Monday 26 August 2019

Wall of sound inspires Clermont to redemption

Clermont 13 Saracens 9

Clermont's Fidji winger Napolioni Nalaga (R) misses the opportunity for a try
Clermont's Fidji winger Napolioni Nalaga (R) misses the opportunity for a try
Saracens's British David Strettle (C) jumps to try catching the ball during the European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final match between Clermont and Saracens at Geoffroy-Guichard stadium in Saint-Etienne
Saracens' flanker Maro Itoje is tackled by Clermont's players
Clermont fans celebrate their semi-final victory over Saracens

Eddie Butler

At this stage last year, Saracens destroyed Clermont Auvergne at Twickenham in a record-breaking advance to the final. It was a gruesome day for a proud rugby club. And it did not happen again. It was different here at the Stade Geoffroy Guichard.

In the strange ways of deciding what is a semi-neutral semi, the game came here to the footballing city of Saint Etienne. It is rugby city now, made so by the impassioned 41,500 who came over the Massif Central from Clermont-Ferrand, from one industrial city to another. The Clermont faithful made this a desperately difficult place for a visiting team. The crowd was a factor; they were brilliant.

It was not the warmest April day Saint Etienne had ever seen before kick-off, but the yellow shirts of the crowd brightened up the spectacle and certainly made Clermont feel at home. The black-shirted Saracens were outnumbered, it seemed, a thousand to one in the stadium.

And then the sun did come out and the scene was perfectly set for some sparkle on the playing side. At which point, Napolioni Nalaga dropped the first high kick that came his way. Jonathan Davies dropped another. The scene was set but the play was cloudy.

Charlie Hodgson put saracens ahead with a drop-goal. Brock James, who had missed a much shorter attempt at a drop-goal, levelled with a penalty. He was engaged in a compelling head-to-head of his own, pitting his wits against Hodgson. The Saracens outhalf only managed to land one of three penalty opportunities he was given in a 12-minute period towards the end of the first half, which left his side ahead 6-3 at the break.

Sunshine rugby had yet to come out to play. And it did not appear after the break. Thunder rugby struck, Clermont cranking up their forwards’ game and coming at Saracens with venom. Damien Chouly led the charge, followed by Benjamin Kayser and Vincent Debaty. It was not subtle — or at least not at first, not until James dinked a little chip over the Saracens backs and Wesley Fofana followed up to score untouched. Clermont were in the lead for the first time. James converted and the missed penalties looked expensive.

The game opened up. But the crowd sensed victory. Their unique exuberance was hushed for a moment by Owen Farrell, on for Hodgson. His penalty hit the flag on top of the posts and was good. Clermont led by just the one point, but it was a point that could be defended through territorial dominance.

The storm rose. The rumble of full-on celebration began. Saracens were trying to play from a long way out. They tried to take the ball wide to Chris Ashton but defenders bore down on the wing. From further and further back, Alex Goode had to initiate counters, only for a wall to from in front of him.

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It was warm. It was exhausting. But Clermont piled into their tackles to the very end. A proud club was erasing the memory of the humiliation of last year’s semi-final. Every tackle was a statement. Saracens did not release at a breakdown and up stepped James again to make the margin four points again.

Play remained resolutely in the Saracens half. The more yards Clermont gained and did not yield the more the crowd gave them a rising volume of support, and the faster the clock ran down for Saracens.

Clermont were on their way to the final. Not in sunshine style, but in a rip-roaring, ear-splitting shower of sound, the bull-fight between stewards and handfuls of pitch-invading fans given the full roar way after the players had left the scene.

Scorers — Clermont: Fofana try, James 2 pens, con; Saracens: Hodgson pen, dg, Farrell pen.

Clermont: Abendanon; Nakaitaci, Davies, Fofana, Nalaga (Rougerie 74); James, Radosavljevic (Parra 54); Debaty, Kayser  (Ulugia 66), Zirakashvili, Cudmore, Vaha’amahina, Bonnaire, Bardy (Lapandry 55), Chouly (capt).

Saracens: Goode; Ashton, Bosch, Barritt (capt), Wyles; Hodgson (Farrell 57), Wigglesworth (De Kock 69); M Vunipola (Gill 73), George (Brits 51), Du Plessis, Kruis, Hamilton (Wray 55), Itoje, Burger (Brown 74), B Vunipola

Referee: G Clancy (Ire)

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