A hugely committed effort from Connacht was not enough as Jonny Wilkinson wielded the most influence at the Sportsground, guiding his Toulon side through to their first ever Amlin Challenge Cup final.
AMLIN CHALLENGE CUP: SEMI-FINAL: Friday, April 30
CONNACHT 12 TOULON 19, the Sportsground
Scorers: Connacht: Pens: Ian Keatley 4
Toulon: Try: Mafileo Kefu; Con: Jonny Wilkinson; Pens: Jonny Wilkinson 3; Drop: Jonny Wilkinson
The big-spending French outfit failed to score in the second half, but their cohesive display in the opening 40 minutes, during which out-half Jonny Wilkinson kicked 14 points, was enough to seal a place in the May 23 decider in Marseille.
Mafileo Kefu scored the only try of a defence-dominated encounter, haring onto a pass from captain Matt Henjak to gallop in behind the posts in the eleventh minute of first half injury-time.
Connacht had been defending heroically up to that point – putting in 96 tackles in the first half alone – but Wilkinson’s 100% return with the boot and Kefu’s try proved to be enough for Philippe Saint-Andre’s men who led 19-9 at half-time.
In their coach Michael Bradley’s last game at the Galway venue, Connacht notched four penalties through out-half Ian Keatley. However, their try-scoring attempts were thwarted, with hooker Sean Cronin going close on two occasions.
Toulon, who had won their previous ten matches, dominated possession and territory in the opening quarter and Argentinian back rower Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the eventual man-of-the-match, led the charge in open play.
Behind him, Wilkinson took every place-kicking opportunity, shrugging off an early neck injury to knock over three penalties and a drop goal to establish a 12-6 lead.
In a raucous atmosphere, Gavin Duffy claimed the kick-off from Keatley, drew a penalty from Fernandez Lobbe and Keatley curled his penalty through the uprights, into a stiff wind, to edge the hosts into a second minute lead.
Connacht captain John Muldoon picked off two early lineout steals but Toulon were able to dictate the play, with the elements behind them.
Wilkinson probed with a chip to the left corner but Niva Ta’auso rescued Connacht by touching down in the corner for a drop-out.
Big full-back Luke Rooney looked dangerous on the counter, as did Fijian Gabiriele Lovobalavu on the right wing, before Fionn Carr was singled out for a ruck infringement and Wilkinson left-footed Toulon level in the tenth minute.
Tom May and Wilkinson both missed drop goals as Connacht were continually pinned back, although Toulon got some reward when Wilkinson punished Carr for spoiling at a ruck.
Flanker Thomas Sourice infringed off the restart, allowing Keatley to smack over his second penalty, but an overthrown lineout from Cronin saw Connacht hand those three points back in the form of a Wilkinson drop goal.
Fernandez Lobbe broke off the back of a scrum and almost linked with the onrushing Lovobalavu as Connacht’s resilient defence was stretched, and the home crowd groaned as Ta’auso narrowly missed out on intercepting a Wilkinson pass.
Toulon crucially built some pressure through their scrum as the first half came to a close. Jamie Hagan was penalised for dropping a scrum – Wilkinson kicked the resulting penalty – and the loosehead prop was then replaced in injury-time as Connacht exhaustively defended a series of set pieces near their line.
With Sourice pinged for blocking, Keatley’s third successful penalty closed the gap to 12-9, but Toulon powered back to score a try in deepest injury-time, following an incredible eight scrum resets.
Referee Wayne Barnes, who missed a Toulon knock-on in the previous phase, watched on as the front rows folded time and again but from the final one Henjak sent Kefu through a gap, on an angled run, and in behind the posts.
It was a try Toulon’s attacking efforts had merited and while Wilkinson converted, Connacht hit back immediately after the break through Keatley’s right boot.
With the game back in the melting pot at 19-12, Muldoon and his forward colleagues made headway during the third quarter. Toulon were able to soak up most of the pressure, especially in the final quarter when Wilkinson was withdrawn through injury.
The benches were unloaded in a strength-sapping finale and Toulon survived a couple of scares, most notable when Cronin was bundled into touch on the left and replacement Ronan Loughney and number 8 George Naoupu were held up just short of the visitors’ try-line.
Connacht could not maintain their presence in the Toulon 22 and they had to work their socks off to get within scoring range. Replacement Miah Nikora, the drop goal hero against Bourgoin, missed a long range penalty twelve minutes from the finish.
Toulon were wobbling slightly, but Fernandez Lobbe, lock Jocelino Suta and replacement scrum half Pierre Mignoni steadied the ship in the dying minutes as Bradley’s charges went down fighting, attacking right to the final whistle.
TIME LINE: 2 minutes – Connacht penalty: Ian Keatley – 3-0; 10 mins – Toulon penalty: Jonny Wilkinson – 3-3; 19 mins – Toulon penalty: Jonny Wilkinson – 3-6; 21 mins – Connacht penalty: Ian Keatley – 6-6; 26 mins – Toulon drop goal: Jonny Wilkinson – 6-9; 35 mins – Toulon penalty: Jonny Wilkinson – 6-12; 37 mins – Connacht penalty: Ian Keatley – 9-12; 40+11 mins – Toulon try: Mafileo Kefu – 9-17; conversion: Jonny Wilkinson – 9-19; Half-time – Connacht 9 Toulon 19; 44 mins – Connacht penalty: Ian Keatley – 12-19; 68 mins – Connacht penalty: missed by Miah Nikora – 12-19; Full-time – Connacht 12 Toulon 19
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy; Troy Nathan, Niva Ta’auso, Aidan Wynne, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan, Michael Swift, Michael McCarthy, John Muldoon (capt), Johnny O’Connor, George Naoupu.
Replacements used: Brian Tuohy for Nathan (20 mins), Robbie Morris for Hagan (40+8), Ronan Loughney for Wilkinson (49), Miah Nikora for Keatley (55), Bernie Upton for Swift (59), Mike McComish for McCarthy (68), Conor O’Loughlin for Murphy (69). Not used: Adrian Flavin.
TOULON: Luke Rooney; Gabiriele Lovobalavu, Mafileo Kefu, Tom May, Clement Marienval; Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Henjak (capt); Saimone Taumoepeau, Philip Fitzgerald, Tonga Lea’aetoa, Jocelino Suta, Esteban Lozada, Joe van Niekerk, Thomas Sourice, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.
Replacements used: Sebastien Bruno for Fitzgerald, Olivier Missoup for Sourice (both 55 mins), Sonny Bill Williams for Wilkinson (58), Benjamin Basteres for Taumoepeau (59), Tim Ryan for Lea’aetoa, Kris Chesney for Lozada (both 64), Pierre Mignoni for Henjak (68), Fotunuupul Auelua for Fernandez Lobbe (79).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)