Matt Stevens suspended for another 15 months, Phil Vickery awaiting delivery of his sportsman's bus pass, Julian White officially confirmed as the last of the dinosaurs roaming the earth... one way or another, the tight-head prop position is a concern for the England management ahead of the next World Cup. Or rather, it was a concern. Dan Cole, a 22-year-old product of the Leicester academy, played all but seven minutes of this punishing exercise in bare-knuckled attrition on Saturday night, and if his dismantling of a French front-rower as ogreish as Lionel Faure was anything to go by, he'll be mixing it with the very best of them come 2011.
Summoned from the replacements' bench when Martin Castrogiovanni suffered an injury in the opening exchanges – the Argentina-born Italian's discomfort was so enveloping no one could quite decide whether he had hurt his shoulder, his ribs, his hip or his groin – the youngster found himself facing one of the more formidable scrummaging units in European rugby, led by Mario Ledesma, the most accomplished hooker in the sport. Could he possibly survive? He did more than that. Cole took a few smacks in the ear for his trouble – the scientific evidence of lobal warming was overwhelming – but by the end, he could legitimately claim to have bossed the set piece.
Faure was given the roughest of rides, and when he was penalised for dropping a scrum four minutes into the second half, the travelling coaches decided they had seen enough and hauled him off the field. He was replaced by a fellow international in Thomas Domingo, and if Domingo steadied the Clermont ship to a degree, Cole still finished ahead in the personal ding-dong. On this evidence, he will accompany David Wilson of Bath to the gathering of the clans in a little under two years' time.
"Don't say anything: I don't want Martin Johnson hearing about this," remarked Matt O'Connor, the Leicester coach charged with the match-day speaking duties in the absence of the gagged Richard Cockerill. "I don't know where to set the ceiling with Dan because he's capable of anything. He's a young player with a fantastic attitude, working like hell on improving his game. He needs the experience of playing big matches, but that was a serious contest out there and I thought he was pretty sensational. Is he international class? Easily."
The words "fantastic" and "sensational" are not easily located in the Leicester lexicon: the aforementioned Johnson may have been one of the great lock forwards in rugby history, but at Cole's age, he was rarely described as anything more than "useful". In his current role as England manager, old beetle-brows has proved every bit as reluctant as the Welford Road coaches of old to butter people up, but he knows a decent sharp-ender when he sees one and will be sorely tempted to take the newcomer on the two-Test trip to Australia in June.
This was one of Leicester's "must-win" productions, and win they did, with the aid of two slightly jammy tries. The first was beautifully created by the button-bright scrum-half Ben Youngs, who left Morgan Parra and Julien Pierre clutching handfuls of freezing night air and then bamboozled Aurélien Rougerie with his footwork before delivering the short scoring pass to Anthony Allen. Problem? The pass was so obviously of the forward variety, it could have been thrown by a quarterback.
By contrast, Scott Hamilton's galloping finish in the first minute of stoppage time confirmed the visitors in their view that the Law of Sod is the one natural law that truly exists. Toby Flood, who frequently threatened with ball in hand, fluffed a clearance kick so badly that the ball spiralled vertically into floodlights and landed in the middle of nowhere. Hamilton being the nearest human inhabitant, he took a favourable bounce on the run and kept running all the way to the right corner, jubilant in the knowledge that none of the wrong-footed defenders had a snowball's chance of catching him.
Clermont were aghast: having crossed the Channel with the minimum requirement of a losing bonus point and fought grimly to secure it – Brock James, a direct descendant of Jannie de Beer in terms of making the drop goal the central plank of a game plan rather than an optional extra, had hit the spot on three occasions to keep his side in touch – they now found themselves with plenty of nothing. It would have been a long trip home, even had the transport system been working to full capacity, which it wasn't.
Yet from the kick-off the ball ricocheted into Lewis Moody, who happened to be occupying an offside position, and James, utterly nerveless, banged over a left-sided penalty to cut the deficit from eight to five. This was entirely satisfactory as far as the visitors were concerned – the fact that the stand-off kicked the ball dead to end the game while Clermont were attacking hard on the final play established this beyond all reasonable doubt – and the Tigers were left contemplating a missed opportunity.
They are still in the Pool Three mix and deserve to be: Louis Deacon, far more impressive playing Leicester rugby for Leicester than he is playing Leicester rugby for England; Geoff Parling, the ground-covering lock who is fast justifying the club's decision to lure him south from Newcastle; Dan Hipkiss, strong and direct at centre; the eye-catching Cole – none could have given more of themselves on a night when Heineken Cup elimination was an uncomfortable possibility.
But they knew the moment James landed his point-salvaging penalty that for all their labours, Clermont had emerged victorious from the two-match mini-series. The mathematics of qualification might knock Fermat's Last Theorem into a cocked hat, but Leicester remain the third of the three contenders.
Leicester: Tries Allen, Hamilton; Conversions Flood (2); Penalties Flood (2). Clermont Auvergne: Penalties James (2); Drop goals James (3).
Leicester: S Hamilton; L Tuqiri, D Hipkiss (J Staunton, 35-38 and 82), A Allen, A Tuilagi (J Murphy, 70); T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza, M Davies (G Chuter, 71), M Castrogiovanni (D Cole, 7), L Deacon (capt), G Parling, C Newby, L Moody, J Crane.
Clermont Auvergne: A Floch; A Rougerie (capt), G Canale (W Fofana, 75), S Bai, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra (K Senio, 71); L Faure (T Domingo, 44), M Ledesma, D Zirakishvili (M Scelzo, 77), J Cudmore (T Privat, 68), J Pierre (Privat, 42-57), J Bonnaire, A Audebert, E Vermeulen (J White, 54).
Referee: N Owens (Wales).Reuse content