Jonny Wilkinson seals Toulon's Heineken Cup semi-final spot with an impressive kicking display, as the French side fight-back from a half-time deficit, to beat a disappointed Leicester.
The Heineken Cup quarter final weekend came to a climax on the Mediterranean coast, with arguably the round's most anticipated clash between Toulon and Leicester. The French giants welcomed the Tigers to the Stade Felix Mayol, for what was to be a powerful display of cup rugby.
Before the game, a number of 'key' battles were highlighted between the young, home-grown talent of Leicester and the experienced 'stars' of Toulon. Most notably, the mid-field encounter of Manu Tuilagi and Mathieu Bastareaud and heavyweight clash of both front rows. However, it was battle of the fly-halves, both captains on the day that proved to be the most significant.
The master, Jonny Wilkinson, for the first time in his career, faced former Newcastle apprentice, Toby Flood. Flood was to get best of the first half, with his side leading 9-0 at one point. However, a Toulon fight back resulted in a score of 9-6 at the break.
The World Cup winning fly-half showed his class, as he eventually won the kicking duel with four penalties to Flood's two in the second half. A late drop-goal from Wilkinson sent the French side through to the semi-finals, for the first time in the club's history.
The fixture's opening exchanges were a nervous affair, as the magnitude of the occasion resulted in a number of errors. When the sides settled into the match, it was Leicester who took the game to the favoured home side.
The Tigers dominated early set-piece play, winning clean line-out ball, through experts Tom Croft and Geoff Parling, and most impressively their dominance at the scrumage. It was the much younger front-row of Dan Cole, Tom Youngs and Marcos Ayerza that drove the Toulon pack - headed by scrumaging royalty Carl Hayman - backwards on a number of occasions in the first half. A sight rarely witnessed by a quietening French crowd.
Toulon's expensively assembled side, featuring a number of stars, including Bakkies Botha, Chris Masoe, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Matt Guiteau, to name but a few, looked surprised by the speed at which Leicester took the game to them.
The English side's younger back-line played off their pack's dominance at the set-piece. Scrum-half Ben Youngs moved the ball a number of passes away from the breakdown wherever possible, which was complimented by the attacking presence of Tuilagi and winger Adam Thompstone.
As a result of Toulon frustration and ill-discipline, Flood was able to kick his side ahead with nine unanswered points. However, Flood, deliberately knocked on a pass from Delon Armitage and with the Tigers captain in the sin-bin, Toulon began to play. Wilkinson then condensed the lead to 9-6 at the mid-way point.
The home side came out a much different team in the second half, as Wilkinson added a further two penalties to take the lead. Toulon's big-names began to fire, with an impressive display of power-running and offloading from both forwards and back alike.
Toulon came close to the Tigers' white wash on a number of occasions, with a bombardment of the visitors twenty-two mid-way through the second half. Chris Masoe was just shy, after a piercing run through the Leicester defence, on the back of a thundering Wilkinson tackle and Steffon Armitage turnover. South African lock Bakkies Botha looked to be over the line, after a thundering carry, only to be denied by referee George Clancy for a double movement. Finally, it was Bastareaud who came closest, who was hurled into touch by a marvellous defensive effort from winger Thompstone, inches before he placed the ball over the line.
Just as Leicester believed they had weathered the storm, with a titanic defensive display, prop Dan Cole was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on of his own. To which, Wilkinson managed to settle the growing qualm of the home crowd with a further two penalties.
However, in typical Leicester fashion, the East-Midlands side were not to be counted out yet. Flood replied with a penalty of his own, taking his side within three points in the final few minutes. An impressive solo effort from centre Anthony Allen nearly resulted in a last-gasp Tigers try, as the kicked-on ball was recovered by the home side only metres from their own line.
However, it was Toulon and Wilkinson who provided a fitting dÃ©nouement. The fly-half master did what he does best, piercing the uprights with a right-footed drop-goal in the final minute, killing-off a spirited Leicester and sealing victory.
Toulon will next travel across the Channel for their semi-final and face Saracens at Twickenham. Wilkinson will lead his team of 'star's with the hopes of winning the Heineken Cup, still very much alive.
Toulon: D Armitage; Wulf, Bastareaud, Giteau, Palisson; Wilkinson, Tillous-Borde; Sheridan, Bruno, Hayman, Botha, Kennedy, Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage, Masoe.
Replacements: Mermoz for Bastareaud (79), Martin for Palisson (68), Jenkins for Sheridan (58), Ivaldi for Bruno (56), van Niekerk for S. Armitage (74).
Not Used: Chilachava, Suta, Durand.
Leicester: Tait; Morris, Tuilagi, Allen, Thompstone; Flood, B Youngs, Ayerza, T Youngs, Cole, Slater, Parling, Croft, Salvi, Crane.
Replacements: Castrogiovanni for Thompstone (67), Mulipola for Ayerza (54), Kitchener for Slater (65), Waldrom for Croft (39).
Not Used: Hawkins, Harrison, Ford, Smith.
Sin Bin: Flood (29), Cole (59).
Ref: George Clancey (RFU).