Toulouse champions again
Toulouse were crowned French champions for the 19th time after battling to a hard-fought, tryless 18-12 victory over Toulon in the Top 14 final at the Stade de France on Saturday.
Guy Noves' team dominated the battle up front and fairly destroyed the Toulon scrum, but while Luke McAlister was unerring with his trusty right boot, unforced errors made the game much closer than it should have been.
Jonny Wilkinson notched up four penalties for Toulon, for whom flankers Steffon Armitage and Joe van Niekerk were instrumental in providing an upper hand in the loose.
"I look at the young players and the whole of my staff enjoying it and being rewarded for their hard work," said Noves.
"We're used to very good things and we want to repeat them.
"But it was tough until the final whistle today. We could have lost at the end, conceded a converted try. I'm a little disappointed because it wasn't a beautiful final. But with finals, well, you have to win them and that's it.
"We scored loads of tries throughout the season. We tried to put on a show, but today we had to win."
Toulon lock Christophe Samson, newly called up to the France squad, added: "Toulouse really took the scrum on well. Afterwards it's more complicated to play our game.
"It's a shame because we were there until the 60th minute. Matches of this level don't come down to much, and Toulouse were better."
Toulouse were forced into making three late changes after prop Jean-Baptiste Poux, winger Yves Donguy and replacement lock Romain Millo-Chluski were all ruled out through injury.
McAlister took Lionel Beauxis' place at fly-half to allow Yann David in at centre, with Timoci Matanavou replacing Donguy, and ex-Springbok Gurthro Steenkamp coming into the front row – and playing a massive game.
Wilkinson opened the scoring in the first minute after a ruck infringement, but a senseless foul by England veteran Simon Shaw from the re-start allowed McAlister to level the scores.
McAlister narrowly missed a snatched 19th-minute drop goal but put Toulouse into the lead a couple of minutes later after the Toulon pack had popped at the scrum.
The ferocity of the hits in defence and the breakdown began to tell and Wilkinson banged over two penalties either side of the half-hour mark to hand Toulon a 9-6 lead.
But Toulouse's scrum was in the ascendancy and another massive shunt on their own ball saw Toulon wilt again, and McAlister peg the scores back to parity.
Wilkinson was on hand to produce a fine covering tackle on massive Samoa prop Census Johnston with the line looming, a McAlister drop from the ensuing ruck coming back off the post and eventually cleared by Toulon, leaving the scores 9-9 at the break.
Toulouse came out for the second period in the full knowledge where their strengths lay, destroying the opening scrum for another penalty McAlister made no mistake with.
But Toulon kept clinging on through the doughtiness of Armitage and Van Niekerk, and Wilkinson hit his fourth penalty after an accidental offside by Yoann Maestri.
Tempers flared and hookers William Servat and Sebastian Bruno went toe-to-toe only to be both yellow carded by referee Romain Poite. Wilkinson missed a second drop-goal attempt in the melee.
The 33-year-old fly-half, whose drop-goal saw England clinch the 2003 World Cup against Australia, missed a 50-metre penalty after Maestri strayed offside at a lineout, shortly followed by teammate Benjamin Lapeyre.
Georgian prop Davit Kubriachvili eventually paid the price for a torrid time at the hands of Johnston in the front row, sin binned after again popping up under pressure, McAlister on target with his fifth penalty for a 15-12 lead.
With 15 minutes to play, fatigue was beginning to show, and the ex-All Black playmaker scythed past Bruno into a midfield gap, but rather than keep ball in hand opted for a grubber Lapeyre did well to cover from fullback.
Armitage was then called for offside in a massive hit on Steenkamp, and McAlister took Toulouse out to 18-12.
Toulon winger David Smith failed to gather a pass with a try-scoring three on two situation on the cards and a series of pick and goes on the Toulouse line produced nothing to dash Toulon's hopes of a fourth title, the last having come in 1992.
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