Matt Giteau of Toulon races between Mark Bennett and Alex Dunba
Two tries apiece from Matt Giteau and Maxime Mermoz gave Toulon the perfect start to their defence of the Heinekein Cup, but the holders were made to work hard for their 51-28 victory over Glasgow Warriors at the Stade Felix Mayol.
In what was more akin to an exhibition game than an opening pool fixture of the premier club tournament, Toulon withstood a brave fight-back from the early pace-setters of the Pro 12 league to provide a big statement to the rest of Europe.
Only two sides have successfully retained the cup – Leinster and Leicester – but with a display as dominant as that in the first period, few could dismiss their title credentials once more, in what is incredibly only their third appearance in the tournament.
Many had feared that there would be a gulf in class between these two sides, but it was Glasgow who were denied the lead after a blistering start.
Control and precision were missing in the Toulon midfield, and a searing break from his own half by Niko Matawalu coupled with exceptional footwork enabled the Fijian international to place the ball over the line. A knock-on in the turn-over kept the score at 0-0.
It was the wake-up call that Toulon needed. Minutes later, Glasgow were penalised at the scrum, and Jonny Wilkinson duly knocked over the penalty.
Keen to put to bed early handling errors, the hosts then ran over a superb team try that had the watching public out of their seats.
A wonderful take from Wilkinson and backhand skill from Matt Giteau allowed Delon Armitage to have time and space to cross over in the corner. Wilkinson converted from out wide to give the Toulon a 10-0 lead, with 10 minutes gone.
Try number two was not long in coming, in spite of a suspected final forward pass. Sublime handling down the right from Giteau following a great turn of pace from Joe van Niekerk, resulted in Maxime Mermoz being on hand to receive the decisive pass before going over.
Toulon were swiftly moving through the gears by now, and it was proving difficult for Glasgow to claw themselves back into the game, with so much defending sapping their strength. By contrast, the reigning champions were clearly enjoying themselves, and it was the turn of the forwards to display their prowess.
Juan Fernandez Lobbe won a line-out, and Glasgow were unable to prevent a maul being created. Joe Masoe led the shove, and it was he who carried the ball over the line to stretch the home side’s advantage.
A bruised Glasgow appeared bereft of ideas, as the intensity of Toulon’s play coupled with the warm weather left the Warriors shell-shocked. They were made to look a shadow of the side that has taken their domestic league by storm with an immaculate record to date.
The Glasgow midfield were being out-muscled and out-thought by a sea of red, and another maul saw Claarsens break from the back to tee up Michalak, who in turn invited Mermoz to go over for his second try of the match.
The home supporters were throwing newspaper around in the stands. Glasgow must have thought of throwing in the towel. It was ruthless, it was unrelenting.
Without a platform, there was little for Strauss and company to play off, and holding on in the breakdown presented the hosts with another three points from in front of the posts for Michalak, who replaced Johnny Wilkinson following a hand injury.
The half-time whistle was welcomed by the valiant visitors, as Gregor Townsend set about instilling belief back into his group, having been brutally outclassed in every department.
At 34-0, and with the all-important bonus point secured, the holders were keen to build on their unassailable lead with a second-half performance that would lay down a marker to the remaining pool teams.
There is a great belief in the Glasgow squad, however, as seen throughout the early weeks of the Pro 12 season, and it was they who drew first blood in the second period. Having been denied an early try in the first half, their early endeavour at the start of the second was this time rewarded.
A weak pass from Lobbe was intercepted by Mark Bennett, and as a gap opened up, greater care with the ball left Danie Rossouw powerless to prevent replacement DTH van der Merwe from going through under the posts.
It was much better from Glasgow, and with greater urgency, the Warriors frantically searched to convert their early second-half pressure into a second try. Better composure and discipline from Maitland and Grant may have resulted in another score, but having absorbed the onslaught, a heavily-reshuffled Toulon were soon back in their stride and celebrating their firth try.
Superb speed at the breakdown saw Jackson and Dunbar lose their men in the midfield, and Giteau, who’d moved into number ten, found plenty of space to go through and score. Michalak added the extras to reopen the 34-point lead.
Such a deficit was short-lived, however, as through a combination of vision and pace, Ruaridh Jackson managed to skip a couple of tackles before finding Matawalu back inside to give the visitors a second try.
It was to Glasgow’s credit that they were starting to make a game of the second half, and they were soon sensing at least a losing bonus point, as Jonny Gray received a pass from Ed Kalman to reduce the arrears to 41-21.
What had begun as a show of immense pride was threatening to become a bit more than that, as a 20-point margin was soon reduced to 13.
Further intricate passing in the midfield saw van der Merwe go over for his second try, and Glasgow’s fourth in 23 minutes. It signalled at least a losing bonus point, which had looked extremely unlikely at the interval.
Glasgow’s buoyancy was checked by a penalty that enabled Michalak to keep the score ticking over for the home side. It would prove to be the decisive moment in taking the sting out of the visitors’ courageous efforts, and the last word was reserved for Giteau, who rounded off an impressive individual performance with a second try of his own.
Toulon is more than picking up a big pay cheque at the end of one’s career – it’s about winning trophies. On this evidence, it would appear they are ready to mount a serious defence of their crown as European champions.