Saracens show fighting spirit but Clermont still claim spoils
Scott Spedding’s late long-range penalty proves the difference between the sides
Scott Spedding (centre) of Clermont celebrates with team-mates Morgan Parra (left) and Fritz Lee after kicking the last -minute penalty against Saracens at Stade Marcel-Michelin. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
It is hard to imagine two more contrasting rugby occasions than those involving Clermont and Saracens in the past week. The first leg was an icy mismatch in north London in front of a paltry audience, the sequel a belter in the continent’s most atmospheric bearpit. The only common denominator was that Europe’s defending champions, for the seventh game in a row in all competitions, lost yet again.
At least a crazy afternoon in the Massif Central showed Saracens are still bang up for the fight.
After a week of soul-searching and home truths, they travelled away to France in search of something more than just a morale-boosting result. Their director of rugby, Mark McCall, had wanted to see a reaction to their miserable performance at Allianz Park and duly received it.
Had it not been for a 50-metre howitzer of a 78th-minute match-winning penalty with two minutes left, Sarries would have had two points instead of a consolatory one.
The north Londoners’ European hopes, nevertheless, hang by a precarious thread. They now need to win both their final two games to qualify for the last eight, with their next fixture away at Ospreys in the new year set to determine which of the two clubs join Clermont in the quarter-finals.
With Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje both hoping to be back to reinforce the Sarries’ pack by then, it is too early to write them off yet.
It is similarly too early to pronounce that Clermont are nailed on to reach for the final in Bilbao in May but on days like this it is easy to see why they have not lost here to English opposition for nine years. For all Saracens’ character and prickly defiance, Clermont would probably have won by more had it not been for some baffling decisions from the Irish referee, Andrew Brace, and his TMO, Simon McDowell.
By the time Clermont had Nick Abendanon sent to the sin-bin for crashing into an airborne George Kruis after Sean Maitland and Jackson Wray had escaped for apparently worse offences, the home crowd were seething with injustice and, to a large extent, they had a point.
Saracens did have two men sent to the sin-bin but Will Skelton could potentially have been carded a couple of times before he finally departed and there was a distinct sense of Mr Brace making amends for previous errors, particularly surrounding high tackles, when Juan Figallo walked in the 66th minute with the visitors leading 21-18.
It was always going to be tough for Saracens to hold on and, once Clermont had been restored to 15 men, the inevitable duly unfolded. First Morgan Parra slotted his sixth penalty of the afternoon and then, with the Sarries’ scrum penalised under serious pressure, Scott Spedding had one last chance to soothe Gallic nerves.
The France full-back stretched his giant hamstrings, eyed up the faraway posts and added his name to the list of long-distance matchwinners alongside the likes of Tim Stimpson and Paul Thorburn.
McCall, though, preferred to look on the bright side, having urged his players to focus on producing a performance – which they did – rather than simply the result.
“It felt like we were much more ourselves today,” he said. “We attacked the game and we fought for everything. The players weren’t here to roll over. Everyone is saying it felt better and there is improvement in us for definite. We all know that when we get through this patch, whether it’s this week or next, it will end soon. We will get through this little period.”
Something better still had looked briefly possible when Sarries stormed into a 13-0 lead inside the opening 10 minutes. They looked unrecognisable from the mediocre Monday mob, a couple of yards sharper in thought and deed, and it took Clermont time to react.
They were still seeking a solution when Ben Spencer dummied cleverly into space and surged past Spedding and David Strettle to score from 25 metres out, Owen Farrell adding the conversion to two early penalties.
With Maitland controversially being spared a yellow card for clattering an airborne Isaia Toeava, the home side were further inconvenienced when Alivereti Raka and Damian Penaud limped out of the fray prematurely, injured in separate collisions during a thrilling 80-metre break-out from the Clermont 22. It was becoming a different type of game and Sarries were starting to creak even before Skelton and Figallo saw yellow.
They were held scoreless for 50 minutes as Parra chipped last year’s beaten finalists back into the contest, only for Alex Lozowski to stretch over early in the final quarter to give his team fresh hope. It was not to be but Sarries can at least now look each other in the eye this week knowing they have restored a significant amount of self-respect. – Guardian
CLERMONT AUVERGNE: Spedding; Strettle, Penaud (Abendandon, 26), Fofana, Raka (Betham, 26); Toeava, Parra (capt); Falgoux (Chaume, 43), Kayser (Ulugia, 49), Slimani, Van der Merwe (Jedrasiak, 60), Vahaamahina, Yato, Lapandry (Kolelishvili,73), Lee.
Pens: Parra 6, Spedding 2.
SARACENS Goode; Maitland, Bosch, Lozowski, Wyles (Earle, 57); Farrell (capt), Spencer; M Vunipola (Barrington, 73) George (Tolofua, 67), Kock (Figallo, 76), Skelton (Burger, 54), Kruis, Isiekwe (Earl, 74), Clark, Wray. Sin-bin Skelton 31, Figallo 66.
Tries Spencer, Lozowski. Con Farrell. Pens Farrell 3.
Referee A Brace (Ireland). Attendance 18,808.