Wednesday 23 October 2019

Familiar agony for Clermont


Toulon's Delon Armitage scores the crucial try during his side’s shock 16-15 win over red-hot favourites Clermont Auvergne in yesterday’s Heineken Cup final at the Aviva Stadium.
Toulon's Delon Armitage scores the crucial try during his side’s shock 16-15 win over red-hot favourites Clermont Auvergne in yesterday’s Heineken Cup final at the Aviva Stadium.
Toulon celebrate after the Heineken Cup Final match at the Aviva Stadium.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

WITH just over 50 minutes gone at Lansdowne Road last night, the Toulon forwards laboured their way into the Clermont '22' desperate to get a chink of light into a game that had been fading at first and then gone dark.

They were promptly turned over. With the Clermont fans greeting the steal wildly – they far outnumbered their opponents in the 50,148 crowd – you wouldn't have given much for Toulon finding the light switch. That it would be Delon Armitage who would lead them where they wanted to go seemed even less likely. On the next Clermont attack, which broke down in the Toulon '22', Jonny Wilkinson hurriedly hacked the ball out of play and Armitage stood there with his arms outstretched, clearly unhappy with the choice of his captain.

For the next few minutes Armitage appeared to be in a sulk, which may well be his default setting. Soon enough, though, all that would change, and the former England full back would skate over for the score that changed the game.

So just when you were thinking how Mourad Boudjellal would feel about the return on his massive investment in Toulon, instead we were writing another chapter in the history of Clermont's failures in cup finals. Different script, same theme.

How did they go from drilling their opponents with two tries in six minutes, early in the second half, to establish that 15-6 lead, to losing it? In the context of this game a nine-point lead was significant. It had been a hugely bruising first half, at the end of which Clermont had played all the rugby and had nothing to show for it – 62 per cent territory, nearly four times as many offloads, and with 50 tackles made compared to Toulon's 75, you could see where all the traffic had been going. Yet at its end it was 3-3, a penalty each to Morgan Parra, a wonderful player off form, and Wilkinson.

Then Clermont made the breakthrough on 42 minutes with a lovely try in tight circumstances for Napolioni Nalaga. Fittingly, the turnover that had provided the source was from Sitiveni Sivivatu, who was the most influential man on the field. Nice use of space by Brock James and Aurelien Rougerie, and poor defending from Alexis Palisson, opened the channel for Nalaga and he finished brilliantly.

Wilkinson pulled three points back within a couple of minutes but then on 48 minutes James started and finished Clermont's second try. He had been denied by the dead-ball line in the first half but this one had a happy ending. From a ruck 40 metres out, he caught out the Toulon defence with a lovely chip over the top which Aurelien Rougerie did well to regather, and then the outhalf appeared at his shoulder to take the offload and scramble home from 25 metres.

You couldn't see what it was that Toulon could bring to the game that would turn things around. With Clermont, though, if you can chip away at them, then their self-destruct tendency adds to the damage.

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On 61 minutes, Wilkinson knocked over another penalty after a breakout and chip ahead by Freddie Michalak forced a foul from James. The scoreboard said 15-9, but still you couldn't see where Toulon would get the try they needed to transform the game.

Step up Juan Martin Fernandez-Lobbe. Or rather, ask why with the rain coming down, Clermont were running a ball that could have been knocked in behind the Toulon defence. Instead James went to Wesley Fofana, who was turned over by the Puma – great offload to Armitage and off he goes, giving a bit of grief to the chasing James en route. Of course Wilkinson nailed the conversion and Clermont were trailing by a point.

What did they do with seven minutes left? Eh, they changed their halfbacks. Both of them, in the space of a minute. Given that they were chasing a penalty or drop goal, it was hard to understand for neither of them looked crocked. On came David Skrela – James may have an unfortunate history in closing down games but Skrela is not the man you want in that position.

With referee Alain Rolland not in the mood to give them a penalty despite a few genuine claims, it fell to Skrela to attempt a drop, which was doomed to fail. Still they had a chance, and on the last play of the game Sivivatu threw a horror pass in the direction of Ti'i Paulo on the wing. A minute earlier the replacement hooker had been put away by Sivivatu but a forward wasn't the man they wanted in that position at that time. This time the ball sailed into touch. Toulon celebrated a stunning comeback, and the Clermont players slumped to the floor – a position they find themselves in all too often in knockout rugby.

Scorers – Clermont: N Nalaga, B James tries; M Parra pen, con; Toulon: D Armitage try; J Wilkinson 3 pens, con.

Clermont Auvergne: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt)(R King 69), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James (D Skrela 73), M Parra (L Radosavlejic 74); T Domingo (V Debaty 66), B Kayser (T Paulo 66), D Zirakashvilli (C Ric 74), J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire, D Chouly, G Vosloo (J Bardy 69).

Toulon: D Armitage; R Wolf, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, A Palisson; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous-Borde (F Michalak 52); A Sheridan (G Jenkins 62), S Bruno (JC Orioloi 53), C Hayman (D Kubriashvilli 77), B Botha (J Suta 69), N Kennedy, D Roussouw (J van Niekerk 52), C Masoe (S Armitage 69), JM Fernandez-Lobbe.

Referee: A Rolland (Irl).

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