Champions Cup: Bath v Toulon Preview

Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!

Bath Rugby v RC Toulon | Saturday 23 January | Recreation Ground | 17:10

The pick of this weekend’s European Rugby action sees Bath take on Toulon at the Recreation Ground. While the hosts are already out of the running for a place in the knockout stage of the tournament, they'll still be keen to bow out on a high. Toulon on the other hand, have it all to play for. The French giants currently occupy first position on the Pool 5 standings, but with the second placed London Wasps – who have been magnificent at home- hosting cellar-dwellers Leinster, the pressure will be on Toulon to produce in front of a vocal Bath crowd.

We were treated to a fantastic - if not high-scoring - game of rugby the last time these two sides met and I expect another epic encounter this time around.

To Win (80 Mins)
Bath 18/10
Draw 20/1
Toulon 9/20
Bath (+4.5) 9/10
Toulon (-4.5) 9/10

It has been a season of what-ifs for Bath so far. They kicked off their campaign with a narrow 19-16 home victory over Leinster. They followed that up with another tight victory over Wasps away from home. At this point, Bath looked an absolute shoe in for the quarter-finals. However, a 26 point defeat to Wasps in the fourth round and an undeserved loss to Toulon a fortnight ago has seen the English club drop out of the running for the next round. That won’t stop them giving Toulon a real run for their money this weekend, though.

The French club are actually the reason for Bath entering the final round of the group stage with nothing but pride to play for. Having weathered a Toulon onslaught in the first quarter at the Stade Mayol, Bath played their way back into the game and went into the half-time break level on points with their illustrious opponents. They started the second stanza with a lot of purpose about them and could have crossed the whitewash on at least three occasions had it not been for some desperate Toulon cover defence. With tries proving extremely hard to come by for both sides the game developed into a kicking duel. A well-struck drop goal by England international George Ford, early on in the second half, put Bath three points ahead. His three-pointer was cancelled out by Eric Escande’s 45th-minute penalty. The scores remained locked at nine all for the majority of the second stanza. The deadlock would be broken by Fredric Michalak on the 75th-minute mark. And despite a Helter Skelter final five minutes, Bath couldn’t add to their nine-point tally and left the Mayol with only a bonus point to show for all their endeavour.

I suspect Bath will be eyeing revenge this weekend. While head Coach Mike Ford is not a man to dwell on the past, I do think he is still having the occasional sleepless night mulling over the fine details of that tournament-ending defeat. He and his charges will be fired up heading into this one, and while Toulon’s all-star cast have the quality to beat bath at the Rec, their inconsistent form means they could come into this one rife for the taking.

Bath will once again look to their midfield to guide them to victory. George Ford has been sensational this season. His reading of the game has improved drastically over the past few months, as has his kicking game. Kyle Eastmond and Jonathon Josephs are fast becoming one of the best centre combinations in both the Aviva Premiership and Europe. Both players have the ability to produce the moment of magic that wins a tight game; and make no bones about it, this one is going to be as tight as a ducks backside.

It seems every time I preview a Toulon game, I end up penning a very similar piece. While you could say it’s my fault as a writer for not seeing other avenues that could be touched on, the bottom line is that Toulon have a very talented squad that was purchased for a bucket load of money and should be absolutely walking this group. Instead of cantering to qualification they’ve made an absolute meal of it. Last week’s win over the London Wasps at the Mayol was one of the streakiest victories I’ve ever seen.

Things looked quite rosy for Toulon when their mercurial pivot Quade Copper opened the scoring with a 12th-miunte try. Their lead was extended even further when scrumhalf, Eric Escande, slotted a penalty on the 23-minute mark. And while Wasps had closed the gap to four points by the time the teams went in for the break, I couldn’t help but feel Toulon would win this one comfortably and end my chances of a four hundred rand windfall. Whilst I ended up losing my hundred rand stake, Bath gave me 39 minutes of absolute joy.

The English club dominated the second stanza and took the lead through eighth man Guy Thompsons' 70th minute try. That five-pointer coupled with Jimmy Gopperth’s 62nd-minute penalty meant Wasps went into the final ten minutes of the game with a three-point lead.

The final ten minutes of the game coincided with myself and the referee having a one sided argument via the medium of television. It also saw one of the bravest displays by a defensive unit in the Champions Cup this year. Toulon’s Globe Trotters launched wave after wave of attack. Bath managed to weather the storm until the 80th minute when Australian Drew Mitchell crossed the whitewash and handed the hosts a dramatic late win.

The lucky victory has left Toulon in the driving seat for qualification to the knockout phase. They will have to be wary however as Bath will want to prove a point in front of their home fans. They’re also going to have to win the game without skipper Fernandez Lobbe. The Argentine flanker has been struggling to recover from a slight niggle and looks set to remain on the sidelines for the next few weeks.

Verdict: Bath (+4.5) 9/10
I Honestly fancy Bath here but Toulon have managed to scrape victories from losing positions in recent weeks which makes me slightly nervous. The safe option here is to back Bath on the +4.5 at 9/10.
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