Having had a nightmare journey to Allianz Park the previous week I set off in plenty of time for the 1st European fixture of the new era. Lunch with fellow Saracens fans was the plan, the very deceptive Metro restaurant next to the ground looks no more than a cafe yet it has a superb Italian menu. I’d highly recommend lunch if you have plans to visit at any time! For some bizarre reason I chose to go with a salad, not like me at all! But, it was very good and healthy too! Always good to spend a few hours laughing your socks off before a big game and we certainly did that!
Clermont Auvergne arrived at Allianz Park sitting at number one in the Top 14 table; with 7 wins and 2 losses under their belts. One of those losses was a very narrow 1 point loss to Montpellier, the other a bit of a thumping by Bordeaux-Begles who beat them by 51 to 21! It would seem the Top 14 competition has the capacity to throw up some shocks! Saracens sit 2nd in the Premiership table with a similar start of 5 wins and 1 loss. So a fairly even start to their respective seasons. The previous meeting of the 2 teams took place at Twickenham Stadium and saw Saracens beat the French team by 46 to 6 points in the semi final of the Heineken Cup. Clermont seemed to be rudderless that day – I had no illusions that we’d see a similar performance or result.
A good crowd greeted the 2 teams although not many had made the long journey from France; Clermont remain a team full of international stars with a hugely exciting set of backs. I took issue with a fellow fan who insultingly called Nick Abendanon a ‘mercenary’ I’m sure I’ve ranted before on this point, but here I go again. A fans’s allegiance to their club tends to be a lifelong thing, for a professional sportsman playing the game is their job. In an ideal world the club they play for provides them with the best living and the best experience possible for them. But, and we’ve seen all too many times, the life a of rugby player can be very short lived, one injury and their career can be over in the blink of an eye. So, to insult a man doing his best to enhance his life prospects by moving clubs feels very short sighted to me – how many of us wouldn’t change our jobs if a much better opportunity arose?
Rant over and on with the game, I’ll try not to make this report a novel, but there was a whole lot of action to report. Nick Abendanon was put under some early pressure by his scrum half Ludovic Radosavijevic after a great grubber kick to touch by Charlie Hodgson which saw the ball go over near the Clermont try line, in spite of having little time to clear the ball after a quick throw in by the number 9, Abendanon got his kick away well.
Saracens broke from the lineout passing the ball across the field with speed; Billy Vunipola combining with his backs. Alex Goode and David Strettle surged forwards with Chris Ashton following on their shoulders. Wesley Fofana got a fingertip to the ball as Strettle passed to Ashton who ran over the line to score. The TMO was needed to check the final pass but a try was awarded. Charlie Hodgson missed the conversion but the home team were ahead.
Clermont had a chance to put points on the scoreboard after an off the ball hit by David Strettle on Aurelien Rougerie after a floating pass went to Wesley Fofana rather than Rougerie as Strettle had anticipated. He was possibly lucky not to see yellow as there seemed to be more shoulder than arm involved in the ‘tackle’. Camille Lopez went for the 3 points but it was a long range kick and the ball hit the posts.
Clermont were to hit back quite quickly however as Seru Nakaitaci seemed to run through the Saracens defence largely unchallenged; he passed out to Lopez who flicked the ball to Zac Guildford; he stepped to put the ball down over the line. Not one of the most glamorous of tries scored by the former All Black; but 7 points for his team as Lopez added the extras. The lead was stretched by a further 3 points as Clermont were awarded a penalty in the ruck right in front of the Saracens posts; again Lopez found his mark and took the visitors to a 5 point lead.
We had the 1st scrum on 20 minutes after Jamie George failed to throw straight at the lineout; as per usual the scrum didn’t work and Clermont were awarded a free kick. Clermont swung into action; the ball going across the pitch to Nakaitaci, he put a kick in which hit a Saracens boot, bouncing back kindly to the hands of Julien Bonnaire. Saracens did well to win the ball back but a wonderful kick by Lopez to the corner saw a Saracens lineout virtually on their own line. The clearing kick by Hodgson found Clermont hands and only a strong defence kept them out. That defence held firm as Clermont attacked, a poor pass by Fofana saw Nakaitaci knock on as he surged towards the line. Another scrum, another free kick and Charlie Hodgson booted the ball up field.
A penalty for Saracens saw Hodgson kick deep into the Clermont half and a 2nd penalty with a quick tap by Richard Wigglesworth who seemed to be on his own, saw David Strettle do what he does best, he sneaked into the corner to score Saracens’ 2nd try. Another difficult conversion was missed, but the teams were back to honours even.
We had more silly shouts of – ‘off, off’ as Nakaitaci competed for a ball well taken by Strettle; it was rightly a penalty but never a yellow! Camille Lopez attempted to intercept the ball and knocked on, as Saracens attacked and we had the 1st scrum to work! Clermont were forced to defend as Saracens attacked with intent, winning a penalty after a 2nd scrum in the phase. Some stats on 35 minutes – Tackles missed – Saracens 10 – Clermont 0 – not good reading for the Saracens defence coaches.
Will Fraser won a great penalty as Clermont were on the Saracens line, taking the ball as it appeared in the ruck. He’s a player who’s had such bad luck with injuries; it’s great to see him shining. The teams went in at half time with the scores on 10 apiece. All to play for in the 2nd half!
What is Bonnaire doing??
Saracens emerged and went on the attack, a great run through by Billy Vunipola was wasted as the ball came loose with no one in black and red to pick the ball up. I’d felt that Saracens had been a bit out of sorts in the new Premiership season in spite of their wins, that amazing team spirit they foster was far more evident against Clermont; to show my colours I hoped that would be enough to see them to the win.
Charlie Hodgson who was judged Man of the Match intercepted a Clermont pass as they attacked from a lineout; he was largely on his own and kicked the ball ahead. He was never likely to beat Nakaitaci but the pressure was kept on as Wigglesworth charged down Radoslavjevic’s box kick. Saracens were rewarded with a penalty for their efforts. In front of the posts Hodgson added 3 points.
Clermont went on the attack, with Fofana showing his ‘dancing’ feet in the middle of the field; looking for a safe win, Camille Lopez kicked a drop goal. Moments later Zac Guildford remixed us of his All Black pedigree when he caught the box kick sent up by his scrum half. Yes you might have expected Goode to catch the ball, but it looked like a training ground move perfectly executed. Lopez added the extras and the scoreline went to Saracens 13 Clermont 20.
Saracens hit back quickly as they won the ball from the kick off, Alastair Hargreaves made a great break, Billy Vunipola took the ball into contact, eventually the ball landed with David Strettle who scored his 2nd try of the game in the corner. The try was superbly executed; he flew across the line feet in the air to touch down. One frustration was the need for yet another intervention by the TMO. Just how close do the on field officials need to be to actually be able to make their own decision?? Hodgson was successful with a difficult conversion.
Another moment of controversy came when Chris Ashton collided with Lopez as he cleared the ball; again I’d say lucky not to see yellow, there were no arms in what was a careless move. There were boo’s as the penalty was given but I think that was the very least the referee could give. Lopez kicked and added 3 points to the Clermont tally. More boo’s, disappointing, I’m sure if it’d been the other way round ”off, off’ would have been the cry.
The score was evened up again when Saracens were awarded penalty after Schalk Brits was pushed in the back by Thomas Domingo; Hodgson duly adding the 3 points. Brits had come on in place of Jamie George; a popular substitution. It was a real shame to see him taken off on a stretcher after jarring his knee before the end of the game.
Clermont looked to have score a try after Saracens lost a lineout virtually n their own line; Vahaamhina touched the gal down but Damien Chouly had carried out a virtual assault on Neil De Kock as the ball went forward. Another player lucky not to be shown a card!
The play went to the other end of the pitch as Hodgson put in a huge kick. Zac Guildford dropped the ball, Chris Ashton was chasing at top speed; he kicked the ball on wrong footing Abendanon; he ran in to score. 2 apiece for the Saracens wingers and a 4 try bonus point for the home team.
With 16 minutes remaining there were no further points scored the end rest was Saracens 30 Clermont Auvergne 23. A fantastic result for Saracens, a home win is vital in a very hard group. Clermont took a bonus point home with them. The rematch will be very interesting as things got heated between the 2 packs towards the end. Billy Vunipola was very aerated over something that happened in the last few moments and swapped handbags with Julien Bardy.
Saracens travel to Limerick to take on Munster next; Clermont play host to Sale who were beaten by the last kick of the game by a drop goal. An exciting weekend of European rugby with a few surprises such as Glasgow beating Bath well; bring on the next round!