serin was forced off the pitch gingerly with an injury to his right arm. Unfortunately, the break robbed Chiefs of momentum and a penalty from the set piece gave Toulon the ball.

They weren’t clinical with it, however, and Wyatt was able to snag an interception. Then, with a penalty at the breakdown on the edge of the 22, Chiefs were able to go to the corner. A first call of held up brought play back for an original off-side penalty advantage in the Exeter men’s favour.

There will be some bruises blooming this evening as the forwards’ work with the repeated short carries was dogged on the Toulon line. Then, backing himself on his European debut, Max Norey went alone, spinning in the tackle to dot down over the line. Slade’s conversion added the extra two points.

Relentless over the breakdown, Hammersley’s word awarded the Exeter men a penalty on the halfway shortly following the restart. Going for the corner, a miscommunication at the lineout saw Toulon rob the ball. As they cleared, Chiefs went again – looking to run the ball from just inside their own half.

The intensity ratcheted up to it’s peak in the final 15 minutes of the encounter. Toulon thought they may have a try with Ollivon’s name on it following a break from Villiere, however, a forward pass brought play back for a Chiefs scrum put-in inside the Toulon half. Despite the crowd’s cries of “Tou-Lon”, the penalty went the way of the Chiefs.

A penalty for a grabbing the player in the air thwarted Chiefs’ latest attacking wave and sent them back into their own half as the possession swung once more between the two sides. The Devon side fronted up at the set piece and were awarded the scrum.

The closing minutes were hectic as Chiefs used any power in their arsenal to get up to and over the Toulon line. With ragged and tired bodies, the blue jerseys crashed over in a mess of limbs, screaming that they were over the whitewash. After a tense couple of minutes confirming with the TMO, the try was awarded to Vermeulen.

In a fiercely loud and unhappy Toulon atmosphere, Slade did what he does best – he kept his calm and came through for his team. The conversion was enough to take Chiefs one point ahead and end the game in a momentous away win.

Full-time: Toulon 18 – 19 Chiefs

Toulon: M Jaminet; G Drean, W Nayacalevu, M Smaili, G Villiere; E Herve, B White (Srein 53’, Rabut 55’); B Devaux (Prisco 49’), J Singleton (Tolofua 49’), B Gigashvili (Setiano 57’), M Halagahu (ribbans 53’), B Alainu’uese, E Abadie, C Ollivon, F Isa (Du Preez 57’).

Replacements: Fainga’anuku

Tries: Gigashvili, White Conversions: Herve Penalties: Herve 2

Yellow card: Alainu’uese

Chiefs: T Wyatt; I Feyi-Waboso (Woodburn 11’), H Slade, J Hawkins, B Hammersley; H Skinner, T Cairns (Townsend 55’); S Sio (Abuladze 52’), D Frost (Norey 52’), E Painter (Street 52’), R Tuima (Pearson 55’), D Jenkins (c), E Roots, J Vermeulen, G Fisilau.

Replacements: Vintcent, O’Loughlin

Tries: Skinner, Norey, Vermeulen Conversions: Slade 2

Referee: Chris Busby

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