Leicester Tigers’ campaign in the European Challenge Cup ended in the semi-finals with a 34-19 defeat against RC Toulon on Saturday evening.
Kicking-off at 9.00pm local time at the Stade Felix Mayol, on a cool and blustery evening on the French south coast, Tigers took an immediate lead with a George Ford penalty, but then conceded two tries as Toulon led 20-6 after half an hour.
A response before half-time was vital and it came from Nemani Nadolo, scoring his first try for the club as Tigers trailed 20-11.
Toulon, who had reached the knockout stages as top seeds and went into the semi-final as the only unbeaten team in the tournament, claimed two more scores in the second period.
So it is Toulon who go into the final, against Bristol Bears who had beaten Bordeaux-Bègles in the last four on Friday evening.
Nadolo, making a first return to France since his switch to Tigers from Montpellier, was among four members of the Tigers backline making a European debut for the club – alongside Kini Murimurivalu, Matt Scott and Harry Potter – while Hanro Liebenberg also had his first outing in the tournament.
After Toulon kicked off into the wind, Tigers put points on the board with just three minutes gone, Ford kicking from 40 metres after Ellis Genge’s carry on halfway led to the infringement.
Murimurivalu showed his strength at full-back as he fielded an awkward bouncing ball on the touchline and still managed to safely recycle for Ford to clear.
But when Toulon won turnover ball on halfway, they released Bryce Heem who ran clear to score on the left and the conversion from Louis Carbonel made it 7-3.
Tigers won scrum ball from the restart and gave Nadolo the chance to carry in midfield, but then lost ball out wide 20 metres out.
Nadolo was then unlucky as he read a pass out wide in the Toulon backline to get to the ball first but couldn’t keep hold as he stretched to reel it in.
Fellow Fiji international Murimurivalu showed great anticipation again as Carbonel chipped ball dangerously down the Toulon right and he arrived first just metres in front of his own tryline.
Tigers, though, failed to exit fully and were penalised in the tackle zone, allowing Carbonel to kick and make it 10-3 on 20 minutes.
Genge provided momentum with a strong leg drive in possession in the Toulon half and Jaco Taute carried out wide before ball was lost and, although Matt Scott cleared up in defence, another turnover proved costly as the hosts swiftly moved play to the left and Gabin Villière beat the defence to score. Carbonel added his second conversion as the lead reached 17-3 on 24 minutes.
Nadolo and Taute took play on from strong work up front at the restart and, when the whistle went for offside on the edge of their 22, Ford cut three points off the deficit.
Some strong work in defence frustrated the home crowd before Carbonel replied with a penalty to make it 20-6 on 35 minutes.
Neither side had been able to play through phases until Tigers topped double figures in attack, with Scott making inroads and the forwards carrying strongly as Ford prompted from fly-half until eventually there was space for Nadolo to dive in on the left just moments before half-time.
The Tigers made a bright start to the second period too, Hanro Liebenberg and Harry Potter taking play up into the opposition 22 and then a big shove from the forwards earning a scrum penalty 35 metres out. Ford kicked to cut the gap to six points.
Tidy work on the right touchline from Scott and Murimurivalu threatened the Toulon defence, then Genge made one of his charges as they stayed pinned back until a penalty award came Tigers’ way. But the chance was lost as Tigers tried to play into the corner and instead, successive penalties went in Toulon’s favour and play reverted 80 metres upfield.
Openside flanker Raphael Lakafia was held up over the tryline by Nadolo, but play stayed in the corner and, when the whistle blew again, referee Adamson spoke to Tigers skipper Tom Youngs. Next time, though, Tommy Reffell swooped over ball on the floor and was rewarded with a penalty verdict which Ford booted back up to halfway.
Ford was then back in defence as he had to chase ball hacked forward in broken play and also make a tackle on wing Villière as he closed in on the tryline. But the whistle went against Tigers at the breakdown just as they looked to have won ball, and Toulon stayed camped five metres out until finally finding space on the right for Facundo Isa to score their third try. Carbonel added the kick to make it 27-14.
Tigers were quickly back upfield, though, only to be penalised as a scrum hit the floor just 10 metres from the tryline. Then, as play broke at halfway, Tomas Lavanini was sin-binned for a late hit on Carbonel as the game approached its final quarter.
The killer blow came as Toulon attacked in broken field and, with Tigers still working hard but eventually stretched in defence, Villière claimed his second try. The conversion pushed them 34-14 in front.
Potter’s attack down the right was ended by a high tackle and Ford prodded play towards the corner, but Toulon’s lineout blocked out progress despite Harry Wells making the catch.
Another penalty went against the French in defence and, this time, after a promising driving maul approached the tryline, Sergio Parisse was yellow-carded for the collapse.
Still Tigers retained possession, with Scott held up over the tryline, until getting some reward when Potter finished on the right after the forwards had kept ball tight and pushed Toulon back.
Genge then appeared to have scored with a fine finish on the right after more good work from Ford and Potter. But, with Ford preparing for the conversion, the referee brought play back to check replays and his verdict was a forward pass in the build-up.
Nadolo had another chance in the same corner as the clock ticked up to 80 minutes, but after almost reaching the line, ball was knocked loose and the referee called a finish to the game.