Toulon had been hoping to replicate the old glory days of Jonny Wilkinson and co but it was Lyon who emerged with the Challenge Cup spoils on a warm night in the south of France. This is the first European title ever claimed by the up-and-coming Top 14 side and, with their confidence now boosted, it is unlikely to be the last.
They might have won by an even wider margin, having been denied at least three more potential first-half tries, but were still good enough to turn a slender 10-7 half-time advantage into a 20-point cushion by the start of the final quarter. Lyon’s coach Pierre Mignoni, ironically, is returning to Toulon this summer and will hope this outcome has a suitably galvanising effect on the losers.
As an occasion it proved to be a slightly mixed aperitif for the main event involving Leinster and La Rochelle. Toulon may have seen off Saracens in some style in the semi-final but, with their international winger Gabin Villière forced off prematurely with a knee injury, they could not summon anything like the same zest and inspiration.
It was, even so, another indicator of the growing appetite for big rugby occasions in France. The crowd of over 51,000 was a record attendance for a Challenge Cup final and, amid the spills and occasional thrills, there were a few more reminders for the watching Eddie Jones that Les Bleus will take some beating at next year’s Rugby World Cup.
Jones and his assistant coaches were also on a scouting mission to check out the ground where England will potentially play a quarter-final. If this steep-sided, curving arena is even half as noisy and atmospheric in the absence of Toulon’s fanatical supporters, it will be special regardless of the weather.
The temperature was still up around 26 degrees celsius at 9pm local time when the game kicked off but it was Lyon who initially kept the cooler heads. Only a belatedly spotted knock-on in the buildup prevented Baptiste Couilloud from scoring with barely a minute gone and the scrum-half had a legal try on the board after eight minutes.
The great Sergio Parisse dearly wanted another trophy to crown a remarkable career but, unfortunately for him, his pass found his opposite number Jordan Taufua, once of Leicester. The Lyon captain surged away and also had the presence of mind, when tackled, to pop the ball up off the floor to the supporting Couilloud.
A sluggish Toulon, though, were waking up and their own international scrum-half, Baptiste Serin, started and finished a compelling move which dragged his side back into the contest. Nerves then appeared to constrain both teams for a while before the first 40 minutes ended in dramatic circumstances when the young Georgian wing Davit Niniashvili appeared to have put Lyon, already 10-7 ahead, further in front with a try just before the interval.
On closer inspection, though, it was discovered that the tip of his left boot had grazed the dead-ball line, a sharp-eyed decision which may preclude the English TMO, Ian Tempest, from holidaying in the Burgundy region this summer. There had already been some Lyon muttering at the decision not to review a possible try by Charlie Ngatai, with Aymeric Luc’s supposed in-goal grounding of the ball not entirely supported by the video evidence.
Lyon’s luck, though, was about to change. Between the 45th and 50th minutes they collected 14 priceless points, the first of them a fully deserved penalty try when Luc was sin-binned for the most blatant of last-gasp slapdowns which denied Niniashvili, assuming he would have put it down legally this time, a certain score. Against 14 men the powerful Josua Tuisova made good ground and Léo Berdeu’s well-judged chip fell nicely for his centre Pierre-Louis Barassi.
Another Berdeu penalty stretched the lead further, effectively snuffing out Toulon’s hopes of joining Wasps, Bath, Northampton and Leinster and becoming the first French side to do the Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup ‘double’. Despite final quarter yellow cards for Berdeu and Ngatai and a late consolation try for the otherwise quiet Cheslin Kolbe, there was to be no reprieve for Toulon, beaten in the Challenge Cup finals of 2010, 2012 and 2020 and now required to deal with another frustrating showpiece loss.