Toulon 24 Munster 16
Small margins, they’ll kill you in the end.
This game of inches is tough enough as it is when you get to a Heineken Cup semi-final but as Munster found out in the Marseille sun yesterday, when you make the mistakes they did against an outfit like Toulon, the payback comes in country miles.
Against the defending champions and current French Top 14 leaders, Munster knew they would have to be at their very best at Stade Velodrome. They knew there was no margin for error, no place for inaccuracy, no excuse for indiscipline.
That they committed so many errors in all of those areas and still gave Toulon their toughest test this season, at least according to their vocal owner Mourad Boudjellal, will only make their frustrations at a second successive semi-final exit all the more painful.
So it is Toulon who reach the final in Cardiff on May 24, where they will meet England’s Saracens.
Munster, meanwhile, must ponder yet another case of what might have been.
For Munster head coach Rob Penney it was his last throw of the dice at this level, at least in the immediate future, as he winds down his two-year tenure with the province before leaving for Japan. As Toulon celebrated the 79th minute penalty converted by captain Jonny Wilkinson that put the contest beyond his side’s reach, Penney made his way down from his coaching booth high up in the main stand, watched the action from the top of the stairs for a brief moment and then turned and took a long look around him at the rapturous Toulonnais and the proud and defiant Munster fans amongst them.
It is difficult to imagine him experiencing anything like this passion on and off the pitch when he heads to the Far East and Penney admitted the defeat had left him feeling "very hollow".
"Small margins at this level, small margins," the New Zealander said with a sigh. "Goodness, we just made so many mistakes both sides of the ball. We showed a lot of courage at times to really get back and support each other when they made some breaches on the back of our errors. Our skill level wasn’t where it needed to be."
Despite the sunshine and heat beside the Mediterranean, Penney knew his players would be taken into some dark recesses by this Toulon side and he hoped they would be strong enough mentally to come out the other side. That test they passed, hanging in admirably for much of the first half as they struggled to get a foothold in the game, not helped by referee Wayne Barnes penalising them repeatedly at scrum time to allow Wilkinson rack up the points.
What Penney cannot have bargained for was his players’ poor handling, their inaccuracy at the breakdown and the several instances of brain-freeze that gifted Toulon the initiative over and over again and undermined all their periods of genuine superiority, not least midway through the second half when Simon Zebo grabbed the only try of the game, converted by Ian Keatley, which closed the score to 18-16.
"There were moments where I was really rapt with what we were doing," Penney said. "But they weren’t long enough and we would go three, four or five phases max… some of the individuals were heroic. There were some massive performances out there, but again we made errors."
Munster could have given themselves a dream start when they engineered a scrum in front of the Toulon posts just a couple of minutes in after heavy pressure from Keatley’s kick-off prompted Juan Smith to knock on in contact. The chance was not taken.
Moments later Toulon were awarded a penalty.
Naturally it was Wilkinson who took full advantage, his long-familiar preparation, the cupped hands and left boot cocked, repeatedly leading to punishment for Munster whenever they erred within range of the posts.
Yet Toulon were not running away with this. Keatley cancelled out his opening fifth-minute penalty, the first of six with just one missed, just three minutes later but for every Munster score there were two from Toulon.
Munster looked to have found an inroad just before the half-hour mark as Felix Jones collected his own Garryowen from the grasp of opposite number Delon Armitage, advancing his side to the Toulon 22. Munster recycled efficiently and were on the five-metre line as Conor Murray stooped to collect ruck ball and was kneed in the head by Argentine flanker Juan Fernandez Lobbe.
Lobbe was promptly sin-binned and Keatley’s second penalty of the opening half reduced the deficit to 12-6 on the half-hour, only for Munster to gift further points to the champions from the restart, Wilkinson kicking deep into the left corner, Munster turning it over and a couple of phases later Toulon’s captain was back in the pocket to execute a drop goal.
Keatley again pegged the deficit back but again his side opened the door, the rest of the power play frittered away as Wilkinson and then full-back Armitage from inside his own half gave Toulon an 18-9 half-time lead with his 60-metre penalty kick.
Toulon’s potency was all too clear at the start of the second half, Keith Earls on a forgettable afternoon, seeing his attempted kick through the home line near halfway bounce off Bryan Habana’s shins and the French side quickly countering before only a heroic Zebo tackle on Steffon Armitage sent the Toulon man’s foot into touch a fraction before he planted the ball in the corner.
It was Zebo who fittingly got Munster back within touching distance after Munster finally got their maul going in the 53rd minute, Conor Murray, darting down the blind side and feeding his wing who somehow got through not just Drew Mitchell but also Steffon Armitage to roll his body over the line and touch down, Keatley nailing the touchline conversion.
Munster were finally on the front foot, doubts creeping into the Toulon mindset and when the champions conceded a penalty three minutes later more points for the Irishmen would have turned the tables. Perhaps a kick to the corner would have piled on more pressure, a miss from distance off the tee did not.
Keatley, having to contend with the howls and whistles of the Toulon boo-boys throughout, was not helped by having to regather his thoughts after the ball fell over during his address and his eventual kick sailed wide left of the uprights.
Penney’s side would not score again, Wilkinson would add two more penalties and the small margins added up to an awfully big kick in the teeth for Munster.
TOULON: D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana (D Smith, 48); J Wilkinson (capt.), S Tillous-Borde (M Claassens, 62); X Chiocci (A Menini, 55), C Burden (J-C Orioli, 59), C Hayman (M Castrogiovanni, 76); D Rossouw (K Mikautadze, 62), J Suta (V Bruni, 80), J Smith, J Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage.
Yellow card: Lobbe 29-39.
MUNSTER: F Jones (D Hurley, 72); K Earls, C Laulala, J Downey (JJ Hanrahan, 66), S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne (J Cronin, 66) , D Varley (capt., D Casey, 77), BJ Botha; D Foley (D O’Callaghan, 66), P O’Connell; CJ Stander, S Dougall (T O’Donnell, 56), J Coughlan.
Yellow card: Earls 64-74.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
The scrum penalty given against Munster as they camped on the Toulon line just two minutes in, will go down as one hell of a ‘what if?’ Similarly, Ian Keatley’s long-range penalty as Toulon were rattled after Simon Zebo’s converted try had their lead cut to 18-16. What if that had instead been kicked to the corner and Munster piled on the pressure that way?
For a second year running Munster leave France after a semi-final kicking themselves. Last season in Montpellier against Clermont lack of belief, remedied 20 minutes too late, cost them. This time poor execution, sloppy handling and inaccurate rucking. Either way, another year of hurt.
Mathieu Bastareaud won the official man of the match award but Jonny Wilkinson punished Munster most with his six penalties and one drop goal. For Munster, there were big performances, not least from James Coughlan, and Simon Zebo who saved a try with one of nine tackles and scored the only try.
Wayne Barnes penalised Munster at the scrum three times in the first half denying them the momentum they needed. The English ref could not be faulted for either yellow card: Juan Fernandez Lobbe was lucky, perhaps, not to see red for his knee to Conor Murray’s head while Keith Earls was cynical in taking out David Smith in the second half.
Toulon 8 Munster 12
No obvious injuries for the Munster medical staff to and the province will look to finally get Donnacha Ryan fit.
Quote of the day
"Small margins at this level, small margins. Goodness, we just made so many mistakes both sides of the ball" — Rob Penney
Back to the Rabo for Munster. Toulon are still eyeing a Top 14-European double.
Toulon v Munster: Player ratings
A monster 60-metre penalty gave Toulon a massive lift and a decent cushion at half-time. Kicked usefully in behind Munster as the hosts changed tack in the final quarter. 7
Rarely sighted in attack and didn’t cover himself in glory defensively either, letting Zebo trample over him for a try and making a bad backfield handling error. 5
A constant menace to the Munster midfield, showing his full physical repertoire with big carries, a monster tackle on Jones and winning a couple of penalties in the jackal position. 9
Perhaps not used to his full potential as a distributor, with his half-backs doing most of the donkey work and preferring to pick out Bastareaud. 6
Only fleeting glimpses of what he can do, but he turned heads and would-be tacklers every time he got possession in space with two decent breaks. 8
In his final season, but better than ever. Punished Munster’s disciplinary errors off the tee and knocked over a lovely drop-goal. 8
Moved his monster pack around Stade Velodrome with typical efficiency, but made just a single snipe himself which was shut down by Murray. 6
Forced Botha to the deck under his own posts to win a big early psychological scrum advantage, but the tides turned later on. 6
Must take some of the blame for an indifferent lineout performance from Toulon, but threw his frame around impressively in defence. 7
Seemed to have Kilcoyne in all kinds of trouble early on but Wayne Barnes made a big u-turn regarding that side of the scrum; did well to last for almost all of a bruising contest. 7
Most of his work was confined to the breakdown and the maul, although he nearly got over a second-half try too. 6
Largely freed from any lineout responsibility, he was by far the more conspicuous of the Toulon second rows with some big carries and tackles. 7
Very useful lineout option as Toulon threw to the tail to avoid Paul O’Connell, and epitomised a massive physical effort from the hosts. 6
Juan Fernandez Lobbe
Quite often Burden’s go-to man at the lineout and his link play was very good. The yellow card he copped for "unintentionally" booting Murray in the face didn’t prove decisive. 7
Munster tried to choke tackle him, but Toulon were wise to it and instead formed mauls around him. Nonetheless, a better containment job than Leinster managed. 7
David Smith wielded the greatest influence on the game’s outcome, tempting Keith Earls into an off-the-ball tackle and a yellow card that severely hindered Munster’s hopes of getting back into the game. 7
Ran the ball back from deep effectively on a couple of occasions but Toulon rarely gave him the chance. 6
Found a gap from nowhere to help create a big first-half chance. Ill-advised chip almost led to a try for Armitage before his yellow card and a late knock-on left Munster’s chances dead in the water. 5
A couple of howlers, including one hugely overthrown pass, as he tried to force the game with his rare opportunities on the ball. Has been a superb servant to Munster. 5
His biggest contributions came in defence, with an important ankle tap on Habana as well as stopping Smith close to the Munster line. 6
Another wing to have an eventful afternoon; an offside penalty cost three points but made up for it with a try-saving tackle on Armitage and that try to explode the game into life. 7
The biggest game of his Munster career and he handled it well. Consistent off the tee with just one miss from long range but his decision-making suffered as Munster were forced to chase the game. 7
Now a real leader on this Munster team with a penchant for big-game plays, offloading well in a tight channel for Zebo’s try. Customary excellence in all other facets. 8
He and Hayman had desperate trouble keeping the scrum up on their side, and ended honours even with two penalty concessions each. 7
Fired-up for this one and immensely proud to wear the armband. A couple of tidy turnovers, won a penalty and his darts were good until one costly late overthrow in his own 22. 6
Conceded an early scrum penalty in a great position, but steadied the ship thereafter and put in a decent shift in the loose too. 6
Has grown up massively this year. Shouldered a lot of Munster’s line out responsibility and made some big contributions at maul time as well. 6
Some smooth restart work but otherwise uncharacteristically quiet. Getting isolated on the wing against Habana summed up a tough day. 5
Some statement carries early on and gave his all in the tight exchanges but unable to do enough nullification work at the breakdown. 6
Gave a solid hour of selfless toil, doing everything in his power to nullify the Steffon Armitage threat before making way for Tommy O’Donnell to finish the job. 7
The autumn of his career has proven to be a very productive one. Never shirked the physical challenge and showed his commitment with one brilliant charge-down on Wilkinson. 7
Tommy O’Donnell provided fresh impetus in the back-row battle and Denis Hurley almost had a cameo to forget, risking running the ball back from behind his own line. James Cronin looked a handful too. 7
- by Alan Good