April 9 2012
Clermont Ferrand is a very pleasant town in the Massif Central where its twisty medieval streets contrast with the home of the Michelin Man. But above all it is a rugby town where, when their beloved ASM play, they literally paint the town yellow and blue. Hubby and I spent a very happy weekend there in 2011 and experienced the cauldron that is Stade Marcel Michelin where the whole stadium shakes beneath the chanting of 14,000 supporters.
On Easter Sunday, they brought a bit of French magic to Watford. Well quite a lot actually, there must have been close on 3,000 ASM supporters exploring the delights of North London dressed from head to foot in yellow and blue, wearing berets and Viking helmets, rugby shorts and kilts (kilts?) and carrying flags large enough to cover a giant’s table. No doubt they searched in vain for the historical Watford town centre – and being Easter Sunday even the Harlequin Centre was closed (although I take my fez off to the couple who managed to find Watford Met Line Station). Come to think of it why have we allowed them to get away with the “Harlequin” Centre all these years? Saracen Centre would be so much better.
They brought their Gallic charm to a dingy suburb of North London, they turned Vicarage Road into the Stade Marcel Michelin, they made their team feel at home. When they danced the South Stand shook (and I was quite relieved the East Stand is closed as surely it would literally have been shaken to its foundations). With their variety of songs the plaintive “Sarries, Sarries” didn’t stand a chance and once they launched into the Marseillaise they had metaphorically planted the French Tricolour firmly on English Soil.
Today they showed us a vision of where we want to be – and just how far we still have to travel to get there.
Sarries carried the last English hope in European Rugby Competition. Already the last English team in The Heineken, we had watched Exeter & Wasps (unluckily) and Quins (barely trying) depart from the Amlin. But miracles do happen, Edinburgh had beaten Toulouse and Ulster had defeated the mighty Munster so there was a chance.
The match started brightly for Sarries with several attacking phases which ended in a knock-on. Relevant because it led to a scrum and the first of a succession of Clermont scrum penalties. There was another major turning point when David Skrela the Clermont Fly half departed after only 3 minutes to be replaced by Australian Brock James. James proceeded to give a masterclass of fly half play winning him Man of the Match. His first action was to kick a penalty following an offside and put his team the lead. Then a superb high kick from James was parried by Alex Goode forcing Strettle to carry the ball over. A 2nd Clermont scrum penalty was as inevitable as (Easter) eggs is eggs and James duly slotted 3 more points from wide on the left.
Alex Goode, who otherwise had an excellent game fielding James’ probing kicks, put the restart into touch: another scrum, another Clermont penalty and another 3 points from James. Owen reduced the arrears with an excellent kick from wide on the right after Clermont strayed offside.
That completed the scoring for the first half. James missed another kick at goal following yet another scrum penalty. Owen missed one in turn when Clermont pulled down a maul and James missed a second from just inside his own half when Sarries offended at the line out. In the meantime Clermont looked the more dangerous and Sarries rarely managed to get into their opponents 22. James’ kicking was sublime, mixing up high kicks and grubbers, finding huge touches and sorely testing Alex Goode, a test he passed with flying colours which included a brilliant take from a monster James kick with the Clermont back line bearing down on him. Ironically the final play of the half was a penalty to Sarries at the scrum which Hodgson kicked into touch. Owen took a knock towards the end of the half and didn’t look right from then on.
So a tough first half and perhaps Sarries were a bit lucky to be only 3-9 down. Clermont were looking awesome, snuffing out everything Sarries had to offer. Once again the Sarries’ scrum was under pressure and whatever you say about Mr Rolland’s refereeing, the scrum hasn’t looked secure for some weeks and particularly when it comes up against a powerful opposition pack (Leicester, Northampton, Quins last week). Rougerie was looking immovable in defence and Bonnaire pouncing on anything loose. The huge Zirakashvili appeared as unstoppable as the juggernaut he is when heading for the line. This was a big half time. The first score of the second half was crucial and it had to go to Sarries.
In the event the game was over 10 minutes into the 2nd half. A poor clearance from Hodgson was pounced on by Hines who found Rougerie and Parra. Parra had 3 men outside him and chose Lee Byrne who duly scored in the corner and James kicked the conversion to put another nail in the coffin. To add insult to injury he then slotted a cheeky drop goal to put Clermont ahead 3-19 and there was no way back for Sarries. Another James penalty confirmed the inevitable.
There were still 26 minutes left but I doubt if anyone in the ground felt Sarries had a chance. A raft of substitutes (and Clermont taking their foot off the pedal a tad) improved things a bit and Sarries did have a couple of scoring chances, once when Short looked free on the left but the pass was forward and again when Strettle opted to go inside instead of out but in all honesty Clermont had the answer to anything Sarries could throw at them. The curse of the 7’s struck again with Will Fraser limping off and Brits again filling in in the back row.
The final 10 minutes were spent in the Clermont 22 but somehow Sarries never looked like getting the ball over the line. In fairness they never gave up but they didn’t look like scoring either. There was a lot of lateral play without much forward progress, the alternative was the pick and drive but Clermont seemed to have twice the number of players on the pitch and defended their try line with some ease. The match ended, inevitably, with a scrum penalty to Clermont. The French cockerel had crowed and Sarries had been denied.
So the European adventure is over for another year. Still a work in progress – better than last year but Clermont showed just how far we still have to go. Worryingly we have now lost our last 2 games, arguably the 2 most important of the season so far, and just as we should be peaking we are looking jaded and out of ideas. The scrum is particularly worrying (although it was good to hear from John Smit that he hopes to be fit next week). The one area we held our own was the Lineout. Our England players seem to be struggling. Whereas last year the 6 nations gave us both a break and a chance to defeat weakened opposition, this year the boot is on the other foot and we are suffering. That weekend off at the end of April may prove to be a blessing in disguise!
Good luck to Clermont. On French soil, with such fabulous support and playing like this they have a great chance of defeating Leinster. Meanwhile, considering future travel plans, a quick memo to ERC – a weekend on the Cote d’Azure would go down rather well next season!
Goode, Strettle, Farrell (Short), Barritt (Powell), Wyles, Hodgson, Wigglesworth (De Kock), Gill (Vunipola), Brits, Stevens (Nieto), Borthwick , Botha (Kruis), Melck (Wray), Fraser (George), Joubert
Byrne, Sivivatu, Fofana, Rougerie, Malzieu, Skrela (James), Parra, Faura (Debaty), Kayser (Paulo), Zirakashvili (Kotze), Cudmore, Hines, Bonnaire, Lapandry, Vermeulen (Bardy)
Try: Byrne, Conv: James, Pen: James (4), DG: James
0-3 0-6 0-9 3-9 3-16 3-19 3-22
Referee Alain Rolland