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Wilkinson the difference as Toulon down the Exiles

12 Dec 2010
Wilkinson the difference as Toulon down the Exiles

Jonny Wilkinson inflicted more misery on London Irish as he guided Toulon to a Heineken Cup victory at the Madejski Stadium.

The England fly-half kicked four penalties and a conversion to Rudi Wulf's brilliantly executed try as Toulon condemned Irish to a sixth straight defeat. Toby Booth's side had reduced the arrears to 13-10 with a try from Delon Armitage and a Ryan Lamb penalty but in the end they had to settle for a losing bonus point.

Irish are not out of the qualification hunt yet – but they will need to end their losing run in the south of France next weekend, which will be a tall order.

Toulon should have won far more comfortably having wasted three try-scoring opportunities. Wilkinson was making his second appearance after recovering from the shoulder injury which kept him out of England's autumn international plans.

A third of Toulon's side were English, with Wilkinson joined by former London Irish wing Paul Sackey, the flanker Joe El Abd plus ex-Sale second row pairing Kris Chesney and Dean Schofield. Irish started with destructive Samoan wing Sailosi Tagicakibau for the first time since October, while Jonathan Joseph, Bob Casey and James Buckland were all included following last week's defeat at Leicester.

It was Buckland's tackle from behind that denied Wilkinson an early try after he chased on to Pierre Mignoni's chip forward. Frustratingly for Wilkinson, the ball stood up too high and the split second it took to gather and bring it down was enough for Buckland to tackle him and force the ball loose.

But Toulon kept the pressure on and won two penalties in quick succession, which Wilkinson kicked to edge the big-spending French side ahead. The Toulon captain and number eight Joe Van Niekerk was the outstanding player on the field and his arcing 50-metre break almost led to the opening try.

Van Niekerk split the Irish defence and then floated a pass over the top for Sackey but the move broke down when El Abd spilled a simple pass. He was not the last to do so from either side. Indeed, from the next handling error Toulon pounced to finally score the opening try they deserved.

Wilkinson seized possession from Seilala Mapasua's mistake and from there Toulon counter-attacked with precision. The ball was moved wide for Van Niekerk, who linked first with Gabiriele Lovobalavu and then former New Zealand wing Wulf, who streaked clear to touch down under the posts.

Lamb, who missed an early penalty shot at goal, then failed to find touch on successive occasions and Irish were almost punished again. But Tagicakibau snatched a vital interception from Messina's inside pass to deny Toulon a try-scoring opportunity and instead transform it into one for the Exiles.

The Samoan powerhouse carried the ball up to halfway before slipping a delightful one-handed off-load to Chris Hala'ufia, who in turn fed Elvis Seveali'i. Jonathan Joseph carried the attack down the right wing and then popped a pass off the ground for Delon Armitage, who kicked ahead and won the footrace to touch down.

Lamb's touchline conversion reduced Toulon's lead to 13-7 at the interval. The visitors were unfortunate not to have been given a penalty try early in the second half when Sackey was taken out by Paul Hodgson as he chased down Lovobalavu's grubber kick.

The bounce of the ball defeated Hodgson and, with the ball crossing the line, all Sackey had to do was regather to score but he was brought down by the England scrum-half. Referee Nigel Owens decided to play on and Irish did their best to cash in on their good fortune, with centres Mapusua and Seveali'i both forcing stiff defence from Wilkinson.

Steffon Armitage just failed to pick out Tagicakibau with a try begging and they had to settle eventually for another Lamb penalty.

Lamb missed the chance to draw Irish level but they stayed in the game after Toulon butchered a golden try-scoring opportunity. Messina kicked ahead and regathered the ball on the Irish line. All he had to do was roll over to score but instead he threw a loose pass off the deck and Steffon Armitage cleaned up for Irish.

Reliable Wilkinson struck two more penalties to secure Toulon the victory but they could not kill off Irish. Lovobalavu blocked Mapasua's clearance and fed replacement Laurent Magnaval but Wulf, under pressure from George Stowers, could not hold on and the ball went forward as he crossed the line.

Those wasted tries proved key – not to the result but for Irish, who snatched a losing bonus point with a late penalty from Dan Bowden.

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