Monday 15 July 2019

Clermont a clear second against ruthless Toulon

'When you saw Camille Lopez miss a penalty to touch, you had to wonder again about Clermont's mental strength'
'When you saw Camille Lopez miss a penalty to touch, you had to wonder again about Clermont's mental strength'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

With time up in the first half at a two-thirds full Twickenham yesterday (with an atmosphere to match), Nick Abendanon gathered the ball close to the touchline, and was immediately faced with an important decision: should he get the ball off the field and allow his team head to the dressing-room with their lead intact, despite having been battered in the second quarter? Or should he keep it in play and see what might unfold?

That's not quite as straightforward as it seems. As Jonny Wilkinson pointed out at the break, a player might be untrusting of the stadium clock, and moreover he might not want to seem like his team need to get off the field.

Perhaps. Still however, once he opted to run, and chip to nowhere, an uneasy feeling crept over you if a Clermont win was what you were after. The chip went wrong, and of course it cost them seven points. Bye bye half-time lead, hello mental anguish.

By then the creak in their set-piece had become an alarming grinding noise. Toulon knew that the scrum would be a source of penalties if they needed them - always a comfort when you have Leigh Halfpenny in your team - and the lineout which had started so well was also struggling.

As for their kick-off receptions, Toulon must have looked on drop-offs as an ideal means of spreading panic in the Clermont ranks. Add it all up and the script was writing itself: another final, another Clermont capitulation.

The difference this time, though, was that they were clearly second best. In Lansdowne Road two years ago, against the same opposition, they were in control when they lost the plot, ran a ball they should have hoofed, and lost.

This time they battled bravely and made a heroic attempt at overhauling Toulon on the final straight, but simply didn't have enough. In fairness to Abendanon, it was his creativity that got them back in the game with a chip-and-gather try. As they were on the charge in that endgame Steffon Armitage produced a bit of lazy running that should have seen him carded.

Perhaps Nigel Owens let it run for Clermont's momentum hadn't been destroyed, and Ludovic Radosavljevic was able to keep his team going forward, but it certainly suited Toulon.

Exciting as it was, though, you couldn't see Clermont getting the seven points they would need to win. The first bit was hard enough, but when you saw Camille Lopez miss a penalty to touch, you had to wonder again about their mental strength.

Lopez himself had been a late replacement for Brock James. Given James' history you reckoned this might be a positive omen. Lopez is decent but too often yesterday he was only a distributor, when he needed to be a runner as well.

The price Clermont paid was in allowing the voracious Toulon defensive heavies make spot tackles behind the gain line. Allied to the non-impact of the once great Morgan Parra and the Auvergnians were a couple of sandwiches short of the full picnic.

Their opponents in contrast brought everything they needed to the table. Three in a row tells you all you need to know about their quality.

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