Toulon 28 Scarlets 18: Three talking points
Three talking points as European champions open their title defence with another victory at the Mayol
Champions fail to impress on first showing
The reigning double European champions may have won at the Mayol, but it was another underwhelming performance from European rugby’s equivalent of the Galácticos after their recent outings against Oyonnax and Toulouse in the Top 14. The Toulon of old would have secured the bonus-point win they expected to get against the Scarlets, but it never looked like coming today despite plenty of chances. Part of that may be the lack of Jonny Wilkinson’s leadership and ability to control games with territorial kicking now their former captain has retired and now patrols the training paddock as kicking coach to two players in Matt Giteau and Leigh Halfpenny, who don’t really need much advice in that area, but they have scores of caps and plenty of international experience throughout their 23 which should have steamrolled the Welsh region. The real issue may be the lack of a second playmaker which was so effective when Wilkinson and Giteau were at 10 and 12. Giteau is a decent option at outside-half, but Maxime Mermoz doesn’t offer the same attacking threat from midfield, despite weapons like David Smith, Bryan Habana and Halfpenny in the back three. With tougher tests to come against Leicester Tigers and Ulster and bonus points crucial in the race to finish top of this pool, Bernard Laporte will see this as one point lost rather than four points gained.
Scarlets lose but survive Mayol experience
Head coach Wayne Pivac will be delighted to leave the Côte d’Azur with the performance his team showed. They leave with no points, but that was to be expected. It was the manner of the performance against Europe’s best in their Mayol fortress which doesn’t see European defeats that will please him most. The Scarlets scored two tries, survived 20 minutes with 14 men, and suffered a number of injuries to key personnel during the tough encounter. Captain Scott Williams had another impressive game for the West Walians at inside centre and was notable in disrupting the Toulon attack in the first half, securing several turnovers. It was an area the Scarlets impressed in throughout the game, but questions remain around their discipline as Johan Snyman and Emyr Phillips saw yellow, while there were numerous needless penalties conceded, particularly in the second half. If ever there was a chance for an underdog to get a win at the Mayol, it would have been today. The Scarlets were far from outplayed. In all likelihood, they won’t get out of the pool, but they can take confidence from performances like this when they return to the Guinness PRO12 at the end of the month.
Armitage scores after on-off transfer
At the beginning of the week, the European player of the year was heading back to England with Bath to keep alive his dream of playing in next year’s Rugby World Cup. By Tuesday afternoon, the deal was off with the Rugby Football Union refusing to pay £240,000 to the French club and Armitage was named in the Toulon squad for this weekend. Fast-forward through mixed signals from Toulon’s coaching team and owner through the rest of the week and the wrecking ball flanker not only started for Toulon – making him ineligible to play for another club in the Champions Cup – but also scored their third try late in the second half, sending another unwelcome reminder to England head coach Stuart Lancaster of how useful he could be to him in a year’s time. It was a script waiting to happen at the end of a difficult week for the 29-year-old. He may still make a loan move to the Aviva Premiership later in the season, or even be released for all of England’s training camps and RWC warm-up matches next summer. Whether that happens remains to be seen – Toulon’s management are known for their bluster. Until then, the player admits to being happy in Toulon and doing well for his team but, as with his effort against the Scarlets, he continues to show that he is capable of doing a job for England, who seem to be doing everything they can not to want him involved.