Toulon fightback denies Clermont in Heineken Cup final
Delon Armitage try and Jonny Wilkinson conversion snatch an unlikely victory against hitherto unbeaten rivals
Toulon’s Delon Armitage dives in for the decisive try after outrunning Brock James of Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
Lee Byrne of Clermont Auvergne is hit hard by Matt Giteau of Toulon during the Heineken Cup final. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Clermont looked far more dangerous in possession and if they managed to introduce a little more composure and precision, especially in the Toulon 22, might have won this match in a canter.
They will also rue the fact that they gave away too many penalties, failing to react to Alain Rolland’s officiating at ruck time. It cost them possession and position and acted as a safety valve in allowing Toulon to escape from their own 22.
The latter took their chances, or more accurately the one try scoring opportunity that presented itself, and otherwise relied on the boot of their captain Jonny Wilkinson. Toulon, Mathieu Bastareaud was superb in attack and defence, showed grit and character but it shouldn’t have been enough to suffice.
The opening 40 minutes was conducted principally between the two 22-metre lines, a series of collisions where players from both sides sought out each other rather than space. The honourable exceptions were Clermont winger Sitiveni Sivivatu and centre Wesley Fofana, whose footwork, pace and angles of running allowed them to make several line breaks.
Unfortunately their colleagues couldn’t sustain the momentum, sometimes it was handling, on other occasions they fell foul of referee Rolland, who penalised them a handful of times for not releasing after the tackle. Fofana is a pleasure to watch, his gliding acceleration and appreciation of angles a constant threat to the opposition defence.
The closest Clermont came to scoring a try in that period came when Toulon wing Rudi Wulf was turned over by Sivivatu at a ruck on the halfway line. Fofana and Julienn Bonnaire combined to put Brock James scampering up the touchline. The Australian chipped over the top and outpaced Toulon’s Chris Masoe and Juan Fernandez Lobbe but the dead-ball line won the race by a nanosecond as James grounded it on the whitewash.
Toulon huffed and puffed but there was precious little subtlety to their patterns and they chose Wilkinson’s boot as their main attacking gambit.
Clermont scrumhalf Morgan Parra kicked a penalty on three minutes and Wilkinson responded in kind after 12 to provide the only tangible rewards in scoring terms.
Clermont lost a great attacking position following a break by Sivivatu when Lee Byrne was penalised for not releasing, but Mathieu Bastareaud, who made the tackle certainly didn’t release the player, before trying to secure possession. There were two offences, the second one spotted first.
If the first half was sterile on the scoreboard then the second came to life from the opening stanza.
After Fofana had snaffled yardage on one touchline, Clermont moved play to the other side of the pitch. Rougerie fended off Danie Rossouw rather easily and released Napolioni Nalaga. The big Fijian brushed off the tackle of Sebastien Tillous Borde and through another attempt from Armitage to score in the corner; it was a great finish. Parra couldn’t add the conversion, and although Wilkinson reduced the deficit with a penalty, the favourites Clermont crossed for their second try.
Rougerie was again the catalyst, muscling Wilkinson aside as he raced on to a gorgeously weighted chip from James. He rode a weak tackle from Tillous Borde and released the supporting James, who covered the final 20 metres to the try line. Parra added the conversion and at 15-6 Clermont were within touching distance of winning a tournament their rugby merited; and not just this season.
But they continued to transgress at ruck time, the penalty count 5-0 at this stage, and when they were penalised again on 60 minutes, Wilkinson reduced the deficit to six points.
The one question mark that has lingered about this Clermont team is whether they have the mental capacity to keep playing to the final whistle. The game’s pivotal moment arrived on 63 minutes when Lobbe turned over the ball at a ruck after Fofana had been isolated in the tackle.
The Argentinean’s overhead pass to Armitage sent the England international racing clear and he could enjoy a mini-celebration before dotting down. Wilkinson kicked an excellent conversion and Toulon, remarkably, were in front.
It was the first try they have scored in the knock-out stages of this season’s tournament.
Clermont’s resolve was to face an acid test but as Parra, Rougerie and James headed for the sideline, leadership and composure went with them. They did manage to get field position in the dying throes of the contest, twice, but replacement David Skrela bizarrely went into rucks when he should have been dropping into the pocket to attempt a drop goal.
They had the field position inside the Toulon 22 but it wasn’t until they were a little further out that the drop goal was attempted and charged down. The game ended with a forward pass and a handling error on the touchline 10 metres from the Toulon line.
They deserve credit for the manner in which they hung in a game that appeared at various stages of the second half to be disappearing over the horizon.
It offered a reminder that if a team can stay on Clermont’s coat-tails they may be occasionally rewarded. It was a day when the a team rightly considered the best in Europe, could not deliver on that label.
Scoring sequence 3 mins: Parra penalty, 3-0; 12: Wilkinson penalty, 3-3. Half-time: 3-3. 41: Nalaga try, 8-3; 45: Wilkinson penalty, 8-6; 47: James try, conversion, 15-8; 60: Wilkinson penalty, 15-9; 64: Armitage try, Wilkinson conversion, 15-16.
Clermont Auvergne: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili; N Hines, J Cudmore; J Bonnaire, G Vosloo, D Chouly. Replacements: V Debaty for Domingo 65 mins; Ti Paulo for Bruno 65 mins; J Bardy for Vosloo 67 mins; R King for Rougerie 67 mins; L Radosavijevic for Parra 71 mins; D Skrela for James 73 mins; C Ric for Zirakashvili 73 mins.
Toulon: D Armitage; R Wulf, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, A Palisson; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tilous Borde; A Sheridan, S Bruno, C Hayman; B Botha, N Kennedy; D Rossouw, J Fernandez Lobbe, C Masoe. Replacements: J van Niekerk for Rossouw 50 mins; F Michalak for Tillous Borde 50 mins; JC Orioli for Bruno 50 mins; G Jenkins for Sheridan 61 mins; J Suta for Botha 67 mins; S Armitage for Masoe 67 mins; D Kubriashvili for Hayman 76 mins. Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)