Sport Rugby

Monday 19 August 2019

Clermont clinch Challenge Cup crown with dominant win over La Rochelle

ASM Clermont Auvergne's Greig Laidlaw (centre) and team-mates celebrate victory at the final whistle of the Challenge Cup Final at St James' Park, Newcastle.
ASM Clermont Auvergne's Greig Laidlaw (centre) and team-mates celebrate victory at the final whistle of the Challenge Cup Final at St James' Park, Newcastle.

Andrew Baldock

Clermont Auvergne clinched a record-equalling third European Challenge Cup final victory by beating La Rochelle 36-16 at St James' Park.

And Scotland scrum-half Greig Laidlaw played a key role in the win by kicking 18 points.

Clermont matched Harlequins' achievement of three Challenge Cup triumphs through a controlled display of forward power.

It resulted in tries for wing Damian Penaud, number eight Fritz Lee and centre Wesley Fofana, while Laidlaw added four penalties and three conversions, with Morgan Parra booting a penalty.

Fly-half Ihaia West kicked three penalties and a conversion of prop Uini Atonio's try for La Rochelle.

But the first-time European finalists could have few complaints after being outgunned at key moments in front of an English record Challenge Cup final attendance of 28,438.

Clermont made all the early running, monopolising possession and almost going ahead after eight minutes when Penaud was freed in space, but he knocked on in his attempt to touch the ball down.

The early exchanges were played at a breathless pace, and La Rochelle found themselves in a prolonged defensive rearguard as Clermont probed for space through fly-half Camille Lopez.

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And his half-back partner Parra kicked Clermont into a 13th-minute lead when he found the target with a penalty from 30 metres.

But it was to be the France international's last meaningful contribution, as he was forced off after suffering what appeared to be a serious ankle injury just four minutes later.

Parra was replaced by Scotland international Laidlaw, and he doubled Clermont's advantage with a short-range penalty 10 minutes later.

A West penalty cut the deficit to round off a solid spell of La Rochelle pressure, but Clermont remained the dominant team entering the second quarter of a robust encounter.

And they finally breached La Rochelle's defence 10 minutes before the break, when patient build-up play was rewarded through a fine finish by Penaud, before Laidlaw's conversion opened up a 10-point lead.

A second West penalty cut the gap to 13-6 at the break, keeping his team in a game that Clermont had dominated.

West then had the first chance of the second half, but he saw an angled penalty strike bounce back off the post.

The New Zealander, though, made amends three minutes later, finding his range from 30 metres as La Rochelle edged closer towards their Top 14 rivals.

Another Laidlaw penalty reopened a seven-point edge for Clermont, yet La Rochelle remained firmly in the contest after recovering from a shaky opening to impose themselves on the contest.

But they were blown away by a 10-point burst in two minutes as Laidlaw kicked another penalty, then converted Lee's try, which came after a relentless forward drive.

Atonio gave La Rochelle hope with his touchdown, but Clermont were not to be denied, and Fofana sealed the deal as they added further Challenge Cup silverware to their collection following successes in 1999 and 2007.

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