7 May 2022
Fixture: RC Toulonnais v London Irish
Competition: EPCR Challenge Cup, quarter-final
Date: Sunday 8th May 2022
Stadium: Stade Félix Mayol
London Irish visit the Stade Félix Mayol this Sunday to take on RC Toulonnais in the quarter-finals of the EPCR Challenge Cup, in search of a first European semi-final in 14 years.
A 64-27 win over another side from the Occitania region in Castres Olympique saw Irish through to the last eight and contribute to the Club’s current four-match unbeaten run in all competitions.
Toulon, three time finalists but never winners of the Challenge Cup, have previously met the Exiles on four occasions in pool stages of European competition; twice in the 2010/11 Heineken Cup, and then again in the 2019/20 Challenge Cup with the French side victors on each occasion.
The Black and Reds have won six of their last seven games and have had a similar season to Irish; sitting in eighth in the Top 14 on the periphery of Heineken Champions Cup qualification for the 2022/23 season after a strong Challenge Cup pool stage showing.
Franck Azéma’s side lost only to Biarritz Olympique in a narrow defeat to the Basque team in April before taking on United Rugby Championship outfit Benetton Treviso in the Round of 16, comfortably winning 36-17.
Sunday’s hosts retain the joint-third least amount of average points conceded per Top 14 match this season and sit in the top five of points scored by Clubs in the Challenge Cup this year with 143, a mere point more than Irish.
The boss- Franck Azéma:
The former Clermont Auvergne boss joined the rival French side as their Director of Rugby earlier on this season having led the Vulcans to their third Challenge Cup against Stade Rochelais in 2019.
As Clermont’s Backs Coach, he aided in the Club’s first venture to the Heineken Cup final in 2013 and two further finals in 2015 and 2017 when he ultimately assumed the Head Coach role in replacing Vern Cotter.
Azéma also holds numerous French titles, initially whilst working with USA Perpignan as their Backs Coach in 2009 and then with Les Juanards in 2017.
After playing for USAP, Clermont and also Narbonne and Montpellier Hérault as a centre, Azéma started coaching with Ceret Athletic before joining Perpignan’s Academy to work his way up to the title-winning First Team Coaching Staff.
One to Watch- Gabin Villière:
Villière’s dramatic rise to rugby fame saw him playing in the French third tier with Rouen just three years ago under former England scrum-half Richard Hill to a spell with the French Sevens side, becoming the first Frenchman to be named Player of the Tournament at the 2019 Hong Kong Sevens.
He has proved himself to be a secure source of points for Club and country, scoring five tries in his six EPCR Challenge Cup games for Toulon whilst also managing six in his 12 caps for les Bleus, including a hat-trick against Italy in this year’s Guinness Six Nations.
The winger followed that performance against the Italians with a Player of the Round defensive masterclass against Ireland, going on to register the most turnovers (10) and clean breaks (11) for RCT in this year’s Challenge Cup- an excellent player on both sides of the ball.
With three tries in his last four Club outings, Villière caught the eyes of the rugby world with a masterful offload and a dazzling screening performance against Toulouse in the absence of household name Cheslin Kolbe, who will face weeks on the sidelines with a broken thumb.
Former France winger Julien Candelon credits Villière’s low centre of gravity and liveliness contributes to his ‘elusiveness’, much in the same vein as the Springbok World Cup winner.
Classic Encounter: London Irish 20-26 RC Toulonnais - 14th December 2019 - EPCR Challenge Cup, pool stages
A narrow win for RC Toulonnais saw the Top 14 side take the pool stage double over the Exiles at the Madejski Stadium back in the 2019/20 edition of the EPCR Challenge Cup.
It was Albert Tuisue who opened the scoring for Irish with the opening try of the affair, converted by Paddy Jackson, with Anthony Belleau slotting two early placed kicks.
Jackson’s opening penalty meant Irish held the lead for a short while before Belleau stretched Toulon in front with two more penalties, but Toulon opened their try-scoring account through Masivesi Dakuwaqa following a Ruan Botha yellow card.
Jackson once again brought Irish closer but Player of the Match Baptiste Serin all-but concluded proceedings with a converted score, Barney Maddison’s own try proving just a losing bonus consolation with two minutes remaining.
Tries: Albert Tuisue, Barney Maddison
Conversions: Paddy Jackson (2)
Penalties: Paddy Jackson (2)
Tries: Masivesi Dakuwaqa, Baptiste Serin
Conversions: Anthony Belleau, Louis Carbonel
Penalties: Anthony Belleau (4)
RC Toulonnais Director of Rugby Franck Azéma commented on the willingness shown by his squad and the need to remain composed after an impressive victory over Bordeaux Bègles in Round 24 of the Top 14.
"We must not ignite, stay in this state of mind, maintain it and recover well as we will change competition next week,” Azéma stated.
“It's important to validate tonight, we stay in the race, we don't know what will happen and we only count on ourselves.”
The win elevated Toulon to eighth and three points behind the coveted sixth place, with just ten points separating Azéma’s side and pack-leaders Montpellier Hérault in one of the most exciting Top 14 races in years.
"At some point, someone's going to give up and for the moment, we're not the team that's giving up.
"We were 14th in February, how do we get back from there?
“They deserved it and oddly, this squad isn't tired- mentally, the guys are fresh."