European Champions Cup: Toulon 21-20 Scarlets

Leigh Halfpenny
Scarlets full-back Leigh Halfpenny claimed a try on his return to former club Toulon
European Rugby Champions Cup
Toulon (18) 21
Tries: Escande, Guirado Cons: Belleau Pens: Belleau 2, Trinh-Duc
Scarlets (3) 20
Tries: McNicholl, Halfpenny Cons: Halfpenny 2 Pens: Halfpenny 2

Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny missed a late penalty against his former club as Scarlets narrowly lost their Champions Cup opener in Toulon.

Toulon dominated the first half with a powerful display that saw Eric Escande and Guilhem Guirado cross for tries.

But a revitalised Scarlets had Toulon rocking after the break as Johnny McNicholl and Halfpenny both went over.

Halfpenny could have won it against the club that released him in June but his difficult penalty went just wide.

Scarlets got off to the worst possible start when scrum-half Aled Davies received the ball from a line-out and spun the ball out, but failed to spot opposite number Escande lurking.

The Toulon nine plucked the ball out of the air and raced off under the visitors' posts.

Anthony Belleau kicked the simple conversion and added a penalty soon after, when Halfpenny was penalised for holding on in the tackle.

Halfpenny joined Scarlets last summer having enjoyed three seasons with the Top 14 side but the Wales back suffered a miserable few moments on his return to southern France.

After conceding that penalty, the normally metronomic kicker - so used to bisecting the posts at Stade Felix Mayol during his time in France - missed his first attempt at goal.

Toulon launched a swift counter-attack down the right and wing Josua Tuisova bumped off Halfpenny before sending France hooker Guirado away for an unconverted try.

Toulon's Fijian winger Josua Tuisova
Toulon's Fiji winger Josua Tuisova set up the French side's second try

Halfpenny was bowled over by the impact and had to leave the field for 10 minutes for a head injury assessment - with Paul Asquith filling in - but was able to return after passing the tests.

With more than half an hour gone, Scarlets were at last able to make inroads into Toulon territory.

Scott Williams took a crash ball in midfield to drive into the 22 and when Ma'a Nonu was penalised for lying on the wrong side of the breakdown, Halfpenny was on target this time with the resulting kick.

Toulon suffered two quick blows when Escande limped off injured - with Sebastien Tillous-Borde taking over at scrum-half - before full-back Hugo Bonneval was sin-binned for taking out Aled Davies off the ball.

Scarlets opted for an attacking line-out rather than the posts and the bold move nearly paid off when wing McNicholl cut back inside, only to lose control of the ball as he stretched for the line.

Toulon's 18-3 lead at half-time was deserved but Scarlets re-emerged invigorated to claim their first try.

Rhys Patchell sent a cross-kick in behind Chris Ashton and although the England wing tracked back well the bounce favoured McNicholl, who gathered to score with Halfpenny adding the conversion.

Further evidence that the full-back was fully back in the groove soon followed, as Scarlets launched a flowing move that ended in Halfpenny entering the backline at pace to go over.

Halfpenny converted his own try and then added a penalty soon after to give Scarlets the lead for the first time.

But Francois Trinh-Duc, replacing Belleau at fly-half, stopped Toulon's slide with a penalty to edge the home side back in front 21-20.

Halfpenny was just wide with a difficult penalty as the game entered the final quarter, as Scarlets scented a victory that had looked so unlikely at half-time.

However, Toulon were able to reassert the physical dominance they had enjoyed in the first half and finished the game camped in the Scarlets 22.

The Welsh side dug deep - holding up Raphael Lakafia over the try line and having Tadhg Beirne sin-binned - to hang on to a losing bonus point that could prove crucial in the final Pool Five reckoning.

Scarlets centre Scott Williams told BBC Radio Wales: "We knew we were good enough to come out here and win, and we spoke all week about that first 20 minutes.

"They were going to come out at us hard like they did last year and we just can't give them a 15-point head start.

"We did well to come back in the second half and go into the lead but we were disappointed at the end not to see the game out."

Toulon: Hugo Bonneval; Josua Tuisova, Mathieu Bastareaud (capt), Ma'a Nonu, Chris Ashton; Anthony Belleau, Eric Escande; Florian Fresia, Guilhem Guirado, Marcel Van Der Merwe, Swan Rebbadj, Mamuka Gorgodze, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Facundo Isa, Raphael Lakafia.

Replacements: Anthony Etrillard, Xavier Chiocci, Levan Chilachava, Rudy Gahetau, Semi Radradra, Francois Trinh-Duc, Sebastien Tillous-Borde, Juandre Kruger.

Scarlets: Leigh Halfpenny; Johnny McNicholl, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams (capt), Steff Evans; Rhys Patchell, Aled Davies; Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Samson Lee, Jake Ball, Lewis Rawlins, Aaron Shingler, Will Boyde, Tadhg Beirne.

Replacements: Ken Owens, Dylan Evans, Werner Kruger, David Bulbring, Josh Macleod, Gareth Davies, Paul Asquith, Hadleigh Parkes.

Referee: Luke Pearce (England)

Assistant referees: Jack Makepeace (England) and Nigel Carrick (England)

TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)

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