Despite Toulon holding just a 6-3 lead going into first-half injury time, it was men against boys with the visitors not having really gone through all the gears in their turbo-charged set-up.
The French lost influential Puma flanker Juan Fernandez Lobbe after only two minutes but were still able to send on Springbok behemoth Juan Smith as a replacement while Ulster had Cork-born back-row novice Clive Ross on the bench!
Matt Giteau also limped off before the half hour, but fellow Australian international James O’Connor was on hand to step into the fly-half role. With Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams also warming the bench for Toulon, the yawning gap in both sheer physical class and financial muscle was ever so evident.
Ulster head coach Neil Doak and skipper Rory Best attempted to put a brave face on things, but their body language said it all: “For over 38 minutes we were in the game at 6-3 down, but we shipped 10 points before half-time,” said Doak. “We would have been only too glad to go in at half-time trailing by three points.”
True, Ulster were frustrating Toulon with some busy defensive tackling. But Leigh Halfpenny’s third penalty of the half and his conversion of Bryan Habana’s exquisite injury-time try only partly illustrated the gap between the sides.
That try came minutes after a disallowed effort by Delon Armitage which had similar beginnings. Steffon Armitage and the beefy Mathieu Bastareaud made the hard yards and then man-of-the-match Chris Masoe produced a wonderful pass to put Habana in at the corner.
Best explained that they had lost the collision battle to a very intelligent side: “They destroyed us at the breakdown,” said a disappointed Best. “It was something we’ve talked about and we’ve been pretty good at the breakdown this season.
“Masoe and Armitage were really over the ball all day and we couldn’t get any kind of ball, let alone quick ball.
Doak agreed: “We did turn over the ball a few times at the breakdown and it is something we talked about if we want to play with a tempo. The breakdown is key to our game and it’s has to be sharp, but today we certainly weren’t accurate as we could have been.”
A second Paddy Jackson penalty seven minutes after the restart did give Ulster some heart, but it was a false hope. The crowd of nearly 17,000 were enraged when young Stuart Olding had to leave the field after apparently receiving a kick on the back of the head from lock Jocelino Suta. Accidental or just careless, the citing officer will surely have a look.
But the real game-changer came when winger Armitage did get his try and Toulon’s second, in the 59th minute.
It was a devastating blow for Ulster who were on the attack when replacement Nick Williams attempted an overhead pass to his outside backs, but the England international stepped in to intercept and sprint unopposed under the posts. At 23-6, that was that.
Ulster did pile on the pressure at the end and rejuvenated winger Craig Gilroy scored an excellent try converted by Jackson three minutes from time.
Replacement Ian Humphreys attempted a long-range penalty with the last kick of the game in the search for a bonus point, but the ball dropped short. End of story, end of Ulster’s European hopes.
Scorers for Ulster: Try: Gilroy; Pens: Jackson 2; Con: Jackson
Scorers for Toulon: Tries: Habana, D Armitage; Pens: Halfpenny 3; Con: Halfpenny 2
ULSTER: L Ludik (Humphreys, 66); T Bowe, J Payne, S Olding (Cave, 49), C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall (Heaney, 78); A Warwick (Black, 54), R Best (capt) (Herring, 77), W Herbst (Fitzpatrick, 68), L Stevenson (Williams, 54), F vd Merwe, R Diack, C Henry, R Wilson (Ross, 77).
TOULON: L Halfpenny; D Armitage, M Bastareaud, M Mermoz, B Habana; M Giteau (O’Connor, 28), M Claassens; A Menini (Barcella, 61), G Guirado (Burden, 69), C Hayman, capt, (Chilachava, 50), J Suta (Botha, 50), R Taofifenua, J Lobbe (Smith, 2), S Armitage, C Masoe.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU).