With my team playing in sunny France it seemed rude not to make another visit to the Stoop.  Harlequins are on their day playing an exciting style of rugby and Clermont Auvergne generally put on a good performance in the Heineken Cup.  I set of to my ‘local’ Patisserie Valerie – where one of the waitresses knows there’s rugby on if I’m there!  I am a Saracens fan, but must confess to this game being my 5th Quins match in addition to the international games I’m lucky enough to get to. Perhaps my subconscious is telling me Twickenham is where I’ll find the best cakes it’s rude not to pop in to Patisserie Valerie , so a strawberry tart and a hot chocolate set me up very nicely for the match!  Walking to the ground with my good friends and staunch Quins fans Henry and Sue it was clear we were going to be part of a decent crowd.

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The last French team I watched at the Stoop, Racing Metro, turned up and performed as individuals and lost the game to the team that is Harlequins.  Would Clermont be different; I somehow thought so.  Quins had a boost with Ugo Monye returning from injury.  Whilst Clermont have a mix of French and ‘foreign’ players they have a deal of time put in as a team.  What was plain from the start was that the French were definitely going to be winning the singing!  Interesting to hear ,as I watch the game again, that the ref John Lacey had played on the wing for Leinster.

Brock James kicked off and of course the returning hero Ugo Monye was under the ball he kicked to touch.  Clermont attacked at pace from the lineout and won a penalty in the ruck after a high tackle was missed by the officials, justice as Brock James converted the penalty to put the French team ahead with 2 minutes on the clock.  A comment I typed while at the game was that the no 11Naipolioni Nalaga was huge, yet looked fast!  It has to be said Sitiveni Sivivatu on the opposing wing was no svelte thing either!  Nalaga ran down the wing after the kick off and ran out of space; Dave Ward threw in but not straight; vital to win your own lineouts against a team of such quality.  Quins were penalised in the resulting scrum and James cleared the Clermont lines.  Dave Ward redeemed himself by turning the ball over in the ruck after Clermont won their lineout.

Quins were to win the next penalty in the scrum as Thomas Domingo was penalised. It really does seem to me that the change in the laws has made no difference whatsoever to the number of scrums needing to be reset as well as the nu,mber of penalties awarded!  Nick Evans had a kick at goal as Nathan Hines seemed to forget which side he should be standing as Quins tried to roll a maul forwards; would he have his kicking boots on?  For that attempt it appeared not as he missed.  Clermont went on the attack seeing Wesley Fofana making a great run through the midfield but the ball was spilled and Luke Wallace made a decent run; he was bulldozed by Jamie Cudmore and threw the ball forward.  Fritz Lee playing at no 8 for Clermont made the first of several great runs as he picked the ball up at the base of the scrum; the ball came to James who put in a very sweet kick for Nalanga, who, lucky for Quins dropped the ball.  Quins lost the lineout in a very dangerous attacking position for Clermont; Brock James put in a great pass to Fritz Lee whi didn’t seem to be looking at the ball; he knocked on!  Quins won a penalty and Evans cleared the ball to the half way line; yet again Quins messed up the lineout as Marler knocked on;  Quins however won their next lineout and looked to be in a good attacking position, a poor pass by Evans was however knocked on my Matt Hopper.  The first 20 minutes saw Quins making too many basic errors and I always felt they were unlikely to beat a team with such depth if that didn’t improve.

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It was to be Brock James who made the next mistake as he missed touch after Clermont won a penalty in the scrum.  Mike Brown ran the ball out but Quins lost the ball to another  knock on; Clermont went on the attack again but were peanlise din the ruck.  Danny Care took a quick penalty and looped a pass across the pitch to Ugo Monye; Chris Robshaw took the pass from Monye and kicked on he was taken out, just as the crowd were getting ready to be outraged they were outraged in a positive way as Danny Care flicked the ball in field to Matt Hopper who ran in to score a great try!  Evans converted to take the score to Quins 7 Clermont 3. The next passages of play were complete proof that this game of rugby isn’t for the faint hearted as monster tackles were exchanged!  I watch this game week in and week out and the ferocity of the game never ceases to amaze me!  Quins benefited from an offside with a penalty in front of the posts which Evans duly converted.

Nick Evans made a great run through as he backed himself; the 2 bright young blond backs, Hopper and Charlie Walker tracking him, as he looked ready to pass Jean-Marcel Buttin tackled him looking to have knocked the ball on; it seems the resulting penalty was given for offside.  Evans increased the lead to 10 points with his successful kick.  Another Quins error, this time by the usually hugely impressive Mike Brown as he kicked the ball straight out, wasn’t pounced on by the French team as they knocked the ball on yet again.  Quins transgressed with some side entry in the middle of the pitch and Brock James kicked to the corner, from where I was sitting it looked like he kicked the ball too far; and watching it on the TV it still looks that way to me!  Dave Ward averted the danger with a great steal on the floor however, but Care kicked the ball down the throat of Sivivatu,  Aurelian Rougerie messed up letting Quins off the hook. The half time whistle came and saw the home team go into the changing rooms with the score at Quins 13 Clermont 3.

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I must confess at this time I was about to rush through the half time analysis until I spotted he who must be watched/listened to Alan Quinlan, irresistible!  Quickly moving on to the second half; 10 points against a team like Clermont Auvergne didn’t feel a big enough gap.  Those 13 points were to be the only ones scored by the home team.  The second half started in the best possible way for the visitors; Mike Brown has been immense this season, he was most certainly the man of the Autumn Internationals for me.  However as he went to gather a ball kicked on by Morgan Parra he made a very unusual error, the ball bounced away from him and he seemed to trip as he attempted to change direction.  The ball landed perfectly for Naipolioni Nalaga who ran in to score one of the softest tries of his career I should imagine.  A real shame for Brown who plays his heart out every time he steps on a rugby pitch.  The kick was missed but the 10 point gap was halved.  I noted at this time that I thought Quins looked a bit lacklustre, it reminded me of the first half against the Scarlets and that didn’t go at all well.

Evans kicked the ball straight out at the restart adding to the error count; giving the Frenchmen the advantage back immediately.  Fritz Lee again ran from the base of the scrum and Clermont took flight; however their knock on count went up as Rougerie failed to take the pass; watching again I’m not so sure he wasn’t tackled before the ball got to him.  Another blow came for Quins on 49 minutes as Danny Care hobbled from the pitch; he plays with such speed and flair it can never be a good thing when he has to leave rather than by the choice of the coach.  We saw some good attacking rugby in spite of the conditions but the advantage had certainly tipped in the direction of Clermont Auvergene. They were awarded a penalty for coming in at the side by the replacement winger Ollie Lindsay-Hague; Quins were let off the hook as Brock James missed. Quins themselves were awarded a penalty on 68 minutes as Ti’i Paulo came right off his feet in the ruck; the kick was in front of the posts albeit from a decent distance; Nick Evans missed and by some distance.

With 10 minutes on the clock Quins were still leading by 5 points; Dave Ward who was awarded man of the match gave a penalty away after holding on to the ball.  James kicked for touch putting his team in a strong position.  Clermont went through 8 phases of play driving the ball towards the line; it was clear an overlap had built and Parra passed the ball out; it made its way to Sivivatu who ran over the line to score.  Brock James missed the conversion leaving the scores tied with 6 minutes to go.  With 4 minutes to go Quins tried to play the ball out of their own half and gave away a penalty, the referee indicated for holding the ball, but it looked to me like Chris Robshaw piled into the ruck from the side too.  Brock James made no mistakes with this kick and put the French team ahead for the first time since their initial penalty.

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We were in for a very exciting final 3 minutes and Quins were awarded a penalty that could have given them a draw; that of course would have been of no use to them and Evans kicked for the corner.  Dave Ward however got his ‘day job’ wrong and his throw was deemed not straight.  Game over you would have thought with seconds on the clock; however Ward won the ball against the head amazingly!  The dream finish was not to be for Quins as the ball was knocked on; the final whistle went and the French team now march into the quarter finals before the final pool games.  I was slightly disappointed with some of the home fans who booed the referee; he had a good game for me.

In my quest for yet more photos with rugby players; it is all about the game I promise! I managed to have a bit of a chat with Nathan Hines; he was clearly conversing in fluent French with the Clermont fans; I asked him how he enjoyed playing in France.  He explained that having played at Perpignan for several seasons the transition from Leinster had been an easy one; I was interested in the language situation and it was clear that French was the training and playing language.  I can imagine that may be hard for some of the players making the move to France; Nathan is clearly over the moon with the life in France; it may not be the case for all the stars who depart the UK shores.