Former England great Jonny Wilkinson guaranteed Heineken Cup holders Toulon what could be a crucial bonus point when he scored their fourth try in a 32-20 win over English side Exeter on Saturday in their Pool 2 clash.
The 34-year-old former England fly-half came on with just more than 20 minutes remaining and the match evenly balanced at 18-13 in Toulon’s favor, but took the game away from his compatriots by creating and scoring a try.
Toulon, who lead the Cardiff Blues by two points ahead of the pair’s decisive meeting in the south of France early next month, had got off to a good start.
A swift passing movement down the blindside set up David Smith for their first try in the 12th minute.
Exeter struck back after stealing a Toulon line-out, with Don Armand touching down and Henry Slade converting for a 7-5 lead in the 19th minute.
Matt Giteau, who was selected ahead of Wilkinson, created Smith’s second try and then landed his first kick of the day for 12-7.
He and Slade swapped a pair of penalties each before Wilkinson was sent on by coach Bernard Laporte just before the hour mark.
That paid off almost immediately as Wilkinson produced a great offload to Drew Mitchell to set up their third try with 15 minutes left, with replacement prop Xavier Chiocci eventually crashing over.
Toulon supporters showered the ground with paper in celebration when Wilkinson touched down under the posts to give the hosts a bonus point and Giteau added his third conversion.
Exeter got a consolation try two minutes from time as Ben White went over with Ceri Sweeney adding the extras.
“We took more than an hour to get the better of an Exeter side that was dangerous and came to play expansive rugby,” Laporte said.
Clermont, the side Toulon beat in last season’s Heineken Cup final, look set for the knockout stages after thumping Llanelli Scarlets 31-13 in Pool 4, taking a bonus point to boot with Fiji star Napolioni Nalagi scoring two of their four tries.
Record four-time champions Toulouse bounced back from their shock 16-14 home defeat to Connacht on Dec. 8 to stay top of Pool 3 by winning the reverse fixture 37-9, scoring five tries to earn the bonus point.
The in puts them level on points with Saracens, who ran in nine tries in a 64-3 crushing of a hapless Zebre, with the two giants meeting in the south of France in the decisive match in four weeks’ time.
Jamie Elliott scored a length of the field breakaway try to deny Leinster a defensive bonus point as Northampton kept their knock-out hopes alive with a dogged 18-9 win in Ireland.
With the score at 13-9 and time up, Leinster were banging on the door looking for a winning try, but Elliott picked up a fumble and sprinted 90 yards to score.
It was a remarkable turnaround for the English side — for whom Wales wing George North also scored a try -— as they were thumped 40-7 at home by the Irish province on Dec. 7.
Leinster still lead Pool 1, but Northampton are second, four points back.
Unbeaten Ulster, in control of Pool 5, overcame foggy conditions to thump Treviso 35-3, although they had to wait until the 77th for the bonus point as fullback Jared Payne scored their fourth try.
Munster won in far different circumstances, relying on a try by JJ Hanrahan after the buzzer to edge past Perpignan 18-17 in France, ensuring that they will finish the weekend top of Pool 6.