La Rochelle’s Ihaia West. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Former Maori All Blacks flyhalf Ihaia West scored 24 points as ex-New Zealand back-rower Victor Vito celebrated his 100th La Rochelle match with a 29-15 victory over Toulon in the French Top 14 on Saturday.
West missed from the tee just once and scored a first-half try after double Rugby World Cup winner Vito was given a hero’s welcome at Stade Marcel-Deflandre, which was given a local exemption to allow up to 8 000 people to the ground due to coronavirus restrictions in France.
“It was very important to win the first match here, we could have made the score bigger during the first half,” Vito’s co-club captain Kevin Gourdon told broadcaster Canal+.
“We played a bit too much and then it became nonsense,” he added.
Last season’s Top 14 was stopped in April without a champion named due to the Covid-19 outbreak and Friday’s scheduled campaign opener between Stade Francais and Bordeaux-Begles was postponed with the Parisians lacking healthy front-rowers who had not contracted the virus.
Springbok star limps off
Australia lock Will Skelton made his debut for hosts La Rochelle, but South Africa’s Rugby World Cup winner Eben Etzebeth started on the bench for Toulon, the three-time European Cup champions.
West opened the scoring with three penalties within the opening a quarter of an hour.
The former Blues playmaker extended his side’s advantage eight minutes later with his try.
New signing Brice Dulin chipped into the hosts 22m metres, Erwan Dridi was caught in two minds inside his in-goal area and West’s effort was confirmed by the television match official.
He added the extras before trading a penalty with Toulon’s France scrumhalf Baptiste Serin for a 19-3 lead after half an hour.
Emerick Setiano received Toulon’s first yellow card two minutes later before former Australia under-20s centre Duncan Paia’aua was sent to the bin shortly after and Serin cut the advantage seconds before the break.
Etzebeth replaced Romain Taofifenua for the second-half but failed to stop La Rochelle’s flow as West stretched the lead to 22-6 with his fifth penalty after 49 minutes.
West failed in front of the posts for the first time with 25 minutes to play before Serin closed the gap to 10 points on the hour mark.
Half-time substitute Etzebeth left the field 12 minutes into the second-half with an apparent side injury and Skelton followed suit, but unhurt after a solid display on his debut.
Serin kicked a penalty to close the gap to seven points with 12 minutes to play but winger Arthur Retiere, the league’s top-try scorer when last season was stopped, opened his account for the new campaign.
Former All Blacks scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow found Retiere on the wing to cross with ease with West’s conversion taking the score to 29-15.
Later, Wallabies playmaker Kurtley Beale makes his Racing 92 debut in the trip to Lyon and Castres host Agen.
On Sunday, Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima makes his Clermont bow at home against the Toulouse of Springbok speedster Cheslin Kolbe.