Scarlets were over-powered on the pitch yesterday in much the same way as Welsh regions are dominated by French clubs in the transfer market.
Clermont-Auvergne, last season’s finalists, scored the fastest try in Heineken Cup history on their way to a bonus-point win. Many of the crowd at Parc Y Scarlets had barely taken their seats when Napolioni Nalaga pounced after 17 seconds.
Yet full credit to Scarlets, under-manned and under-funded in comparison to the giants from the Massif Central, they recovered from that early blow to take a 13-10 lead by half-time after Gareth Maule finished a scintillating 70-metre attack to score the try of the game.
The recovery was spirited but ultimately fell short as Simon Easterby’s side were simply swept aside by the French juggernaut, leading the Top 14, with 21 unanswered points in the second half. Indeed Clermont showed their title credentials by flexing their muscles after the break, not least in their scrum that claimed a penalty try before Fritz Lee and Nalaga completed the comeback.
Scarlets have now won only one of their last 10 Heineken Cup ties and all the promise of their winning start this season at Harlequins has faded. “We put ourselves under pressure by giving away too many points that Clermont did not have to work hard for,” said Easterby.
“You can’t cater for tries that early but the boys showed character to recover from it and push one of the best teams in Europe.The penalty try was dubious. Once the referee has given that number of penalties then he has to give a penalty try but we thought Samson Lee did a good job on Thomas Domingo who popped up a few times.
“That combined with our inaccuracy at times made it very difficult for us to get anything from this game. The type of game we had to play to beat Clermont was impossible in these conditions.”
They could not have made a worse start when Josh Turnbull coughed up possession from the kick-off. Thierry Lacrampe kicked ahead and Nalaga beat Nic Reynolds for the touchdown. By a quirk of fate, it was 11 years ago to the day that Daryl Gibson had scored the previous quickest Heineken Cup try in 26 seconds, for Bristol, against Scarlets’ historic rivals Swansea.
But Scarlets recovered and it was not until late in the game that the expected flood of points materialised. Instead they regained composure while French frustration spilled over. Clermont lost their talismanic captain, Aurelien Rougerie, to the sin bin following a punch-up in midfield involving Scot Williams. The yellow card allowed Rhys Priestland to kick Scarlets opening points before his quick thinking ensured they gained even more from the 10-minute spell. The Wales fly-half seized the chance with a quickly-taken penalty on his own 22-metre line. Williams provided the thrust though it needed Liam Williams to scoop possession off the deck for Priestland to release Maule. Priestland converted and added a second penalty before Delany halved their lead on the stroke of half-time.
Scarlets fans briefly allowed themselves to imagine another famous win when Brock James missed two penalties from in front of the posts.
But the front row was increasingly fighting a losing battle in the scrums and, after four successive penalties, Wayne Barnes, the referee, awarded the penalty try. It was the blow that finally broke Welsh resistance and Clermont went for the jugular as Lee and then Nalaga both went over from close range.
“That penalty try was the turning point. It unblocked the score and psychologically hurt them,” said Vern Cotter, the Clermont head coach.
Scarlets: L Williams; N Reynolds, G Maule, S Williams, J Williams; R Priestland, G Davies (R Williams, 68); P John (capt, R Evans, 61), K Owens (E Phillips, 68), S Lee (R Jones, 68), J Ball (R Kelly, 61), G Earle, J Turnbull (J Snyman, 72), J Barclay, R McCusker.
Clermont Auvergne: J-M Buttin; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt), R King, N Nalaga; M Delany (B James, 48), T Lacrampe (L Radosavljevic, 23); T Domingo (R Chaume, 69), B Kayser (T Paulo, 65), C Ric (V Debaty, 65), J Cudmore (N Hines, 61), J Pierre, J Bonnaire, J Bardy (F Lee, 51), D Chouly.
Referee: W Barnes (England).