Clermont ramp up the power to deny battling Quins
Finishing is not a speciality of Clermont Auvergne. By tradition, big games and long campaigns seem to slip away from them, prime examples being last year's Heineken Cup final, followed immediately by the domestic French championship, the Top 14. They were favourites to win both and they ended up with nothing.
Countless reminders of their fallibility seem to have inspired them to make no mistakes in this competition, the one they have obviously made their target. Here, they produced a second half of cruel power, growing in strength in the minutes where they habitually lose control and securing a result that propelled them into the quarter-finals of the competition. The forwards, led from the back of the scrum by New Zealander Fritz Lee, kept going to the last minute. Behind the scrum they put aside their first-half waywardness and scored two tries by their wings, Naipolioni Nalaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu.
In preventing Harlequins from scoring in the second period and in overcoming a 10-point deficit at the interval, the French team also put an end to the fairytale recovery of the home side. No team has ever qualified for the quarter-finals having lost their opening two rounds, but the Quins had refused to accept their fate and in rounds three and four had scrambled back into contention.
For a full half it seemed that nothing was beyond them in round five.
There was a moment, just as the first quarter tipped into the second, when it seemed that they were on their way, airborne on a flying carpet.
They had conceded the first score, the only kick Brock James would land until the death, but were awarded a penalty that Danny Care took quickly.
His long pass found Ugo Monye, back after a long injury, and the wing slipped the ball inside to Chris Robshaw. The England captain, once a merchant of head-down gains by the half-yard, chipped ahead -- a delicious moment in its own right, but not the best bit.
The ball threatened to bounce into touch, but Care gathered it and leapt into the air before his boot touched the sideline. While in flight beyond the field of play, he delivered a reverse pass to Matt Hopper who ran clear. Remember Dean Whare's pass in the rugby league World Cup semi-final against England? This was one of those.
The try was followed by two penalties from Nick Evans, the lead was a healthy 10 points and hopes of qualification were still alive. As for Clermont in this first half, they were full of danger -- a long break from Lee from a scrum; a cross-kick from James that Nalaga should have collected -- but failed to complete the movement and couldn't add to that early penalty.
They changed their ways at half time. According to their coach,Vern Cotter, who is off to coach Scotland at the end of this season, they decided to go "Downtown". That is, they kicked their way into territorial position before launching attacks through the hands.
Downtown suited them. And upset the Harlequin hopes. A chip by Morgan Parra, another Test player fresh back from injury, skipped over the mud and then seemed to stick. Mike Brown was wrong-footed, stuck for a moment in glue and Nalaga raced away to score. The 10-point deficit that would have carried no reward at all was now reduced to five, and a losing bonus point suited Clermont no end.
Did they have the ambition to go for the full set of points in the penultimate qualifying round that a victory could bring? They did, and it seemed that at last the Harlequins' flying carpet was unraveling. Evans had a penalty shot at goal, but the ball missed, for him, by a wide margin. It was his team's last real chance.
Clermont had begun by stealing ball off the Harlequin throw, and by driving punishingly at the scrum. They had no scoreboard reward for this physical investment but on the tacky surface, they had more strength in their legs as the game entered its final section, the long 10-minute slog for home. Clermont spent a lot of it Downtown, punching away at the line with short drives.
The home team held out admirably, but at each point of contact they had to pull in an extra defender from the outer reaches. It was an exercise in reduction by Clermont, and having done their sums they changed tactic and shipped the ball wide to Sivivatu who dived in at the corner to level the scores. A penalty by James -- a second success from five attempts -- put them ahead.
There was still time for a weary challenge, a tired tilt at the tournament's history. A last ball was stolen against the head of the best scrum in the Heineken Cup, and Harlequins attacked one last time, only to be held up by strong arms that had stayed the distance.
Scorers -- Harlequins: M Hopper try, N Evans con, 2 pens. Clermont: N Nalaga, S Sivivatu try each, B James 2 pens.
Harlequins: M Brown; C Walker (O Lindsay-Hague 46), M Hopper, T Molenaar, U Monye; N Evans, D Care (K Dickson 49); J Marler, D Ward, W Collier; N Kennedy (C Matthews 55), G Robson; L Wallace (T Guest 61), C Robshaw, N Easter.
Clermont: J-M Buttin; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (B Stanley 66), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo (V Debaty 57), B Kayser (T Paulo 55), D Zirakashvili (C Ric 67); J Cudmore, N Hines (J Pierre 70), J Bardy (G Vosloo 23); A Lapandry, F Lee.
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)