All Blacks great Tana Umaga returned to action for the first time in 18 months on Friday, but the veteran center was unable to halt Toulon’s worrying slide towards relegation from the French top flight.
Stade Francais beat Umaga’s struggling big-spenders 22-12 to move to the summit of the Top 14 table ahead of Toulouse’s clash with Clermont today.
Toulon manager Umaga, 35, was playing his first match since August 2007, when he featured for Wellington, but he struggled to impose himself and was replaced after 50 minutes with his side trailing 16-0.
Ironically, it was his replacement, Fijian center Gabiriele Lovobalavu, who shone by playing crucial roles in Toulon’s two second-half tries.
First, he broke the Stade line to set-up Tongan prop Saimone Taumoepeau to score midway through the second period.
He then released winger Martin Jagr who scored a memorable try in the closing minutes. The Czech flyer collected Lovobalavu’s pass, chipped ahead and caught his own kick to sprint into the corner to reduce the deficit to 22-12.
By that time, however, Stade had wrapped up the game.
“It was tough, but I enjoyed it,” ex-All Blacks skipper Umaga said. “My main goal was not to let my teammates down.”
Stade had cruised to a 13-0 lead at the interval with French fly-half Lionel Beauxis, the architect of his country’s Six Nations win over Scotland last weekend, kicking an early penalty and drop goal for a 6-0 lead.
Stade scored their only try in the 23rd minute when centre Mathieu Bastareaud finished off a fine three-man move, which had involved Beauxis and Aussie Rugby League convert Mark Gasnier, and which had also left Umaga on the floor as he tried desperately to stall the advance.
“I made an error and Gasnier swerved inside, showing what a class player he is and they scored,” Umaga said.
Beauxis added the conversion for a 13-0 first half lead which soon became 16-0 with another Beauxis penalty early in the second period.
The French international fly-half then left the field because of injury and his absence affected Stade’s shape, which allowed Toulon to enjoy their late flurry of points.
It was later revealed that Beauxis could miss France’s Six Nations match with defending champions Wales next Friday.
Beauxis had not been scheduled to play against Toulon, as he was carrying a calf injury, but he was called up at the last minute when Argentine stand-off Juan Martin Hernandez cried off because of a fever.
“Lionel suffered a pelvic injury. We are sorry for the French team, he shouldn’t have played but we didn’t have another number 10,” Stade’s assistant coach Christophe Dominici said.
On the plus side for Stade, they welcomed back international lock forward Pascal Pape for the first time in eight months after he suffered ligament damage to his right knee.