Jonny Wilkinson’s usually unerring radar was off as he missed – by his astonishingly high standards – three relatively straightforward kicks at goal in the final six minutes to let Toulouse off the hook on Saturday.
The fly-half came on as a second-half replacement for Freddie Michalak after the Ernest Wallon old boy had kicked the visitors into a 12-0 first-half lead. The first 40 was also notable for the home side’s apparent inability to score. Three different kickers missed three penalties as the home side failed to take a host chances.
But two early penalties in the second period cut the deficit to six points before – with nine minutes left – some brilliant work at the breakdown gifted the hosts a turnover on Toulon’s 22 and slick passing sent scrum-half Jano Vermaak over wide on the left.
That touchdown made the score 11-12, but Toulouse’s earlier kicking problems meant the conversion attempt was no formality. The home fans need not have worried as replacement Jean-Marc Doussain made no mistake.
The game, however, was far from over. Wilkinson still had his three shots at goal. The first, with 73 minutes on the clock, was a tricky penalty chance from wide out on the left. It slid across the face of the goal. A second penalty, three minutes later was closer and straighter. It drifted wide.
The third, after the hooter sounded, was a nightmare repeat of the 2003 World Cup final.
Toulon’s forwards had pounded into the host’s 22. They had made sure they were pretty much in front of the posts. Wilkinson was perfectly placed. Sebastien Tillous-Borde flicked out a perfect pass. The fly-half had all the time in the world. No Toulouse man could get close. He set himself. He swung that reliable left foot. And the ball sailed… a couple of metres wide of the posts.
It was Toulon’s third defeat in as many games on the road.
Racing Metro and Stade Francais renewed France’s oldest sporting rivalry in the weekend’s other big Top 14 match, but their error-strewn encounter at Stade de France was hardly a fitting tribute to a fixture dating back to 1891.
It all started so well, as Racing’s Luc Ducalcon barged over Stade’s line after just three minutes to finish off a near-perfect start for the ciel-et-bleu, who thought they had crossed the line a minute earlier – only for the TV referee to spot that Marc Andreu’s foot was in touch just before he put the ball down in the corner.
Seventy-seven dull, mistake-ridden minutes later, Racing finished 16-12 winners.
Castres also scored early as they destroyed Biarritz 39-0 at Pierre Antoine. Winger Geoffrey Palis raced over with barely a minute on the clock. Two more tries in the opening 40 minutes, courtesy of Romain Cabannes and Karena Wihongi ended the game as a contest, but Castres scored twice more courtesy of Brice Dulin and Daniel Kirkpatrick with less than an hour on the clock.
Oyonnax had joined the Basque side in the relegation zone even before they lost 23-10 at Grenoble. The home side were 16-3 to the good at halftime, thanks in no small part to a penalty try, and despite a brief Oyonnax fightback early in the second period, the result was never really in doubt.
Bayonne moved above Oyonnax with a 24-19 victory over Montpellier at Stade Jean Dauger on Friday that ensured a difficult week ended on a positive note.
The headlines leading up the the match focused on the suspension of Mike Phillips for reportedly turning up drunk to a team meeting. It has since been confirmed that he has been sacked, and is as a result suing the club. No doubt that will help with their fight against relegation.
But the hosts put a troubled week behind them as Martin Bustos-Moyano scored a try, four penalties and a conversion to make sure the hosts picked up a crucial win.
Eight penalties and a conversion from James Hook helped Perpignan move up to fifth in the Top 14 as they beat Bordeaux 31-20 at Stade Aime Giral. It was 12-12 at halftime, but Sofian Guitoune’s try and Hook’s accurate boot helped the hosts pulled away in the second period.
With 15 minutes left at Stade Marcel Michelin, Brive were in near-uncharted territory – they were in the lead against Clermont, but they were unable to hold on. Naipolioni Nalaga’s converted try and two late Brock James penalties helped the hosts win 36-29.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images