Fullback Leigh Halfpenny scored 21 points as Toulon defeated Castres 26-22 in their Top 14 qualifier playoff at the Stade Mayol on Friday.
Competing for a spot in the semi-finals, where La Rochelle and Clermont await, Toulon had to grind out this victory against a plucky Castres side.
In a lively start to a game filled with intensity, both sides were on the board within five minutes as two of the competition’s finest sharpshooters, Halfpenny and Ben Urdapilleta, traded penalties, but it would be Toulon who struck again, this time collecting maximum points. Flyhalf François Trinh-Duc came up with a brilliant pass for loosehead prop Laurent Delboulbès to score.
Urdapilleta added two more penalties, but another from the boot of Halfpenny gave the hosts a 13-9 lead at the interval.
A rejuvenated Castres returned for the second half and it didn’t take long for them to overturn the deficit. Despite having a try disallowed in the 48th minute, Castres moved to within a point of Toulon’s tally with a fourth penalty, as a result of Liam Gill’s high tackle on scrumhalf Rory Kockott.
Toulon continued to press the self-destruct button, with Drew Mitchell the guilty party. With Castres hot on attack and Toulon’s defence at sixes and sevens, the winger deliberately slapped the ball down, leaving the referee with no choice but to award a penalty try.
With his team suddenly trailing, Halfpenny proved his worth with a brilliant five-minute spell, in which he first narrowed the gap with a third penalty, before running in a self-converted try to put Toulon back in the ascendancy at 23-19.
The kickers exchanged penalties once more to set up a frenetic finish, but in the end the night belonged to Halfpenny and Toulon, who survived a late onslaught to advance to the last four.
Toulon – Tries: Laurent Delboulbès, Leigh Halfpenny. Conversions: Halfpenny (2). Penalties: Halfpenny (4).
Castres – Try: Penalty try. Conversion: Ben Urdapilleta. Penalties: Urdapilleta (5).
Toulon – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Josua Tuisova, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 François Trinh-Duc, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Romain Taofifenua, 4 Juandré Kruger, 3 Marcel van der Merwe, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Laurent Delboulbès.
Subs: 16 Anthony Étrillard, 17 Xavier Chiocci, 18 Mamuka Gorgodze, 19 Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, 20 Anthony Belleau, 21 James O’Connor, 22 Eric Escande, 23 Levan Chilachava.
Castres – 15 Pierre Berard, 14 Julien Caminati, 13 Thomas Combezou, 12 Robert Ebersohn, 11 David Smith, 10 Benjamin Urdapilleta, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Maama Vaipulu, 7 Anthony Jelonch, 6 Yannick Caballero, 5 Rodrigo Capo Ortega, 4 Loic Jacquet, 3 Damien Tussac, 2 Brice Mach, 1 Antoine Tichit.
Subs: 16 Jody Jenneker, 17 Tudor Stroe, 18 Victor Moreaux, 19 Steve Mafi, 20 Antoine Dupont, 21 Afusipa Taumoepeau, 22 Julien Dumora, 23 Yohann Montes.
Photo: Guillaume Ruoppolo/Getty Images