Saracens have no answer to strength of French desire

Saracens 14 Clermont Auvergne 24
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The Independent Online

The sound of French nails being driven into English coffins has become all too familiar in recent times and Clermont Auvergne, one of the powerhouses of the union scene on the far side of the Channel, wielded the hammer once again in Watford last night.

They registered the four-try win they needed by out-muscling their hosts at close quarters and occasionally ripping them to shreds in broken field.

If the Premiership fraternity are feeling a little chastened these days, it is with good reason. Clermont were confidently expected to make a serious impact on this tournament, partly because they had put years of last-night trauma behind them by winning the domestic Top 14 title and partly because their form in recent Heineken Cup campaigns had suggested a growing appetite for, and understanding of, European rugby. Indeed, they might easily have won the 2010 competition had their goal-kicking held up in a classic quarter-final with Leinster.

As it turned out, they slipped up against the dangerous tournament newcomers Racing Metro in the first tranche of fixtures before drawing another blank against the Irishmen in Dublin – defeats that left them off the pace for automatic knock-out qualification. Last night's visit to Vicarage Road, a venue that rarely offers any of the fun of the fair, let alone all of it, presented them with a last, very slim chance of making it out of the pool.

They started in a "we mean business" kind of way and could have been half way back to central France with a bonus-point victory in the bag before the clock had reached the quarter-hour mark. Wesley Fofana made a mess of Neil de Kock's first-up tackling to high-step his way over after taking a short pass from Tasea Lavea three minutes in – Anthony Floch added the extras – and there were further chances for Vincent Debaty and Elvis Vermeulen thereafter. Debaty was denied after failing to ground the ball to the satisfaction of the television match official, while Vermeulen's score was disallowed because Julien Bardy did his supporting from in front rather than behind.

Discouraged, they fell into the old French club habit of getting on the referee's nerves, and were duly punished. The offences committed were not particularly Gallic in nature, being technical rather than temperamental, but it was all the same to the bright spark Owen Farrell, who kicked his three-pointers with a minimum of fuss.

As a result of all this, Saracens found themselves doing less back-foot scavenging and playing more front-foot rugby, and when Schalk Brits drew three Clermont defenders before freeing David Strettle with a beautifully timed pass, the England wing made short work of the cover defence to score in the left corner. Suddenly, there was a hint of real Sarries resistance.

It might even have come to something had Farrell continued to kick his goals, but he hit the spot with only one of his next four attempts. Meanwhile, Clermont rediscovered some poise, scoring another blinding try before the interval – the hooker Willie Wepener claimed it following a magisterial open-field break from Kini Murimurivalu and a clever flick off the floor from Floch – and a more prosaic one after it, courtesy of a driving scrum and a simple finish from Lavea.

That bonus point, which may or may not make a difference in terms of Heineken progress, was now in clear view and while it took the Frenchmen until the fifth minute of injury time to nail it, nail it they did. Ti'i Paolo, their substitute hooker, was the man responsible, burrowing his way over from a driving maul. It was no more than the visitors deserved.

Saracens: Try Strettle. Penalties Farrell 3. Clermont Auvergne: Tries Fofana, Wepener, Lavea, Paulo. Conversions Floch, Lavea.

Saracens: C Wyles; D Strettle (J Short 49), B Barritt, N Mordt, N Cato; O Farrell, N De Kock (R Wigglesworth 51); R Gill (J Saunders 67), S Brits (J George 51), C Nieto (P Du Plessis 51), H Smith, M Botha, K Brown (A Saull 82), J Melck (J Burger 51), E Joubert (capt).

Clermont Auvergne: A Floch (J-M Buttin 59); K Murimurivalu, M Joubert (A Rougerie 83), W Fofana, B Russell; T Lavea, K Senio (L Radoslavjevic 62); L Faure, W Wepener (T Paulo 70), V Debaty (C Ric 49), L Jacquet, J White, J Bardy, Audebert (A Lapandry 83), E Vermeulen (capt).

Referee: A Lewis (Ireland).

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