Grenoble 28 (15)
Toulon 26 (12)
CASTRES, FRANCE – WHAT defines a great game of rugby? Fast, free-flowing moves? Near-constant shifts in momentum? Immovable defence and unstoppable attacks? Tension so high it’s in danger of landing on Mars? And late, late drama?
Grenoble’s gripping 28-26 win over Toulon at Stade des Alpes had all of these – and much, much more.
Not that we should be surprised. The two sides’ last encounter here, all the way back in April, ended in what was then a truly astonishing 25-24 victory for the hosts.
But everyone thought that was an end-of-season fluke. It surely couldn’t be repeated, especially as, this time, the visitors had South African flyer Bryan Habana to call on. He started the game on the bench in a fetching hi-vis vest.
He was on the pitch for the final, unbearable minutes, when – with his side 28-21 down and the clock reading 83 minutes and counting, team-mate Matt Giteau finally broke Grenoble’s dogged defence to crash over in the corner, giving Captain Perfect, Jonny Wilkinson, a close-to-impossible chance to level the scores.
But Toulon fans dared to believe. The Amazing Wilko had landed even more difficult kicks than this. Even looking through their fingers, with the clock on overtime and the Grenoble crowd whistling, crowing and shouting loud enough to raise the dead, Toulon fans dared to believe. Jonny Be Good, they prayed.
So, imagine the emotion when he fired his kick wide of the upright.
To be fair, Grenoble didn’t look like a side that were thumped 34-6 at Castres last week, as they gave as good as they got in the opening 40 minutes, with Valentin Courrent and The Amazing Wilko trading first-half penalties.
The big difference was that – even with Bryan Habana sitting among the subs, watching – Toulon looked more threatening with ball in hand. One freeflowing, speed-of-light move only ended when fullback Delon Armitage suffered an attack of white-line fever when a simple inside pass would have resulted in arguably the try of the season. It would almost certainly have been the try of the week.
Just a minute later, the visitors were camped on Grenoble’s tryline. Only a rearguard action of epic – and ultimately illegal – proportions kept them out. The Amazing Wilko punished the hosts for their crime.
But Grenoble were detemined to prove they weren’t here to make up numbers. An F1-speed move of their own ended only with a knock on. And then they did their best to make a mess of Toulon’s much-vaunted scrum. It was the start of a strong period for the home side, and it took what looked like a defensive sprint to the line by Toulon hooker Benjamin Noirot to stop Grenoble notching up the first try of the evening.
Despite all their effort and eye-catching play, however, Grenoble were unable to break down the Toulon defence in the first 40. Even so, they weren’t making many mistakes, either. As the hooter sounded to make the end of the opening period, the scores were level at 12-12.
But the first-half drama wasn’t over. Toulon conceded a penalty well into the host’s half. Remarkably, winger Julien Camaniti stepped up to take a shot at goal. Even more remarkably, for those who may not be aware of the man’s power, he nailed it to take give Grenoble a 15-12 halftime lead.
Wilkinson levelled the scores shortly after the restart, when the referee decided that Matthieu Nicolas needed a 10-minute sit-down – whether he actually wanted it or not. Which, of course, he didn’t because it meant his side would be a man down.
And Bryan Habana sat patiently on the bench, watching.
Still Grenoble kept coming. Caminiti kicked them into the lead again.
And then… then they rested on their laurels. That was a mistake, as Grenoble surged forward, and scored the first try of the match. At 28-18, and with just 20 minutes left, Grenoble fans were beginning to dream of a famous victory.
And still Bryan Habana kept the subs’ bench warm.
Grenoble were more than holding their own against the most expensively assembled club in the Top14. And still, Bryan Habana sat on the bench.
The amazing WIlko dutifully slotted his seventh penalty of the night to keep his team in the hunt, with 10 minutes to go. And still, Bryan Habana sat on the bench.
With less than five minutes on the clock, Toulon won a penalty… but promptly lost the plot and lost the advantage when the referee reversed it.
By this time, though, Bryan Habana had made made it on to the pitch. But, unlike South African team mate and Racing Metro new boy, Morne Steyn, his Top 14 debut would end in defeat. In the most dramatic of manners.