Toulouse Olympic XII and Batley Bulldogs faced up in the weekend’s first Championship lay-off semi-final for a berth in the grand final or “Million Pound Game” – and a possible place in Super League for 2022.
The hosts were making a welcome return to their home ground at Stade Ernest Wallon after 18 months of Covid lockdowns and restrictions.
They also came into the game off the back of impressive wins in their last six games, including an 82-12 thrashing of Newcastle Thunder, where they collected the League Leaders Trophy after going through the season unbeaten.
Underdogs Batley on the other hand, had lost two of their previous six, to Dewsbury and Whitehaven and finished the regular season in fourth – though having played seven more league games than their opponents, given the pandemic disruption.
Toulouse made the first mistake of the game, knocking on at the end of their first set as the Bulldogs’ strategy of pressure and disruption paid its first dividend. Tony Gigot was then ruled to have knocked on after intercepting a pass in the subsequent Batley set. But the Batley pressure in the TO 20 came to nothing.
But the Olymique team continued to make errors in possession and defence under a weight of expectation in front of a 10,000 crown, though Batley failed to turn that pressure into points.
And it was the hosts who notched up the first score when former Catalans veteran Remi Casty caught an offload from Jy Hitchcox with a gap opening up in front of him and ghosted through to dot down under the posts.
Mark Kheirallah duly converted for a 6-0 leads after 10 minutes as the game, and the home team, started to settle down.
Gigot extended the lead on 15 minutes, picking up the ball after Johnathon Ford broke down the left and kicked inside and crossing with ease. Kheirallah made it 12-0.
But the Bulldogs bit back minutes later when Dane Manning powered over and Tom Gilmore converted to bring it back to 12-6.
Toulouse restored a 10-point gap when Ford kicked through again and former Wiganer Joe Bretherton raced through to ground the ball just before the dead-ball line. Kheirallah couldn’t convert from wide though.
Batley were next on the score board with a well-worked short-side play moving the ball out to Greg Johnson, unopposed on the wing, who strolled over. Gilmore’s touchline conversion narrowed the gap to four points at 16-12 with 10 minutes of the half left.
The visitors piled on pressure for those 10 minutes, but couldn’t move the scoreboard forward and 16-12 is where the half ended.
As soon as the second half got under way though, Junior Vaivai extended Olympique’s lead to eight points, crossing in the corner after a flowing move as the ball moved to the left and the centre powerd over against two defenders.
Again, Kheirallah’s kick from the touchline failed to get between the posts. But he crossed for a try just two minutes later, racing to follow a high kicked and pressuring fullback Elliot Hall who let the ball bounce for his opposite number score.
This time, Kheirallah made no mistake with the kick and the score stretched to now 26-12.
Justin Sangaré made it 30 when he powered over between the posts on 50 minutes, giving Kheirallah his easiest conversion chance of the game, which he duly took to give TO a more respectable 32-12 lead.
With Ellois Pellisier on the field and controlling play the hosts looked more composed, and second rower Mathieu Jussaume raced over on the right after a Batley mistake. Kheirallah’s conversion made it 38-12 and the TO treizistes now looked an easy bet to host the Million Pound game at the Ernest Wallon stadium next Sunday.
Mitch Garbutt added the next score after a close-range charge through the defence on 65 minutes, while Kheirallah kicked his sixth conversion for a 44-12 score with a little over 10 minutes of the game remaining.
Gigot rubbed salt in the wound with a drop kick from 40m out with 77 minutes gone, and then Kheirallah took a speculative kick into the corner in the 79th minute for Joseph Paullo to race onto and gild the victory at 49-12, with Kheirallah knocking up the half century with a touchline conversion for a 51-12 final score.
So TOXIII will host the Million Pound game next Sunday and play for the chance to give Super League an all-French derby between them and the Catalan Dragons of Perpignan in 2022.
Toulouse Olympique XIII: Kheirallah (T, 6G), Hitchcox, Jussaume (T), Vaivai (T), Schaumkel, Gigot (T, DG), Ford, Casty (T), White, Hansen, Bretherton (T), Peyroux. Replacements: Pellisier, Garbutt (T), Sangare (T), Paulo.
Batley Bulldogs: Hooley, Campbell, Walshaw, Buchannon, Johnson (T), White, Gilmore (2G), Blagbrough, Leak, Everett, Manning (T), Flynn, Brown. Replacements: Hall, Gledhill, Ward, Buchanan.
Referee: Liam Moore.
Venue: Stade Ernest Wallon
Half Time: 16-12
Full Time: 51-12
Score progression: 0-0, 4-0, 6-0, 10-0, 12-0, 12-4, 12-6, 16-6, 16-10, 16-12. HT. 20-12, 24-12, 26-12, 30-12, 32-12, 36-12, 38-12, 42-12, 44-12, 45-12, 49-12, 51-12. FT.