Saracens v Clermont Auvergne – A Different Ending?

In a repeat of last years’ Heineken Cup semi-final Saracens found themselves with a game to play at Twickenham against French opposition.  The game last season didn’t leave any fond memories as the superstars of Toulon out gunned Saracens and the boot of Jonny Wilkinson put paid to the hopes of a first appearance in the final.  I amongst all of the other Saracens fans were hoping for a totally different result, I’m not so sure any of us were expecting quite what we saw!  My day started as usual in a long line of traffic to make my way to Twickenham – I wonder sometimes if my car knows its own way to the grounds I frequent! The journey wasn’t deep joy, didn’t these people know I had a game to get to – well lunch first anyway!  A civilised lunch was eaten with my fellow Saracens nut Nigel and we made our way to the ground at a leisurely pace; being someone lucky enough to go to a few big games at HQ every year it was clear the crowd was going to be a small one again.  In their wisdom the ERC pick Twickenham as a venue then charge high prices, my seat was £50, in order to grow the crowd those prices really need to be lower, the attendance was announced later at 25,942, what a shame more people weren’t there to see what was an immense Saracens performance!

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It’s taken me a few days to sit down and write my report and I’m re-watching the game as I do so; very interesting to hear the opinion that Saracens ‘could be suffocated’ if Schalk Brits was contained; it’s going to be interesting to see what else they had to say!  I’d had a message before the game to tell me that Owen Farrell wasn’t kicking; Alex Goode and Marcello Bosch were both practicing in the warm up.  Brock James started the game off and Alex Goode took the ball well, pleasing considering his absence after the Ulster quarter final.  The first penalty went the way of the French after Brad Barritt knocked the ball on; Billy Vunipola caught the ball while offside; a schoolboy error, but it must be very hard not to catch a ball right in from of your face!  I do sometimes wonder if pundits like Stuart Barnes ever made an error in their playing career, it would seem not at times!  Saracens started the scoring after 8 minutes after Goode took a ball from Neil De Kock, the ball was played quickly through the hands of Goode, Brits and Barritt who slipped a pass to Chris Ashton as he tracked the ball, Ashton ran on for the try that saw him equal the number of tries scored in the Heineken Cup in a season at 10.   Goode added the extras with a difficult kick which gave confidence at the start of the game.

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Clermont got their first points on the board with a Morgan Parra penalty as his opposite Neil De Kock played the ball on the ground.  It’s interesting how it’s the French scrum halves rather than the fly halves who tend to take the kicks; it makes me wonder if the influx of ‘foreign’ fly halves will have a truly detrimental effect on the international team.  Back to the game; a very controversial situation arose for the next Saracens score; Lee Byrne who I thought looked out of sorts during the game had a kick charged down, the ricocheting ball was knocked out by Brock James, my first thought was that the officials were looking to see if a penalty try was to be awarded.  Controversially that’s exactly what happened as it was deemed that James had deliberately knocked the ball out of play; 7 points to Saracens and a yellow card for James.  Much joy on the terraces amongst the Saracens fans! Saracens didn’t score any more points while James was absent much to the credit of Clermont; in fact the French team looked the most likely to score.  In fact they did go over the line after a concerted attack, Benson Stanley touched the ball down; however it was deemed that Damien Chouly had crossed and taken Owen Farrell out, so a penalty Saracens way instead.  The lead remained at 11 points once James returned which felt like an opportunity missed.

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Saracens were putting in some huge tackles in a huge defensive effort, with Jacques Burger and Schalk Brits in particular putting their bodies on the line, it was clear that they would need to keep that effort up for the duration.  Saracens received a warning from Nigel Owens after a penalty was awarded as Burger went off his feet in the ruck; Steve Borthwick turned to his players and yelled at them basically to leave the ball alone!  This is a man who really is a legend of the game, his passion is amazing, added to that I’ve learnt in recent weeks that he is a true gentleman, having been lucky enough to be at this testimonial dinner I watched him thank every single person in the room for coming. Back to the rugby – Parra added the 3 points from the Burger penalty closing the gap to 8 points.  We had another decision for the video ref after the ball had popped out in midfield, Mako Vunipola made a run before he was tackled De Kock passed the ball out to Goode who released Ashton on the wing, he passed inside to Neil De Kock who was taken out without the ball; Owen Farrell was following behind he failed to take the ball, rather the ball hit his leg and he carried on to take the ball and touch down.  Farrell celebrated in a way that said he had scored, the video ref agreed!  I have to confess I was jumping up and down when confirmation came!  Alex Goode scored the extras. Saracens were awarded a penalty on 36 minutes after Julien Bonnaire went into the side of the ruck, Goode scored the 3 points sending the teams in at Saracens 24 Clermont Auvergene 6.

It would be interesting to see if Saracens could keep up the intensity of the first half, we could almost smell Cardiff and the final!  Marcelo Bosch put Saracens in the driving seat after a great kick through; he followed up and took Sitiveni Sivivatu into touch.  The territory was wasted however as Saracens gave away a penalty in the ruck, Brock James cleared the Clermont lines with a huge kick!  Clermont should have received a penalty as Brad Barrit interfered with play as he went back to his team mates, not given by Nigel Owens.  Saracens defensive effort continued to be immense as they ran up 100 tackles with 46 minutes gone.  AT this point I must mention the decision making of the Clermont team, they kept on trying to play their way out of their own 22, they were getting nowhere but time and again they used that tactic, very odd.  Billy Vunipola made a break and one of his trademark runs through the Clermont defence, he threw a huge pass which didn’t go to hands but Saracens made a great effort until De Kock knocked the ball on.  No further score with 50 minutes on the clock, but still Cardiff felt likely as Clermont struggled to get out of their own half.  Saracens won a penalty on the halfway line and to the delight of the crowd who were baying for Marcelo Bosch he stepped up and scored 3 points from just inside the Clermont half; his effortless kick sailed over the posts.

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Chris Ashton intercepted the ball from the kick off and looked to be off but Morgan Parra made a great tackle to take him into touch.  The cameras panned onto a reasonable Munster contingent waving their flags, a group of lads having a great afternoon!   Chris Ashton scored his second try to the delight of the whole team after the ball came loose as Clermont attacked Ashton kicked the ball forward and it landed perfectly for him to touch down; taking him to 11 Heineken Cup tries in the season at 11, at this point I think we knew he’d get one more game to add to his tally!  Alex Goode unusually missed the kick, but he was to get the chance to add to his personal points scored before the end of the game.  I took a photo of the scoreboard at Saracens 32 Clermont 6 but the men in red and black weren’t finished yet.  It was good to see Alistair Hargreaves come on as a replacement after a long layoff with an injured wrist, another incredibly nice man who gives his all for his team.  Stuart Barnes felt that 32 to 6 was a mauling, I wonder what his thoughts were on the final score.  It was also good to see Sivivatu’s good humour when he knocked the ball on close to the line, the ball had been knocked on previously by Lee Byrne but the Sivivatu knock on summed up the French teams’ day.  Clermont made a great break through two of their substitutes, Noa Seru Nakaitaci and Gerhard Vosloo with only 10 minutes remaining, Saracens defended as if a try would have lost them the game, with Ashton, Barritt and Captain Marvel Steve Borthwick saving the day.

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Both teams had made significant substitutions and two of Saracens subs combined after Ashton made a great break through the middle of the pitch after Saracens stole a Clermont line out; Ashton threw a great pass to Tim Streather who flicked the ball to Barritt who in turn passed to utility back Chris Wyles who went in to score; Goode added the 2 points with a great kick!  Saracens had made a record score in a HCup semi-final but they hadn’t finished at 39 points.  Tim Streather was to get on the score board himself before the game was up; as Clermont again tried to play the ball out of their own 22.  Time Streather was playing in the Championship for Nottingham last season, this season?  A try in the Heineken Cup semi-final, what a difference a year makes!  The game finished with the score at Saracens 46 Clermont Auvergne 6!  I knew Saracens could beat any team, but who would have dreamt they would beat the mighty French team by 40 points! A truly wonderful performance – bring on Toulon at my favourite stadium Cardiff.  My decision to buy tickets and book a hotel in November ish was a good one; I was going whoever was there, amazing that it’ll be Saracens!  Mr Sunshine on legs, Schalk Brits was interviewed after the game, his words told a lot, it’s a great club to play for!  His smile is always there, bigger than ever on Saturday, let’s hope it’s shining brightly on the 24th May!  Cardiff here we come!

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