Memorable Moments of the Decade: The Toulon Slayer

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While there have been many memorable moments in European competition over the last decade, perhaps the one that sticks with most people outside of the two Challenge Cup finals took place at the Arms Park in October 2013.

It wasn’t a particularly happy time for Cardiff Blues early in the 2013/14 season, with an embarrassing home loss against Zebre piling pressure on to the shoulders of Director of Rugby Phil Davies.

A tough 2012/13 campaign had seen us finish way down in ninth in the Pro12, a full 28 points off the play-off spots, and although that was then still good enough to qualify for the Heineken Cup, a round one defeat away at Exeter had left Davies’s squad on the back foot for the arrival of reigning European champions Toulon.

There was a capacity crowd packed in to the Arms Park to see the sides do battle for the second time in two seasons, with the French side having done the double over Cardiff Blues the year before, and still boasting stars such as Martin Castrogiovanni, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau.

The home side had star power ourselves though in the shape of three British and Irish Lions stars from the previous summer, with captain Sam Warburton, test try scorer Alex Cuthbert and man of the series Leigh Halfpenny all starting.

However the first big moment of the game came from Rhys Patchell, still only 20 at the time, who picked up the ball after Gethin Jenkins won a trademark penalty over the ball and pointed at the sticks despite being on the left touchline and inside his own half.

With that kick promptly dispatched Patchell would step aside for a kicking battle to ensue between the international kickers on each side, as Leigh Halfpenny and Jonny Wilkinson went head-to-head in open play and off the tee.

The half-time score would be even at 6-6, but as the rain started to come down and Toulon looked to their bench early, the French side started to turn the screw. Winning penalties at the scrum and breakdown, Wilkinson notched up a 6-12 lead to put his side in control.

However, the hour mark saw the sun begin to shine on Cardiff Blues and gaining a scrum penalty of our own as well as forcing the away team into making a deliberate knock on, Halfpenny clawed us back level.

Then some real controversy with just less than 10 minutes to go. Toulon attacked down the right and Josua Tuisova had only Halfpenny to beat. He chipped ahead with a kick that was way too long, but made the most of a collision with the home full-back and bought a penalty for a deemed late tackle.

Wilkinson took an age with his kick but did eventually knock the French side ahead, however the injustice only served to motivate the home side.

A shocking pass from Toulon scrum-half Freddie Michalak gave Cardiff Blues the scrum on the edge of the opposition 22 with five minutes to go. Cory Allen broke dangerously down the left to leave us just five metres out. Sam Warburton, Josh Navidi, Owen Williams, Gethin Jenkins and Lou Reed all carried before…

Gareth Davies was something of an unknown quantity in the squad before that season. A Wales 7s international he was a bit-part player, largely featuring for Pontypridd in the Welsh Premiership, but with the summer departures of Ceri Sweeney and Jason Tovey was thrust into the backup role behind Rhys Patchell for 13/14.

Making just his third Heineken Cup appearance he entered the field of play just after that controversy involving Tuisova and Halfpenny four minutes beforehand, and this was just his second touch of the ball.

It was also his first try for the club outside of Anglo-Welsh Cup action, and could not have been a better or more crucial score, beating three men and getting back to his feet brilliantly to win the game and earn the nickname ‘The Toulon Slayer’.

On the back of this win Cardiff Blues managed to do the double over Glasgow Warriors in the Heineken Cup December double header, but defeats away at Toulon and home to Exeter in January ended European involvement, before a second loss to Zebre that season saw Phil Davies’ time at the Arms Park come to an end.

Gareth Davies would go on to enjoy plenty of game time that season and the next, but the arrival of Gareth Anscombe and the emergence of Jarrod Evans severely restricted his minutes beyond that, eventually departing up the A470 for Merthyr where he joined one of Phil’s old assistants Dale McIntosh.

The memory of that win over Toulon will live on at the famous Arms Park though.

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