Two superb tries by Anthony Watson against Toulon helped Bath end the English clubs’ losing streak in the back-to-back rounds of December group matches in the European Champions Cup and left Pool Five tightly poised between these two clubs level on 13 points, and Scarlets one behind them.
Exeter’s defeat earlier in the day and Harlequins’ on Friday night had taken England’s morale-sapping sequence to nine losses in nine Champions Cup games across the last two weekends but Bath began to redress the balanace, and Wasps, Saracens, Leicester and Northampton will have their shot at the same on Sunday.
Watson’s raw and thrilling pace from unpromising positions was wonderfully evident in both his first-half tries – the Bath full-back’s fourth and fifth in 17 career European cup appearances.
The first here came in the 28th minute, with Bath leading 13-10 after a try in 46 seconds from prop Beno Obano made by Aled Brew’s excellent tap-back of the kick-off, and a follow-up burst by the Welsh wing.
Toulon had fallen further behind with Rhys Priestland adding a conversion and penalty, before the French side’s former All Black scrum-half Alby Matheewson shot to a try on the short side of a line-out, will a little help from a sly, space-making tug of the covering Max Lahiff’s jersey by loosehead prop Florian Fresia. The Toulon fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc converted before popping over a penalty for a scrum collapse.
Then Watson took over, bringing a warm smile of satisfaction to the face of the England head coach Eddie Jones, who was watching from near the press tribune.
The 23-year-old who tends to appear on the wing for his country looked to be heading the wrong way into traffic as he took a pass from Jonathan Joseph to move infield from the eight.
But when you possess a knifing sidestep to go with a burst of speed like Watson’s, traffic quickly melts into the rear-view mirror and the crowd at The Rec acclaimed a brilliant solo score, although Priestland missed the conversion and would so again when Watson went over again in added time before the interval.
Trinh-Duc had landed his second penalty for Toulon when Bath hooker Tom Dunn made a powerful rumble up the middle and, a few phases later, Watson received the ball 30 metres the line.
Flicking the turbo-charge switch, he rounded Facundo Isa and Duane Vermeulen with ease, and while those two back-rowers could be forgiven from not laying a hand on the flying Watson, there was less excuse for the wing Josua Tuisova, who failed even to break into a defensive trot.
Jones and his forwards coach Steve Borthwick had plenty of forwards to keep an eye on, with Dunn, a member of the England training squad this season, continuing his staggering tackle count of late, alongside the second row Charlie Ewels.
There is a situation vacant with the red rose, as back-up hooker to Dylan Hartley and Jamie George, and although Dunn, a late developer who made his debut Premiership start 14 months ago, described himself in a midweek newspaper interview as looking “a bit sloppy”, his constant aggression combined with the returning Francois Louw’s turnovers gave Bath valuable momentum in this battle of the 1998 European champions against the three-peat winners of 2013 to 2015.
Toulon had edged the reverse Pool Five fixture 24-20 seven days ago, from which some poor Bath supporters returned only on Wednesday, having been obliged to stump up for Eurostar train tickets as a means of getting home amid wintry flight cancellations. Still, at least they had a visit to the Cote d’Azur in December.
Any notion Toulon would be a softer touch on the road was dispelled by their roaring start to the second half.
They cut Bath’s advantage to 23-18 when Ma’a Nonu and the faithfully-tracking Chris Ashton – who reverted to the wing in Toulon’s preferred back three, after his recent dalliance with the full-back role – made a galloping try for Samu Manoa via Guilhem Guirado’s neat link.
And the scores might have been level if Trinh-Duc had not fluffed both the conversion and a 45-metre penalty kick in the 46th minute.
Having weathered that squall, Bath collected a third penalty goal for Priestland on 55 minutes, and ratcheted the tension up when replacement Jack Wilson raced to the right-hand corner only for the apparent ‘bonus-point try’ to be chalked off for a feathered forward pass from Paul Grant out of a tackle.
How dearly Bath would love to see more of Louw, who played three Tests for South Africa last month, and had not turned out for his club since mid-October.
The eminent Springbok kept hammering away at the breakdown, frustrating Toulon, until a penalty at ruck on 63 minutes allowed Trinh-Duc to kick the visitors back to 26-21 and the same losing-bonus status Bath had achieved on their trip to France.
A scrum against the head for Bath and a penalty dragged wide from middling range by Trinh-Duc kept the pantomime-season oohs and aahs coming.
Trinh-Duc next conceded a penalty when he played on after being tackled on the fly by Louw, but Priestland nudged the kick across the face of the posts.
It came down to a Toulon scrum, amid of a fog of steaming breath, that was set on the halfway line with two minutes remaining.
The men in red went through an amazing 38 phases of ruck after ruck until a final knock-on was forced by the mighty Bath forwards.
“The boys are delighted but it’s important we back this up when we play Scarlets [in January],” said Watson. “We really put Toulon to the sword in the first 20 minutes but we need to do that to teams for the full 80 [minutes].
“My second try was proper under-11 rugby, I just went for the outside.”
Bath: tries: Obano, Watson 2; conversion: Priestland; penalties: Priestland 3.
Toulon: tries: Mathewson, Manoa; conversion: Trinh-Duc; penalties: Trinh-Duc 3.
Bath: A Watson; M Banahan (rep F Burns 78th min), J Joseph, B Tapuai (J Wilson 36), A Brew; R Priestland, C Cook (K Fotuali’I 51); B Obano (N Auterac 66), T Dunn, M Lahiff (H Thomas 51), E Stooke (L Douglas 67), C Ewels, M Garvey (capt), F Louw, P Grant (Z Mercer 66).
Toulon: H Bonneval; J Tuisova, M Bastareaud (capt), M Non (JP Pietersen 56), C Ashton; F Trinh-Duc, A Mathewson (E Escande 57); F Fresia (L Deloulbes 65), G Guirado, M van der Merwe (E Setiano 65), S Manoa (57), R Taofifenua (J Kruger 57), J Fernandez Lobbe (R Lakafia 56), F Isa, D Vermeulen.
Referee: N Owens (Wales). Official attendance: 14,422.