A sea of flags, red and gold in colour, waved all around Paris on Saturday night. Perpignan had won the French Championship final for the first time in 55 years and thousands of Catalan supporters went wild with joy.
Perpignan beat the favourites Clermont-Auvergne 22-13 to become Champions of France. Alas, this was Clermont’s 10th final and their 10th defeat, the third in a row. Despair was etched deep into the face of every fan from the Auvergne region.
The occasion was a colourful, vibrant affair and a great spectacle. Perpignan, consumed by nerves throughout the first half, trailed 10-3 until the final moment of the first half when full-back Jerome Porical landed a difficult penalty goal to trim Clermont’s lead to 10-6 at the break.
Given the way Perpignan had played, a four point deficit at half time was about -3 for the first 9 holes on a golf course. Flying Fijian wing Napolioni Nalaga had scored Clermont’s try, from a cross kick by Brock James, and Clermont seemed well on course to end their bogey.
Yet Clermont never really played, they never opened up apart from in brief bursts when they became desperate. They clearly hoped James’s kicking would do the job but he missed three attempts and they were hugely costly.
Perpignan were a different side in the second half, playing some superb rugby in the first 25 minutes after half time. Centre David Marty scored a fine try, made for him by Porical, and Porical kicked superbly to finish with 14 points, twice landing penalty goals from around the halfway line.
Suddenly, Perpignan had turned a 10-3 first half deficit into a 16-10 lead. James cut that to 16-13 but Perpignan then edged out to 22-13 with Porical’s kicking. Clermont threw everything into a desperate final rally but it was too little, too late.
Perpignan’s victory completes a triumphant few weeks for Catalonia and sport in the region. Barcelona won the Spanish League & Cup, plus the Champions League title. Now ‘Perpinya’ have landed a rare French Championship title. Few would have slept in Perpignan on Saturday night and the celebrations will go on for weeks.
Clermont’s fear of failure and their caution rebounded badly. They need a re-think and perhaps a fresh approach. But for Perpignan, even without the world’s greatest player, their injured All Black Dan Carter who ended up playing only five games for them before tearing an Achilles tendon, this was ultimately a season of triumph.