Toulon put their kicking concerns to one side and maximized on a red card to surge to provisional number one spot in the Top 14 with a convincing, bonus-point 53-13 victory over Brive on Friday.
Bernard Laporte’s expensively assembled team put aside last weekend’s defeat by Stade Francais, marked by 20 missed kickable points, to run in eight tries to one against a Brive team that played with 14 men for 53 minutes after Peet Marais’ sending-off for violent play.
“Our state of mind really pleased me,” Laporte said. “The red card helped us, but it was the way we started that really pleased me. It was ridiculous last year [Brive won the corresponding fixture 23-10]. Brive were far superior. It was a non-match for us.”
After a tight opening on Friday, with Toulon’s Delon Armitage and Brive’s Gaetan Germain trading a penalty apiece, the visitors pressed and the English fullback was denied a try by the video referee.
Brive were then guilty of taking their eye off the ball, a fight erupting as Toulon advanced.
As the fisticuffs continued, a kick ahead was gathered by Armitage who crossed just left to the posts.
James O’Connor had the close-range kicking duties in the absence of Frederic Michalak, out for three months for shoulder surgery, and on the same day Jonny Wilkinson categorically confirmed to AFP that he would not be coming out of retirement.
“For me it’s been a very interesting idea to discuss and debate, but I’ve always been quite clear that my time, my career, finished last year and I was very fortunate the way it finished,” Wilkinson said in reference to his leading Toulon to the Top 14 title and defense of their European crown last season.
O’Connor, who will return to Super Rugby in a bid to make the Wallabies squad for next year’s World Cup, calmed Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal’s nerves over his side’s kicking skills with a successful conversion, going on to nail four more.
However, Brive suffered a blow as ex-Natal Sharks lock Marais was red-carded for targeting a Toulon player with his elbow in the earlier blow-up, putting the home side down to 14 men in the 26th minute.
Toulon delivered a hammerblow in the next six minutes — first former All Black back Rudi Wulf and then Australian winger Drew Mitchell crossing for tries in quick succession, with O’Connor converting both to stretch the lead to 22-3.
However, all was not lost for Brive, who grabbed a pushover try through Fijian journeyman Sisa Koyamaibole thanks to their combative pack, Germain converting and then hitting a 50-meter penalty to leave it 22-13 at half-time.
Germain missed a similar effort early in the second period, Toulon quickly maximizing with a fourth try through France international center Maxime Mermoz for an attacking bonus point, converted by O’Connor.
Armitage, whose brother and Toulon flanker Steffon was named in Philippe Saint-Andre’s extended pre-World Cup France squad as a player who could potentially qualify for France despite having won five caps for England, crossed for his second try soon after.
With a 14-man Brive at sixes and sevens, scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde notched up Toulon’s sixth try from close range, with 20 long minutes still to play.
Replacements disrupted the rhythm somewhat, but Wulf grabbed his second and third tries for a slick hat-trick and ensured Toulon went into the weekend atop the Top 14.
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