Clermont catch poor Saracens between a Brock and a hard place
Saracens 3 Clermont Auvergne 22
The Heineken Cup administrators chose yesterday to premiere the tournament's official anthem, penned by the French composer Jean-Michel Jarre under the intriguing title "Industrial Revolution Part 2". What had happened to "Industrial Revolution Part 1" was anybody's guess: perhaps it suffered the same fate as British manufacturing. Still, it was amusing to hear music of that name played for the first time in a country with no industry, to celebrate a competition preparing to shed its last contender from the Premiership.
There were two striking features in the run-up to kick-off, one of them surprising, the other rather less so. To take the unusual aspect first, it was satisfying – perhaps even a little spine-tingling – to see Vicarage Road, a very English kind of run-down sporting dump with its half-pound deathburgers and boarded-up public lavatories, transformed into a vibrantly colourful, wonderfully noisy corner of the French rugby landscape. More than 2,000 supporters travelled from the Auvergne to watch their side, and the racket they kicked up suggested there were five times that number in the ground.
As for the other aspect, this took the form of an entirely predictable blast from the Saracens chairman, Nigel Wray, about the iniquities and inequalities of the Heineken Cup. "It's a great tournament, but the structure is completely wrong," he said, breathing fresh life into the age-old arguments about qualification and funding. And he had a point: Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh teams can, and often do, gear their seasons towards maximising performance in Europe, helped by a Pro12 "domestic" league that spares them the fears and neuroses attached to relegation.
It is also true, as Wray reminded his audience, that the better-heeled Premiership sides are tied by their salary cap. Clermont turned up with five French internationals, a stellar All Black and a Lions Test player - and that was only the back division. You don't put together units like that on an annual budget of £4.4m. But the ever-generous benefactor could have picked a better moment to unburden himself. The back end of a season in which Premiership clubs bombed out of both European competitions at the quarter-final stage is hardly the optimum time to call for a 33 per cent hike in red-rose representation at Heineken Cup level.
Mark McCall, his director of rugby, agreed with the arguments descending from on high. "You could see the imbalance generated by the salary cap when you looked out onto the pitch," he said after the match, "and the fact that their are no English semi-finalists in Europe speaks for itself." But he was also commendably honest about his side's shortcomings. "That was pretty sobering for us," he admitted. "We said pre-game that we didn't want it to be a learning experience. We thought we were ready."
Clermont, champions of France in 2010 and beaten semi-finalists a year ago, lost one of those high-calibre backs of theirs, the outside-half David Skrela, inside three minutes. The goalkicker's left leg gave way during the opening attack of the afternoon, launched from deep by the inventive Alex Goode, and he was forced to give way to Brock James, who proceeded to land three penalties in the twinkle of an eye. "Who was the idiot responsible for doing Skrela a mischief?" muttered one member of the Saracens management, with considerable feeling.
This same James had suffered a very public and horribly personal meltdown at the last-eight stage of the 2009-10 tournament: indeed, his frailties that night were entirely responsible for Clermont's one-point defeat against Leinster in Dublin. Here, he looked as though he could not miss: until, that is, he missed – from a difficult position in right field, 40-plus metres from the sticks. He would miss again before the half was out, but as this was from the best part of 60 metres, only a very harsh critic would have accused him of falling apart on this occasion.
Saracens, restricted to a single Owen Farrell penalty in the first period, had plenty of food for thought at the interval. If the English champions were losing the tactical kicking deal, they were also being beaten in the aerial contest and leaking penalties at the scrum, and while they had fought back well at a couple of late set-pieces, there was no guarantee that the formidable Georgian prop Davit Zirakashvili would not find his second wind.
Three minutes after the restart, the home side had so much to think about, their collective brain was on the point of exploding. Three Clermont tight forwards – the prop Lionel Faure, the hooker Benjamin Kayser and the lock Nathan Hines – made big ground through the heavy traffic to create some elbow room for their magnificent captain, Aurélien Rougerie. The outsized centre set sail towards the Saracens line before off-loading to Morgan Parra out of Chris Wyles' tackle. Parra could have dummied Goode and scored himself; instead, he flicked the ball to Lee Byrne, who duly finished in the right corner.
James added the wide-angled extras, and when he dropped a goal from the back end of beyond five minutes later, Saracens were on the rough end of a thorough towelling. For every attacking spark from Goode, there was an indiscretion under pressure from Sarries' beaten pack. When a driving Clermont maul hit the deck midway through the third quarter, James dispensed another three-pointer. The contest was never less than hard, but it was always less then close.
With Farrell hobbling off, his fellow centre Brad Barritt tackling himself into oblivion and the young flanker Will Fraser disappearing into la-la land, Saracens ended up with a wing in midfield and a hooker in the back row. They were, to put it mildly, all over the place - and as a symbol of England's current fortunes in world rugby's most captivating annual jamboree, it could not possibly have been bettered.
Saracens: Penalty Farrell. Clermont Auvergne: Try Byrne; Conversion James; Penalties James 4; Drop goal James.
Saracens A Goode; D Strettle, O Farrell (J Short, 54), B Barritt (A Powell, 66), C Wyles; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 54); R Gill (M Vunipola, 64), S Brits, M Stevens (C Nieto, 68), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis, 54), J Melck (J Wray, 50), W Fraser (J George, 66), E Joubert.
Clermont Auvergne L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt), W Fofana, J Malzieu; D Skrela (B James, 3), M Parra (L Radoslavjevic, 76); L Faure (V Debaty, 49), B Kayser (T Paulo, 58), D Zirakashvili (D Kotze, 56), J Cudmore (J Pierre, 54), N Hines, J Bonnaire, A Lapandry, E Vermeulen (J Bardy, 54).
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).
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