European champions Toulon kicked off their bid to end a 22-year wait for the Top 14 title with a barely deserved draw at Montpellier on Friday (August 16).
Stade Yves du Manoir was, predictably, packed to the rafters for the opening game of the season and, after a brief delay while the small mystery of the missing match ball was solved, Francois Trinh-Duc kicked off the new season.
Things threatened to go wrong for the big-spending visitors in the third minute when – following a slightly overcooked crossfield kick from Jonny Wilkinson – Montpellier strung together several powerful passages of play before releasing winger Yoan Audrin to score unopposed and with a suitable first-try-of-the-season flourish in the corner.
It took 11 minutes for Toulon to have their first shot at goal – a penalty from just inside the Montpellier half. But Jonny Wilkinson, who this season looks like a leaner, meaner and better-coiffed version of Jon Bon Jovi, dragged his kick wide of the post.
The new scrummaging rules were given a thorough workout in the opening 20 minutes. It’s obviously early days, but – despite lots of huffing and puffing from both packs – they don’t yet seem to have solved the penalty-count problem. Jonathan Pélissié increased Montpellier’s lead to 10-0 following another scrum-related infringement after 23 minutes.
Toulon’s bad night at the office continued when Virgile Bruni was handed the dubious honour of the season’s first yellow card just a minute later for a dangerous tackle.
This setback briefly galvanised the rouge et noir, and they promptly launched their most incisive attack of the match, allowing Wilkinson to cut the deficit with a simple penalty from inside the Montpellier 22.
It didn’t take long for Pélissié to reimpose the host’s 10-point lead, following another penalty from a scrum – though this one was more down to a big effort from their tight five, who made the most of their opponents’ deficiency in numbers.
Toulon thought they had cut the lead with two minutes of the first half remaining when Matt Giteau found Delon Armitage to score under the posts, but the video referee ruled that Wilkinson’s pass to the Australian was – either because or in spite of the rather confusing new rules – forward.
A penalty early in the second half gave Wilkinson another chance to reduce the deficit – and this time he made no mistake.
Montpellier’s new signing – Catalan prop monster Nicolas Mas – made his first competitive appearance for his new club at the same time as Maximiliano Bustos finally succumbed to a knee injury picked up in the first half.
And he had a chance to make an immediate impact, as the hosts won a scrum five metres from the Toulon line. But, despite pounding the Toulon line, Montpellier were unable to find that decisive pass. Instead, try-scorer Audrin knocked on.
But then Mas made his mark. He destroyed Andrew Sheridan in the resulting scrum to win a penalty for his new team. Pélissié was unable to convert, but Mas had proved his point and Sheridan was promptly replaced by Xavier Chiocci in the hope that he could handle the heat in Mas’s kitchen.
Things were getting for Toulon, whose palms have apparently been so generously greased with silver by president Mourad Boudjellal that they could not hold on to the ball. The hosts, on the other hand, were sharper, better prepared and more ready for the fight.
Trinh-Duc made sure Montpellier’s continuing supremacy counted for something by slotting a simple drop goal, as they kept the visitors pinned in their own half.
Not even the arrival of Toulon’s long-haired new signing Martin Castrogiavanni and the almost equally hirsute Pierrick Gunther looked likely to change Toulon’s fortunes. Montpellier were more than a match for them – and as the visitors grew increasingly desperate, so their passes grew wilder and wilder.
Wilkinson closed the gap again with a third penalty to keep Toulon within seven points and therefore pick up a losing bonus point – but the fact the French commentators were talking this way with 20 minutes to play is probably as telling a fact as any match statistic.
But then Trinh-Duc sent the restart out on the full, giving Toulon undeserved new hope.
Not that they could capitalise, as they promptly conceded their sixth scrum-related penalty. It gave replacement scrum half Benoît Paillaugue a long-range chance to increase Montpellier’s lead again. He did not disappoint the fans at Yves du Manoir.
Not even two quick Wilkinson penalties looked likely to alter the fact that Toulon were living on a prayer – until, that is, centre Maxime Mermoz scored an interception try, which Wilkinson duly converted to level the scores.
But the drama was not yet over. WIth two minutes left, Paillaugue had a chance to win the match from 53m. His effort fell well short, and Toulon saw out the remaining few seconds to pick up an generally undeserved draw.
MONTPELLIER 22 (13) – 22 (3) TOULON
Montpellier – Audrin
Toulon – Mermoz
Montpellier – Pélissié
Toulon – Wilkinson
Montpellier Pélissié (2) / Paillaugue (2)
Toulon Wilkinson (5)
Montpellier – Trinh-Duc