Newcastle Falcons wrote their own chapter of European rugby history on Sunday in the French Riviera, defying the odds to record a memorable Heineken Champions Cup victory over Toulon.
Newcastle got off to the worst possible start on a windy afternoon on the French Riviera, Toulon scoring their first try with less than 30 seconds on the clock when lock-forward Romain Taofifenua charged down a clearance from the kick-off and scored down the left-hand side, Francois Trinh-Duc converting.
Trinh-Duc took their lead to double figures by stroking over a fifth-minute penalty from the left, but Joel Hodgson got the visitors off the mark almost straight from the restart when he slotted a penalty from 20 metres out on the right.
Slick off-the-top line-out ball from lock Glen Young and a midfield hit-up from debutant Nemani Nagusa got the Falcons into the Toulon 22 as they underlined their intention to play, and they were rewarded for their adventure on the 20-minute mark.
That was when they opted for the attacking line-out when presented with a penalty on the Toulon 22, Young taking another clean line-out before Kyle Cooper eventually scored from a pick-and-go between the posts.
Hodgson’s simple conversion drew the sides level at 10-10, and there was even better to come from the fly-half two minutes later when he hammered over a penalty from 40 metres out to put his side in front.
That advantage was extended to six points courtesy of Hodgson’s third penalty just after the half-hour following a period of real dominance, but Toulon countered well and profited on 37 minutes when they kicked a penalty to the corner for skipper Raphael Lakafia to score from the resulting line-out.
Trinh-Duc’s wayward conversion attempt left the Falcons ahead at half-time as they took a 16-15 advantage into the second period, the visitors starting the second half with no shortage of energy as Tom Penny’s break and grubber forced Toulon to hurriedly clear their lines.
Cohesive and aggressive defence from the visitors had them on the front foot, and that manifested itself in a penalty try on 51 minutes when Hodgson’s line-break put Sinoti Sinoti away, the former Toulon man felled by a high tackle just two metres out.
That forced referee Ben Whitehouse to award a penalty try and sin-binning, Newcastle extending their lead to eight points to the displeasure of a vocal home crowd but finding themselves also reduced to 14 men when Hodgson was sin-binned for deliberate knock-on.
The hour mark came and went with the Falcons still a single point to the good, Trinh-Duc nudging Toulon ahead on 63 minutes with a well-struck penalty from the left but Newcastle responding seven minutes later when Hodgson sent over a kick from bang in front to re-take the slimmest of leads.
In spectacular scenes Toulon had a penalty to win the game three minutes from time, but decided to kick for touch and knocked on from the ensuing line-out, pulses racing in the stadium at the most dramatic of finishes as the heroic Falcons held on.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Tom Arscott, 13 Tom Penny (Pedro Bettencourt, 65), 12 Johnny Williams, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Michael Young; 1 Sami Mavinga (Adam Brocklebank, 50), 2 Kyle Cooper (George McGuigan, 40), 3 David Wilson (Logovi’i Mulipola, 50), 4 Will Witty, 5 Glen Young, 6 Mark Wilson (captain), 7 Gary Graham, 8 Nemani Nagusa (Ryan Burrows, 56).
Falcons scorers - Tries: Kyle Cooper, Penalty try. Conversions: Joel Hodgson. Penalties: Joel Hodgson 4.
Toulon: 15 Daniel Ikpefan, 14 Josua Tuisova (Hugo Bonneval, 73), 13 JP Pietersen (Malakai Fekitoa, 47), 12 Anthony Belleau, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Francois Trinh-Duc, 9 Eric Escande (Anthony Meric, 47); 1 Jean Baptiste Gros (Xavier Chiocci, 56), 2 Guilhem Guirado (Anthony Etrillard, 56), 3 Marcel van der Merwe (Sébastien Taofifenua, 56), 4 Swan Rebbadj, 5 Romain Taofifenua (Florent Vanverberghe, 58), 6 Jean Monribot, 7 Stephane Onambele Mbarga (Jacques Louis Potgieter, 50), 8 Raphael Lakafia (captain).
Toulon scorers - Tries: Romain Taofifenua, Raphael Lakafia, Guilhem Guirado. Conversions: Francois Trinh-Duc 2. Penalties: Francois Trinh-Duc 2.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales).