Tuesday 21 November 2017

Vunipolas power supreme Saracens to more silverware

Clermont 17 Saracens 28

Owen Farrell celebrates at the final whistle. Photo: PA
Owen Farrell celebrates at the final whistle. Photo: PA

Gavin Mairs, Murrayfield

It was one of the greatest European finals and from it Saracens cemented their place as one of the greatest English club sides of the professional era as they clinched a thrilling victory against a Clermont team who oozed class and courage but in the end did not have enough to stop their opponents' relentless march to more silverware.

This was Saracens' 18th game unbeaten in the Champions Cup - a record - and arguably the most significant milestone in the club's history as they join the esteemed company of Leicester (2001/02), Leinster (2011/12) and Toulon (2013/14/15) as the clubs who have won back-to-back European Cup titles. Mark McCall's men also remain on course for a remarkable feat of winning the Premiership and Champions Cup double for the second successive season.

Saracens' Marcelo Bosch is tackled by Clermont Auvergne's Davit Zirakashvili. Photo: Getty Images
Saracens' Marcelo Bosch is tackled by Clermont Auvergne's Davit Zirakashvili. Photo: Getty Images

It is always so much harder to defend a title than win it, yet Saracens have coped with having a target on their backs throughout the campaign with the aplomb of true champions.

Their next assignment is at Exeter in the Premiership semi-finals on Saturday. There is little time to celebrate or bind their wounds, with the winners due to face Leicester or Wasps in the final on May 27.

No wonder that Warren Gatland has included six of this side in his Lions squad. Make it seven if you include Phil Morrow, the club's director of performance. On this evidence, the Lions, if nothing else, will have a steely core.

The Vunipola brothers, Billy and Mako, in particular, delivered remarkable performances, leading the charge with their carrying and tackling topping the charts.

Sracaens' Jackson Wray on the charge. Photo: Getty Images
Sracaens' Jackson Wray on the charge. Photo: Getty Images

There was the romance, too - Chris Ashton, off to France next season, finishing the game as Europe's record try-scorer, his first-half score, complete with the 'Ash-splash', eclipsing Vincent Clerc's total of 36 tries.

Then there was the cool-headed ferocity of Owen Farrell, who landed four penalties in the second half to keep Saracens with enough breathing space to repel a stunning Clermont fightback, which yielded tries first by Remi Lamerat and then former Bath and England wing Nick Abendanon.

Alex Goode, overlooked by England and the Lions, also had one of his finest games for Saracens. It was his ghosting try in the final quarter that eventually took the game away from the French side, who were once again the bridesmaids in a major final, having lost to Toulon in 2013 and 2015, and winning just once from 12 appearances in the Top 14 final.

Saracens set the tone from the off, dominating possession and territory and forcing Clermont into a defensive rearguard that meant they were living off scraps.

It had to be Ashton to strike first. Saracens had already been awarded a penalty when Chris Wyles stormed off his wing to create the overlap, forcing the Clermont defence to hold their line and allowing Goode to chip through to the corner, where Ashton pounced ahead of Scott Spedding.

Farrell's penalty from 49 metres fell the wrong side of the crossbar, yet Saracens tightened their grip on the contest, and it seemed inevitable when George Kruis forced his way over for his side's second try, powering through Raphael Chaume and Sebastien Vahaamahina following wave after wave of powerful drives and offloads.

Clermont desperately needed a foothold in the game and they have too much class in their ranks not to find a response. It duly came after Aurelien Rougerie hit a great line from a five-metre scrum and when the ball was recycled Lamerat picked up and drove over the line. Morgan Parra converted.

Both sides had their chances before the interval but given Clermont's tradition for winning matches from a strong start, Saracens would have gone into the interval the more content side and when Farrell landed a penalty soon after the break, their march to victory appeared on course.

This Clermont side can play, though, and the intensity of the contest would rise several more notches after Yato's superb handling skills eluded Farrell and Ashton to put Abendanon over for a try, with Parra's conversion reducing their deficit to one point. Farrell and Parra exchanged penalties and as the game entered the final quarter, it was still poised beautifully on a one-point knife-edge.

The introduction of Schalk Brits, however, brought a new dimension to Saracens' attacking game and the momentum swung back towards the English side. A break by Brits carved an opening for prop Vincent Koch - if it had been Ashton on his shoulder it would have been another try - and Clermont were mightily relieved not to concede a penalty try when Camille Lopez knocked on Wyles's pass to Ashton with the line at his mercy.

Parra's brave tackle then prevented Billy Vunipola from barging to the line from the base of a five-metre scrum.

Saracens, though, would not be denied. When Clermont full-back Spedding knocked on in his own 22, it gave Saracens another platform to attack from and this time they landed the killer blow when Goode ghosted through a gap. Farrell then added another penalty.

A missed penalty by Lopez closed the door on any hopes of a late revival.

This was Saracens' day.

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