The Saracens' director of rugby, Brendan Venter, missed this trip to the Massif Central to attend to a family bereavement at home in South Africa. He will hear a tale of a French adventure which might have finished so much better. Sarries employed high-risk tactics against the Top 14 champions, with very little reward.
Considering Saracens' runners-up spot in the Premiership last season, this was arguably the top-ranked tie of the Heineken Cup's first round. It was exciting and edgy and a packed crowd jeered and cheered in equal measure. The first 10 minutes might have seen Saracens 10 points up. Instead they suffered a trio of mishaps which led to Clermont being in front 7-0. First Derick Hougaard belied his reputation as a reliable goal kicker – he finished with two successes from five attempts – by missing from head-on to the posts. Then Alex Goode, the Sarries full-back, ripped through with a fine run from halfway, only to drop the ball over the line as his opposite number, Anthony Floch, made a lunging tackle. Clermont went up the other end and Morgan Parra, their France scrum-half, missed a 45-metre penalty, awarded for crossing. The relief was brief. Clermont's Canada lock, Jamie Cudmore, anticipated Hougaard's shallow dropout, snatched it from under Hugh Vyvyan's nose and galloped on to score. Parra converted.
Floch missed a monster penalty before Sarries got points on the board. It came from a flurry of aggro among the forwards in which the visitors' flanker Jacques Burger appeared to take a boot to the face. Saracens' loosehead, Deon Carstens, suggested he knew the guilty party by grabbing Cudmore's scrum-cap – and took a punch in response. Cudmore went to the sin-bin, Hougaard kicked the penalty and it was 7-3 after 20 minutes. Clermont replied with a try by the wing Julien Malzieu three minutes later. A series of pick and goes led to Malzieu tumbling into the left-hand corner past Ernst Joubert, on as Burger's blood replacement.
Saracens' plan was to run and handle with the utmost width. They swept from left to right and back again, a black blur requiring razor-sharp tackling from the home side. "They're a fine side and they sure tested our defence," Clermont's coach, Vern Cotter, said. His team also had to work hard to deal with Sarries' driving maul. Clermont received a second yellow card when their tighthead, Davit Zirakashvili, checked Richard Wigglesworth. If you ever wondered how many decibels a catcalling crowd of 16,000 can achieve, watch and listen to a tape of Hougaard's resulting miss from 25 metres.
Perhaps, Saracens could not have expected much of a pleasant welcome to the town that was the departure point for the First Crusade. What they got at the start of the second half, however, was a morale-boosting try by David Strettle, who exchanged passes with Chris Wyles to outflank a defence fixed by Brad Barritt's half-burst and Goode's pass out of the tackle. Hougaard converted but it was not long before Parra kicked a penalty for 15-10. Zirakashvili then returned.
Unnecessarily early, Saracens began passing in panic in their 22. A losing bonus point would surely have been an acceptable return and a few kicks to the corner would not have gone amiss. Sure enough, a fumble led to another Clermont penalty and another three points for Parra, in the 65th minute. Still, Saracens had their chance to retrieve the bonus after 74 minutes. Clermont's Martin Scelzo and Jason White held on after the tackle, an offence throughout, but Hougaard missed again. It fell to Napolioni Nalaga to finish Saracens off with a try two minutes from the end, after Aurélien Rougerie scooped up a Hail Mary pass by Kameli Ratuvou.
"We'd seen teams come here and just to try to cling on," said Venter's assistant, Mark McCall. "We learnt a cruel lesson, missing opportunities and giving away soft tries." In this pool of death – or should it be "groupe de la mort", with Paris's Racing Métro yet to come – Saracens need a victory against Leinster at Wembley on Saturday.
Clermont Auvergne A Floch; N Nalaga, A Rougerie (capt), M Joubert (G Williams, 65), J Malzieu; B James, M Parra; T Domingo, T Paulo (M Ledesma, 51), D Zirakashvili (M Scelzo, 72), J Cudmore, T Privat (J White, 58), J Bonnaire, S Lauaki (E Vermeulen, 62), A Lapandry (Scelzo, 42-48).
Saracens A Goode; D Strettle, A Powell (K Ratuvou, 61), B Barritt, C Wyles; D Hougaard, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 49); D Carstens, S Brits, C Nieto, S Borthwick (capt), H Vyvyan (M Botha, 51), J Burger (E Joubert, 20-27), K Brown, A Saull.
Referee P Allan (Scotland).Reuse content