Anthony Belleau slotted a last-minute drop goal as Toulon claimed a dramatic 18-15 win against La Rochelle to book their place in the Top 14 final.
With the scores locked at 15-15, and La Rochelle down to 14 men having received a 52nd-minute red card, Toulon attacked the line, but failed to find a way through the hosts’ resistant defence. The young flyhalf, who has been used as a bit-part player throughout the campaign, as he is behind François Trinh-Duc and Matt Giteau in the pecking order, then made the decision to fall back and go for the drop goal to send Toulon into yet another final.
La Rochelle, with Paul Jordaan and Ricky Januarie in their ranks, had been the form team in the competition and finished top of the log after the regular season. During the 26-game round-robin phase, they chalked up the most wins (17), the least number of defeats (six) and boasted the best defence, having conceded only 498 points (the only team to have leaked fewer than 500). Additionally, they were undefeated at home in the Top 14 this season.
In stark contrast, Toulon finished sixth on the table, 16 log points adrift of La Rochelle. Captain Duane Vermeulen’s star-studded team scraped past Castres 26-22 in their qualifier playoff last week to reach the semi-finals and were underdogs in this match against La Rochelle. However, Toulon managed to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the competition this year.
Flyhalf Brock James opened the scoring with a drop goal and a penalty, but Leigh Halfpenny responded with two penalties to level matters. James, however, had the final say of the half with another penalty that gave La Rochelle a 9-6 lead.
Five minutes into the second half, Toulon’s ill-discipline cost them again, as James slotted two more penalties to extend his team’s advantage to 15-6. But with his team seemingly in control, outside centre Pierre Aguillon recklessly tackled James O’Connor and drove him head first into the ground. He was given his marching orders.
Toulon controlled possession and camped inside La Rochelle’s half. Halfpenny chipped away at the scoreboard and three penalties later the teams were level at 15-15. With the clock winding down, Toulon had one last attacking opportunity, but Belleau left nothing to chance, stepping up to slot the match-winning drop goal.
La Rochelle – Penalties: Brock James (4). Drop goal: James.
Toulon – Penalties: Leigh Halfpenny (5). Drop goal: Anthony Belleau.
La Rochelle – 15 Kimi Murimurivalu, 14 Gabriel Lacroix, 13 Pierre Aguillon, 12 Paul Jordaan, 11 Vincent Rattez, 10 Brock James, 9 Arthur Retière, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Kévin Gourdon, 6 Levani Botia, 5 Leandro Cedaro, 4 Damien Lagrange, 3 Uini Atonio (c), 2 Jérémie Maurouard, 1 Vincen Pelo.
Subs: 16 Hikairo Forbes, 17 Mike Corbel, 18 Jone Qovu, 19 Romain Sazy, 20 Enrico Januarie, 21 Zack Holmes, 22 Steeve Barry, 23 Mohamed Boughanmi.
Toulon – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Josua Tuisova, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 James O’Connor, 11 Drew Mitchell, 10 Anthony Belleau, Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Duane Vermeulen (c), 7 Liam Gill, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Romain Taofifenua, 4 Juandré Kruger, 3 Marcel Van der Merwe, 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Florian Fresia.
Subs: 16 Anthony Etrillard, 17 Xavier Chiocci, 18 Mamuka Gorgodze, 19 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 20 Jimmy Yobo, 21 Matt Giteau, 22 Eric Escande, 23 Emerick Setiano.
Photo: Franck Pennant/Getty Images