|He just wants to be friends...|
I have a confession to make – despite my many (generally useless) gifts, foretelling the future is not one of them. I happen to think my score predictions are generally pretty decent – during the Six Nations, I got 2 of England’s 5 games dead right – and if I’m wrong, I’m generally reasonably close. As in, within a score or so. 10 points at worst. Not 45. That’s what I like to call a ‘Guscott call’.
However, I sank to new depths on Saturday as Saracens scaled unimaginable heights against the most illustrious of European opponents, Clermont Auvergne. The French giants have never lifted the Heineken Cup and yet have been hailed by many as, unofficially, the best team in Europe over 3 years. With local and foreign talent scattered across the pitch, a brutally physical pack combined with an electrifying backline, it is easy to see how many had them as narrow favourites in the build up to the quarter final at Twickenham. I myself had them down as victors by 5 points, because I could not shake the memory of Saracens being bullied against Toulouse from my mind – if they struggled against a far-from-vintage Toulouse side, how would they fare against a Clermont side approaching their prime?
We got that answer pretty early on as Clermont started the game in glorious West London sunshine. After a tentative opening which was characterised by some marvellous kicking from Owen Farrell and Brock James, Saracens exploded into life. Attacking the short side on the left, Alex Goode and Schalk Brits timed their passes to perfection to put Brad Barritt in through a gap, and the bullocking centre found left wing Chris Ashton marauding on his inside shoulder, allowing the England winger to finish well by picking an in-and-out line. This was classic Ashton and a classic poachers try, giving Saracens had a 7-0 lead, following Alex Goode’s magnificent nudge (with Farrell handing over kicking-duties whilst he was taking precautions with his recently-recovered foot) after just 8 minutes. Well now, I thought, a Sarries headstart should at least make it interesting.
Clermont responded quickly, running through the phases without making many yards as the Saracens line-speed, led by Brits and Jacques Burger, put them under pressure. Nevertheless, Neil de Kock gave away an offside penalty and Morgan Parra added 3 points. The French side didn’t seem worried; they would bide their time, and surely their backline flair would tell eventually.
But not immediately. Clermont made a complete hash of clearing their lines from the restart as James, under pressure, shovelled the ball to fullback Lee Byrne, whose kick was superbly charged down by the onrushing Mako Vunipola, now officially the world’s largest sprinter. James and Marcello Bosch both competed for the loose ball as it cannoned off the loosehead’s hands, with the fly half appearing the deliberately knock the ball out of play at the second attempt. Referee Nigel Owens certainly thought this was the case, rightly showing James a yellow card but also, surprisingly awarding a penalty try. I thought that this was one of the few decisions Owens, the best referee in the world, got wrong; for me, there was no way of telling that a try would probably have been scored if James hadn’t have knocked it into touch. But it was cynical, and you could argue that Sarries deserved their 14 – 3 lead.
No matter – with Owens reffing, one thing you are guaranteed is an open game, which is right up Clermont’s street, even with just 14 men. In fact, Clermont began to play their best rugby during the 10 minutes James was off. Short pick and goes were winding the sinbin clock down, although the strong fringe defence was not giving any change, but whenever they attempted to go wide they were hounded and smashed to pieces by an incredibly aggressive defensive line. The Clermont players were starting to look out for Burger, who had already weighed in with some monumental hits, but they did find some joy down the left as Byrne and then Jamie Cudmore, of all people, galloped to within 5 metres of the Saracens line. From there, the Clermont pack hammered at the Saracens line, again met by outstanding defence, before swinging the ball wide to Benson Stanley, who coasted in for a try – only to be denied because of an unnecessary decoy block by Damien Chouly. Sarries had escaped – but was the door now open, with James returning to the fray?
It certainly seemed to be creaking open. A penalty conceded by Burger after more strong work by the men in white’s pack brought it back to an 8 point game. But 5 minutes later, the door was slammed shut again. A magnificent turnover by Brits in the midfield gave Mako Vunipola the chance to rumble on, and from there Chris Ashton made a sharp dart down the right before throwing an inside pass. De Kock, the intended recipient, was held back and couldn’t take the ball which cannoned off the onrushing Farrell’s leg and over the tryline for the England fly half to dive on. Everyone had stopped for the knock on, but replays showed the Saracens man had taken his hands away at the crucial moment and allowed the ball to hit his knee, meaning the try stood. Another superb conversion, and Sarries held a 21 -6 lead.
Still, any moment now, Clermont would explode into top gear and set the Twickenham pitch alight. Surely. But instead, they began to look a bit worried. They started trying to play from deep but they were met, with each step, by a wall of black and red, usually fronted by the Picasso-painting-esque face of Burger, and their physical dominance was underlined when Ashton – renowned for being as tough as wet paper in the tackle – hammered the giant Napolini Nalaga into touch. The Londoners dominated the remainder of the half, earned another Goode penalty, and went into the break at 24 – 6 to the good.
There was a stunned silence at Twickenham – even the Saracens fans were shocked at what they had seen. Europe’s best club side, with all their deadly runners, bullied into submission in every contact. We were waiting for the French outfit to finally hit their stride, but even a fully-firing Clermont side would struggle against this blood-thirsty defence. And this theme continued in the second half, with the wolf pack tearing into the opposition with unrestrained ferocity – there was fear in the eyes of every Clermont player, and this wasn’t fear of losing even though they were 18 points down. This was a fear of getting hurt.
Clermont were trying to desperately to get some form of upper hand in the game – through offloads or kicking – but they were being matched and bettered in almost every department. In fact, it was Saracens who looked the more dangerous by far, as Billy Vunipola thundered 30 metres with a huge break in the midfield and helped get his side to within 10 metres of the line before De Kock knocked on. It was only a brief respite though, as Bosch stepped up to land a trademark monster penalty from halfway to had another 3 points of onto the Sarries tally.
The French side now looked defeated and miserable in the glorious Twickenham sunshine and, after an hour, they finally imploded, fed up of being dismantled 5 metres behind the gainline in every possession, fed up of the sight of Burger, Brits, Vunipola and Barritt running up to re-arrange their rib-cages. Another smart tackle, this time by Farrell, caused Ti’i Paulo to spill the ball and allowed Ashton to show his predatory instincts and footballing skills to grubber the loose ball ahead and touchdown for his 2nd score. 34 – 6, game over – and everyone, myself included, finally realised we weren’t going to see the expected miraculous comeback from Clermont, simply because Saracens wouldn’t allow it.
Burger was substituted, having made a ludicrous 27 tackles, but Ashton wasn’t done yet. The England winger surged through a gap in the midfield before throwing a gorgeous pass out to substitute Tim Streather, who fed fellow replacement Chris Wyles via Barritt for the American to touch down for a magnificent try. It summed up a superb performance by Ashton, not only had he shown commitment and physicality in defence, he had shown conviction and confidence in his decisions – something that had been lacking of late. He made 81 metres in just 10 carries, with 4 clean breaks and 2 tries, whilst his illustrious opposite number Sitiveni Sivatu (who I picked as his key opponent), managed just 12 metres from 19 carries.
There was still time for Streather to sneak over on the right after slick hands from Farrell and Goode to add the final nail into the Clermont coffin to leave a final score of 46 – 6. Against Clermont. The highest ever semi-final points total. The highest ever semi-final winning margin. An unbelievable score, a remarkable score. A statement.
It’s not exaggerating to put this display up there with the best ever performances by an English club in Europe, along with the likes of Harlequins away against Toulouse 2 years ago and Leicester away to Munster in 2007. People may not have had predicted anything like this before, but you can pretty safely bet that their opponents, Toulon, won’t be writing them off in Cardiff in 4 weeks’ time.
And in the other Heineken Cup Semi Final?
Toulon 24 – 16 Munster: Toulon had just too much power for Munster in Marseille, running out comfortable winners in the end. The boot of Johnny Wilkinson, with 6 penalties and a drop goal, plus a long range effort from Delon Armitage, proved enough for the Galacticos of Europe, even though Munster scored the only try of the game through Simon Zebo.
You can find my team of the weekend up on The Rugby Blog, too.