JONNY Wilkinson’s Toulon made it three wins out of three in Heineken Cup Pool 6 but did little to justify their tag of favourites with an unconvincing performance against struggling Sale.
Filthy conditions at the Salford City Stadium did much to bridge the gulf in class between a star-studded side leading the French Top 14 and one propping up the Aviva Premiership, but the visitors did just enough to secure the crucial points, with winger David Smith scoring the only try and Wilkinson kicking four penalties from seven attempts.
A second defeat to French opposition ahead of next week’s re-match on the Cote D’Azure leaves the Sharks with little hope of qualification for the knockout stages, but their priority is survival in the Premiership and new director of rugby John Mitchell will doubtless be encouraged by yesterday’s gritty display.
Sale’s points came from the boot of Danny Cipriani, who was promoted to the starting line-up following the late withdrawal of Cameron Shepherd through illness and the switch of Rob Miller to full-back. Miller had a superb game in his regular position while Cipriani held his own against the experienced Wilkinson, but Sharks were unable to carve out a single clear-cut try-scoring chance.
Cipriani drew first blood in the duel of former England stand-offs, landing a 45-metre penalty after seven minutes to put his side into the lead, five minutes after the Toulon captain had been wide with a 40-metre kick.
Wilkinson levelled the scores with a penalty from in front of the posts on 16 minutes as the game developed into a kicking contest.
With conditions worsening in the constant drizzle, Cipriani attempted to secure further points with the boot but was narrowly off target with two ambitious penalty attempts from the halfway line.
Wilkinson also fluffed a third goal-kick on 29 minutes but the visitors scored the game’s first try immediately afterwards as Smith found some rare space out on the Sale right.
Cipriani kept the Sharks in contention with another penalty seven minutes before the interval but Wilkinson responded with his second successful kick three minutes later to make it 11-6 at half time.
Sale enjoyed the better of the third quarter but Toulon No.8 Chris Masoe broke up a promising move by intercepting Cipriani’s pass and his 50-metre break set up the position for Wilkinson to kick his third penalty on 51 minutes to open up an eight-point lead.
That gave Toulon, who included a trio of former Sale favourites in Andrew Sheridan, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Sebastian Bruno, a useful cushion to become more adventurous.
They almost scored a second try when flanker Steffon Armitage was driven over the line but he was unable to ground the ball, while replacement scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde had a last-minute try disallowed by the television match official.
Wilkinson was wide with a drop-goal attempt but he wrapped up the scoring with a fourth penalty.