Edinburgh made history yesterday evening by becoming the first Scottish team to win in Toulon’s Stade Mayol.
This was the club’s sixth victory in succession and their most significant win since that 2012 run to the European semi-finals, even if Toulon are not the force of old. Edinburgh became only the third team to win a Champions Cup match in Stade Mayol. They didn’t just triumph, they bossed it, especially in the second half which the visitors won 20-5 after conceding two early Toulon tries.
This victory puts Edinburgh on top of Pool 5 and a win against Montpellier next weekend in the final round of group fixtures would almost certainly gift them a home quarter-final. No team in Europe will relish making that trip to BT Murrayfield after watching this impressive performance.
Edinburgh shrugged off a Toulon try inside two minutes and fought back to win this one with something to spare, dominating both possession and enjoying something like 75 per cent of territory.
There were any number of stand-out performers. James Johnstone had his best game in an Edinburgh shirt. Viliame Mata carried tirelessly and produced one pass for Johnstone’s second-half try that the commentators, with just a little hyperbole, called the greatest offload in the history of sport.
Hamish Watson is so reliable that his weekly excellence almost goes unreported. Jaco van der Walt missed a couple of early kicks but made one eye-catching break from his own 22.
But Darcy Graham was utterly outstanding. He scored Edinburgh’s first try, almost made a couple of others and, as if the little winger’s attacking prowess wasn’t enough, he made one brilliant tackle on the giant Toulon centre Mathieu Bastareaud. Size isn’t everything and neither, Richard Cockerill will have pointed out, is reputation.
“Credit to the players,” said the Edinburgh coach after the match. “We had a plan and we knew we had to stick to the plan.
“We invited them into our half in that first half and they punished us but the way we played and controlled that game in the second half was probably the best we have played.”
All this after the worst possible start. Grant Gilchrist spilled the kick off and Edinburgh were penalised for pushing off the ball. Toulon kicked to the corner and won the lineout. Bastareaud and Facundo Isa both had a charge at the line before skipper Guilhem Guirado rode a tackle from WP Nel and barrelled his way over the Edinburgh line with a couple of defenders along for the ride. The clock showed one minute, 26 seconds.
Toulon got another try, again with an “assist” from Edinburgh’s indiscipline. The visitors were pinged for an offside in the middle of the field which gave Toulon an attacking lineout. Edinburgh conceded another penalty at the ensuing lineout, Raphael Lakafia took a quick tap and while the No.8 was inches short, his backrow buddy Isa scored moments later.
In between Toulon’s twin scores Edinburgh got one themselves. With some possession and territory the ball was worked to Graham on the right wing thanks to Jamie Ritchie, who drew two defenders. The little winger usually relies on his footwork but with only the full-back to beat Graham took route one, bumped Mathieu Smaili in the contact and dotted down at full stretch in the corner.
The totting up left Edinburgh trailing 12-8 at the break but the visitors rolled up their sleeves and went to work, winning the second 40 with ease and dictating almost every aspect of play.
From an attacking lineout Johnstone threaded a kick behind the Toulon defensive line and the ball sat up beautifully for Blair Kinghorn to collect and score without breaking that leggy stride.
That score gave Edinburgh the lead and Jaco van der Walt unearthed his kicking boots to edge Edinburgh further ahead with the conversion and, four minutes later, a penalty conceded by Toulon’s set scrum in the shadow of their own posts.
Front running seems to suit this side and Edinburgh grew in confidence; the next try was one of the best on offer this weekend.
Rhys Webb took a quick tap and Toulon were in behind the Edinburgh defence and threatening to score when substitute Mamuka Gorgodze spilled the ball on the Edinburgh 22.
Kinghorn snapped it up and passed to Mata who set off like the devil was snapping at his ankles. He floated past three or four defenders and, just as he was eventually scragged, the big Fijian dug into his bag of tricks and pulled out a pass that had everyone reaching for the remote to see it again. The ball emerged out the back of his left hand and while Johnstone had to stretch to collect it, the speedy centre ended up under the posts.
Edinburgh had a 28-12 lead inside the final quarter but any prospect of putting their feet up disappeared when Julian Savea grabbed his first Champions Cup try.
With nine nervy minutes left on the clock Edinburgh reverted to walking rugby but, in the circumstances, they can probably be forgiven for that.