GLASGOW’S European campaign came to another gutsy and emotional conclusion at the weekend as they proved they could live with Europe’s elite, if not quite beat them.
Glasgow 8-15 Toulon
Scorers: Glasgow: Try: Fusaro. Pens: Jackson. Toulon: Pens: Wilkinson 5.
But for all that this bristling performance against the Jonny Wilkinson-led Heineken Cup champions restored pride, this was not where the Warriors’ European campaign was ruined.
Toulon, with their near £20m budget to Glasgow’s £5m, were not the team the Scots had to beat. Cardiff and Exeter were those plucked out of the hat that provided real hope that Glasgow could claim a first-ever qualification for the last eight. They claimed eight points from a possible ten against the Aviva Premiership side, so that was mission accomplished, but took just one from two games with the struggling Welsh team.
Glasgow’s captain Chris Fusaro led by example on Saturday with a towering performance and scored a try with 13 minutes remaining to bring Scotstoun back to life and breathe new hope into his charges.
But he appeared to speak to the media more than half an hour after the final whistle, his left eyelid still dripping with blood and the rest of his face covered in mud, and what expression remained visible as downbeat as it gets.
“When we saw our group at the start of the season we saw it as a massive opportunity to qualify for Europe but now when you look back you have to say we were disappointed with our performances.
“In the last two games [win away to Exeter and narrow defeat to Toulon] we’ve righted them slightly as well. We still have work to do in terms of finishing things off but we definitely showed a lot more heart and I am happy with that.
“But the defeat was hard to take and the dressing room was really low. There was a lot of emotion in there and we wanted to do something special to mark Ruaridh Jackson’s and James Eddie’s 100 caps, so coming back in off a loss makes it harder to take.
“We were unluckly at the scrums and gave away a few penalties, and that kept them in the game and Jonny Wilkinson punished us for doing that.
“We felt we were in the ascendency near the end and we had the lion’s share of possession going into the last ten minutes, but did not quite make it.
“Gregor Townsend] talks about it a lot, but when we get into the 22 we have to have that focus and be more clinical to take opportunities, and not give the ball away easily; not forcing offloads, but building pressure. We showed that late on against Toulon where we built the pressure on them.”
That was a good summation of this final pool game. When Stuart Hogg, the Glasgow full-back, took off on a mazy run which sliced open the Toulon defence, the pack rumbled and knocked their opposite numbers back and Wilkinson missed his first kick at goal, there was a positive vibe around the stadium. The ferocity with which the home forwards attacked the breakdown, regularly winning the early battles, led with ball in hand – Leone Nakawara, Tim Swinson and Ryan Wilson especially punchy – and the tempo and dynamism of the back line led well by Jackson was impressive, and showed lessons had been learned from the first half disaster in Toulon in October.
The rain appeared too and the combination of that and Glasgow’s powerful body-on-the-line defence ensured that any thoughts the French visitors had of giving vent to their home style of flowing rugby played second fiddle to getting points on the board. They had their chance in the third quarter when the Toulon scrum – anchored by All Black Carl Hayman and England man mountain Andrew Sheridan – started to get on top and penalties were yielded, allowing Wilkinson to stretch the advantage from 6-3 at half-time to a morale-sapping 15-3.
Hogg was unlucky with a kick from his 22 that seemed bound for the corner flag and a lineout five metres from the Toulon line, but was blown further and dead, resulting in a scrum and penalty which Wilkinson turned into three points.
It came down to an exciting denouement in which Glasgow seized possession and held it, building momentum through the last quarter to a tremendous crescendo.
Toulon lost scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde to a yellow card for checking Alex Dunbar’s run, but Duncan Weir, just on for Jackson, kicked the penalty dead, and then Niko Matawalu was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on. But, then, in the 67th minute, Fusaro pounced over a ruck on the Toulon line to touch down and Scotstoun roared. Former flanker Richie Vernon came on for his first appearance at outside centre and made a stunning break from deep in his half, but could not find Hogg with a pass, and then a coruscating finale ended with Weir kicking the ball into the Toupon 22 and it being cleared to touch.
It highlighted the difference between these teams. Experience versus inexperience, chances taken versus chances missed and, for Glasgow, another European campaign that has to fall into the learning category.
Glasgow: Hogg, Maitland, S. Lamont, Dunbar, Matawalu, Jackson, Pyrgos, Grant, MacArthur, Low, Nakarawa, Swinson, Eddie,
Fusaro, Wilson. Subs: Vernon for Matawalu (67), Weir for Jackson (52), Cusiter for Pyrgos (52), Yanuyanutawa for Grant (66), Hall for MacArthur (73), Kalman for Low (52), Ryder for Swinson (66), Holmes for Eddie (59). Sin Bin: Matawalu (56).
Toulon: D. Armitage, D. Mitchell, Bastareaud, Giteau, D. Smith, Wilkinson, Tillous-Borde, Sheridan, Burden, Hayman, Botha, Suta, J. Smith, van Niekerk, S. Armitage. Subs: Chiocci for Sheridan (58), Orioli for Burden (75), Mikautadze for Botha (65), Bruni for van Niekerk (65). Not Used: Chilachava, Wulf, Mermoz, Michalak. Sin Bin: Tillous-Borde (54).
THE SCOTSMAN RUGBY SHOW IN ASSOCIATION WITH GINGER GROUSE