Saracens handed a painful lesson in Venter's absence

Clermont Auvergne 25 Saracens10
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The Independent Online

All the glories and goriness of French club rugby were laid before Saracens here on Saturday, and though the visitors came up short, the callow members of their squad will be better for the experience.

Yesterday's headline on the local newspaper La Montagne read 'Defence, defence, defence': a tribute to Clermont's work in stemming Saracens' persistent attacks in the widest of channels. It was a brave game plan prepared by the director of rugby, Brendan Venter, before he left for home in Cape Town last Wednesday to attend to a family bereavement. It stretched Clermont but it did not break them, and the Top 14 champions notched their 15th straight home win.

Saracens' Steve Borthwick and Schalk Brits were targeted and sometimes turned over by quality tackles – Clermont made 121 tackles to their opponents' 50 – and there was a handful of spiteful incidents which may yet be acted on by a citing officer. Sarries' Namibian flanker Jacques Burger needed eight stitches around his mouth after a stamp, though the video evidence identifying the culprit was said to be unclear. Jamie Cudmore, Clermont's Canada second-row who was sent off for fighting against Munster two seasons ago, punched Deon Carstens in the dust-up which followed the attack on Burger. The Clermont captain Aurélien Rougerie tripped Saracens' fly-half Derick Hougaard, who had a frustrating match of three missed goal-kicks out of five.

There were other costly near-misses: Alex Goode lost control on the point of finishing a beautiful break; David Strettle was unable to get away from Napolioni Nalaga when a try looked on. Borthwick, the Saracens captain with Ernst Joubert unusually confined to the bench, was asked whether the bolshy tactics would bolster his team for future battles, starting with Leinster at Wembley on Saturday.

"We weren't thinking past this game," Borthwick said. "You've got to give it a go when you've got great players in the backline like Brad Barritt, Strettle and Goode. Our guys will learn a lot."

How true. While Saracens' front row played through the 80 minutes, Clermont were able to bring on the gnarled Argentine front-rowers Mario Ledesma and Martin Scelzo. Their back-five back-up was former Scotland captain Jason White and Grand Slam winner Elvis Vermeulen. Maybe – as one player admitted – Saracens should have digested referee Peter Allan's unfamiliar handling of the breakdown, kicked the corners and chased penalties. Instead, after trailing 12-3 at half-time to tries by Cudmore and Julien Malzieu, they had Strettle's try after 43 minutes but that was as good as it got.

Scorers: Clermont-Auvergne: Tries Cudmore, Malzieu, Nalaga; Conversions Parra 2; Penalties Parra 2. Saracens: Try Strettle; Conversion Hougaard; Penalty Hougaard.

Clermont-Auvergne: A Floch; N Nalaga, A Rougerie (capt), M Joubert, J Malzieu; B James, M Parra; T Domingo, T Paulo, D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, T Privat, J Bonnaire, A Lapandry, S Lauaki. Replacements: G Williams for M Joubert (66), M Ledesma for T Paulo (51), M Scelzo for D Zirakashvili (73), J White for T Privat (58), E Vermeulen for S Lauaki (63).

Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, A Powell, B Barritt, C Wyles; D Hougaard, R Wigglesworth; D Carstens, S Brits, C Nieto, S Borthwick (capt), H Vyvyan, J Burger, A Saull, K Brown. Replacements: K Ratuvou for A Powell (61), N de Kock for R Wigglesworth (50), M Botha for H Vyvyan (51), E Joubert for A Saull (51).

Referee: P Allan (Scotland).