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'Genius' Jonny kicks Irish where it hurts
Jonny Wilkinson was acclaimed as a 'genius' on a triumphant return to England on Sunday, as he kept Toulon in the hunt for a quarter-final place and condemned London Irish to a sixth straight defeat.
This was the World Cup-winning fly-half's first club win in his own country for more than two years, when he helped former side Newcastle beat Bristol on September 26, 2008.
Having missed the autumn Tests with a shoulder injury, the 31-year-old made a successful comeback against Montpellier nine days ago and followed it up with this decisive, flawless contribution at the Madejski Stadium, in the form of four penalties and a conversion.
Joe van Niekerk, Toulon's South African captain, delivered the 'genius' tribute, while Exiles head coach Toby Booth added: 'He didn't look in decline to me. In a tight game they have a 100 per cent kicker and we don't. He is probably like a fine wine, he is actually getting better.'
It could have been even better for Wilkinson. In the 15th minute, he chased through a delicate chip by Pierre Mignoni and caught the ball over the Exiles' line, only to spill it in attempting to touch down, as James Buckland clattered into him.
That set the tone, with Toulon creating clear-cut scoring chances, only to squander them. Irish were fortunate to escape with a losing bonus point clinched by Darren Allinson's late penalty.
They were out-gunned in the scrums, contained by Toulon's brutal defence and lacked cohesion when they did seize scraps of attacking possession.
For all the efforts of the Armitage brothers in particular, they were comprehensively out-played and now sit bottom of Pool Three.
Of greater concern for the Exiles is their sustained slump and a crisis of confidence which was illustrated by Ryan Lamb. The fly-half was on a roll in mid-October, but on Sunday his kicking at goal and for territory betrayed renewed uncertainty.
Two early Wilkinson penalties put the visitors 6-0 up but the man leading the Toulon charge was the marauding Van Niekerk. The South African had already delivered one storming break when he played a full hand in a sweeping, 26th-minute counter-attack try.
Seilala Mapusua knocked on as Irish were making ground down the left and Wilkinson secured the loose ball. It was transferred at pace to the far side of the field and Van Niekerk broke down the flank. He passed out to Gabiriele Lovobalavu, took the return pass and picked out Rudi Wulf on an inside run to the posts. Wilkinson converted and Toulon were clear, continuing to dominate until they succumbed to a sucker punch.
The Exiles were scrambling to repel another raid when Sailosi Tagicakibau snatched a pass intended for Paul Sackey. The Samoan darted forward and off-loaded to Chris Hala'ufia, who shipped the ball on to Elvis Seveali'i, who picked out Jonathan Joseph on the right. The rookie wing popped the ball up to Delon Armitage, who kicked ahead and raced to touch down. Lamb converted to make it 13-7 at half time.
Toulon were in the ascendancy for long periods after the break, but failed to pull away. They were unlucky to be denied a penalty try when Sackey was taken out by Paul Hodgson. The French side should have had at least one more late on, but Geoffroy Messina and Wulf wasted easy chances.
Those misses kept the Exiles in range and, despite two more Wilkinson penalties, Lamb and Allinson responded in kind to secure a point, although it is unlikely to be enough for qualification. Wilkinson had to provide a sample for dope testing. But it must have been easily bearable after such a day.