European Rugby Champions Cup: Ulster 13-23 Toulon
|Ulster (3) 13|
|Tries: Gilroy Cons: Jackson Pens: Jackson 2|
|Toulon (16) 23|
|Tries: Habana, D Armitage Cons: Halfpenny 2 Pens: Halfpenny 3|
Ulster's hopes of making the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup appear remote after Toulon won comfortably at Kingspan Stadium.
A Paddy Jackson penalty cut the margin to 6-3 after two successful Leigh Halfpenny kicks but 10 Toulon points before the break rocked Ulster.
Bryan Habana scored Toulon's first try and Delon Armitage's breakaway score on 59 minutes ended any slim home hopes.
Craig Gilroy's try gave Ulster a sniff at a bonus point but it was not to be.
After their line-out problems in last weekend's 25-18 defeat by Leicester, the scrum and breakdown were Ulster's main difficulties seven days on.
The introduction of Alexandre Menini and Guilhem Guirado stiffened up the Toulon front row while Chris Masoe and Steffon Armitage gave Ulster a torrid afternoon in the breakdown exchanges.
Toulon lost Pumas flanker Juan Fernandez Lobbe to a knee injury in the opening minute but the introduction of Juan Smith scarcely weakened the two-time defending European champions.
Halfpenny kicked Toulon ahead in the 10th minute after a scrum infringement and further Ulster indiscipline yielded another three points for the Welshman four minutes later.
With Toulon playing with a big first-half wind advantage, Ulster's early tactic was to keep matters tight and Jackson did cut the margin to three in the 22nd minute as he landed a 30-metre effort.
Ulster's gamble of turning down another probable three points for Jackson four minutes later backfired as the fly-half's kick for the corner and subsequent line-out yielded nothing.
Toulon were forced to make another change in the 27th minute as fly-half Matt Giteau had to be replaced by his Australian compatriot James O'Connor because of a hamstring injury.
But Toulon continued to control proceedings and they butchered a glorious try-scoring opportunity in the 32nd minute as Halfpenny carelessly delivered a forward pass to the overlapping wing Armitage.
A 6-3 half-time deficit would have represented a highly satisfactory opening period for the home side.
Instead Toulon notched 10 points in the three minutes before the break as Halfpenny's third penalty was followed by Habana's try after the home defence had been stretched out wide once more.
Halfpenny added the conversion and the players trudged off at half-time at a largely silent Kingspan with Toulon 16-3 ahead.
Ulster attempted to summon up a revival after the break and Delon Armitage's high tackle was punished by Jackson's second penalty in the 47th minute.
Jackson missed another chance from 50 metres in the swirling conditions and the home side suffered disaster in the 59th minute as wing Armitage intercepted Nick Williams's telegraphed pass and ran from his own 22 to score under the posts.
Ulster's late huff and puff produced a 78th-minute try for wing Gilroy, converted by Jackson.
Replacement fly-half Ian Humphreys missed a difficult injury-time penalty which would have earned the home side a bonus point.
Mathematically, Ulster's qualification hopes remain alive but they will need to win all their four remaining games including the away game against the European holders.
Ulster captain Rory Best: "They destroyed us at the breakdown. It was something we've talked about and we've been pretty good at the breakdown this season.
"Chris Masoe and Steffon Armitage were really over the ball all day and we couldn't get any kind of ball, let alone quick ball.
"It's disappointing because we really fancied our chances going into today."
Toulon's Delon Armitage: "It's a very satisfying win. Me and my brother spent the whole week trying to explain to the other guys how hard it is to come here and win.
"I was really impressed with how we played today and the way we kept the ball.
"We knew we had to get points on board in the first half and we then came out in the second half and defended well."
Ulster: Louis Ludik; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Stuart Olding, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall; Andy Warwick, Rory Best (capt), Wiehahn Herbst; Lewis Stevenson, Franco van der Merwe; Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson
Replacements: Ian Humphreys for Ludik 67 mins, Darren Cave for Olding 49, Michael Heaney for Marshall 79, Callums Black for Warwick 54, Rob Herring for Best 77, N Williams for Stevenson 54, Clive Ross for Wilson 77, Declan Fitzpatrick for Herbst 70
Toulon: Leigh Halfpenny; Delon Armitage, Mathieu Bastareaud, Maxime Mermoz, Bryan Habana; Matt Giteau, Michael Claasens; Alexandre Menini, Guilhem Guirado, Carl Hayman (capt); Jocelino Suta, Romain Taofifenua; Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Steffon Armitage, Chris Masoe
Replacements: Juan Smith for Lobbe 2, James O'Connor for Giteau 27, James Craig Burden for Guirado 71, Fabien Barcella for Menini 60, Levan Chilachava for Hayman 50, Bakkies Botha for Suta 50, Ali Williams for Taofifenua.
Not used: Sebastien Tillous-Borde