JONNY WILKINSON GUARANTEED holders Toulon a crucial bonus point as he scored their fourth try in a 32-20 win over English side Exeter in their Pool 2 clash today.
The 34-year-old former England fly-half came on with just over 20 minutes remaining and the match evenly-balanced at 18-13 in Toulon’s favour, but took the game away from his compatriots creating a try and then scoring one himself.
Toulon, who lead Cardiff Blues by two points ahead of the pair’s decisive meeting in the south of France in early January, had got off to a good start.
A swift passing movement down the blindside involving Matt Giteau, Alexis Palisson and Maxime Mermoz released David Smith down the left wing and he finished it off in style for their first try in the 12th minute.
Exter, though, struck back as they won a Toulon line-out and got the ball out to the left wing where Tom James beat Palisson’s high tackle and then broke Drew Mitchell’s tackle before handing off to Don Armand, who brushed aside Sebastien Tillous-Borde to touch down — Henry Slade converted for a 7-5 lead in the 19th minute.
Palisson had to go off with what looked like a dislocated left shoulder, team-mate Chris Masoe had departed a few minutes earlier, and was replaced by Delon Armitage. Giteau — who was selected ahead of Wilkinson — subsequently missed a relatively easy penalty but redeemed himself by creating Smith’s second try, although there was a suspicion of his decisive pass being forward.
Nevertheless the try was awarded after a video review and Giteau landed his first kick of the day for 12-7.
He added a penalty shortly before half-time but Slade replied for Exeter with one of his own to leave the visitors only 15-10 down at the break — alarmingly for Toulon the boos rang out as they walked off.
Giteau and Slade exchanged penalties in the opening 16 minutes of the second-half to leave the game finely-balanced but to the home supporters’ relief Wilkinson was sent on by Bernard Laporte just before the hour mark.
That paid off almost immediately as he produced a great offload to Mitchell to set up their third try with 15 minutes remaining, the Australian fullback breaking Slade’s tackle before coming to ground five metres out — but the ball was worked out to replacement prop Xavier Chiocci who crashed over.
Giteau added the extra points to give Toulon a 25-13 lead.
Toulon supporters showered the ground with paper in celebration when Wilkinson touched down under the posts to give the hosts a bonus point and Giteau added the conversion for 32-13.
Exeter got a consolation try two minutes from time as Ben White went over with Ceri Sweeney adding the extras.
“We took more than an hour to get the better of an Exeter side that was dangerous and came to play expansive rugby,” said Toulon head coach Bernard Laporte.
“I am proud of how my team reacted to the tough challenge and of its effectiveness. We were clinical when we got into their half in the second period.”
Clermont, the side Toulon beat in the European Cup final, look set for the knockout stages after thumping Llanelli Scarlets 31-13 in Pool 4, taking a bonus point to boot with Fijian star Napolioni Nalagi scoring two of their four tries.
In England, Saracens overpowereed Zebre with nine tries from eight different scorers in a 64 – 3 thrashing for the Italian side.
Centre Duncan Taylor was the only player to score two tries, while out-half Owen Farrell contributed eight conversions and a penalty.