In the build-up to Easter Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final at home to Clermont Auvergne, Saracens head coach Mark McCall had articulated his desire to forge a “European legacy.” He was completely justified – consistent continental success is the next logical goal for the Aviva Premiership champions, who have an impressive blend of on-field talent and off-field ambition. Things did not quite go according to plan.
With 53 minutes gone, Clermont’s Brock James, who had come on for David Skrela very early on, stroked over a penalty to put his side 22-3 ahead, terminating the tie as a contest. Thanks to a 13-point post-break blitz, including an opportunistic try for Lee Byrne, the visitors were sunk. La Marseillaise echoed around Vicarage Road uproariously, each of the two-and-a-half thousand French fans singing to colour a grey Watford afternoon with bright flashes of blue and yellow.
Such a sound beautifully complemented the sights of the final exchanges, as a frenzied Clermont defence engulfed every Saracens surge with intimidating physicality and unrelenting energy. Despite Alex Goode and Schalk Brits showing typical willing in attack, with Peter Short and Jackson Wray adding verve from the bench, the hosts could not make any headway.
Morgan Parra, a scrum-half strikingly Napoleonic in stature and personality, defined the feeling within his team. Not famed for tackling (or indeed selflessness), the 23 year-old half-back threw his body in front of a sniping David Strettle to repel one Saracens wave as it neared the whitewash.
In short, Clermont put in a domineering performance and made a total mockery of the well-worn truism that their countrymen go missing on the road. Disappointingly, McCall earmarked the salary cap – and lack of it across The Channel – as a key reason for the Fez-heads’ failure. However, it should be stressed that the men from Massif Central are no mercenaries. Granted, their squad depth is immense. All told, there are 31 internationals on the roster. It is the pedigree of the first XV defies belief, though.
A back-three of Julien Malzieu, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Byrne is a truly wonderful foundation, but it gets better. Aurelien Rougerie and Wesley Fofana – one brutish, the other bedazzling – are as good a centre pairing as the planet has to offer (even Regan King’s sublime skills cannot get the New Zealander a game when both are fit). Parra bristles with authority, while both Skrela and James offer concrete dependability in the number ten jersey.
A brutal forward pack is equally imposing. On Sunday, British Lion Nathan Hines and Les Bleus veteran Julien Bonnaire charged around the park like loonies, hell-bent on violence but with sufficient poise to provide a strong set-piece and devastating offloads. At all bases, the personnel are fantastic. Even so, you cannot buy the unrivalled commitment that has galvanised these classy individuals.
Vern Cotter, the only realistic challenger to Steve Hansen’s inevitable succession of Graham Henry at the helm of the All Blacks, can take a lot of credit for that. The Kiwi’s five full seasons as boss of Clermont have seen three grand final defeats and an inaugural Top 14 triumph for the club back 2010. This year, their European exploits have been matched with strong showings on the domestic front – with four regular fixtures to go, they are prowling at second place on the league ladder, just one win behind Toulouse.
Perversely, given that this is Clermont’s first appearance in the Heineken Cup semi-finals, I would argue that they are favourites to clinch the competition. At the end of this month, they will welcome Leinster to the Stade Chaban-Delmas, where an all-screaming, all-dancing atmosphere will be in place. Although the Dubliners are in fantastic form, and brushed aside Cardiff Blues with consummate ease on Saturday, the Frenchmen have shown their disdain for reputation already this season.
Back in December, they dismantled Leicester at the Marcel Michelin with a three-try win that left the East Midlands giants, who have carved out a considerable European legacy themselves over the years, completely shell-shocked. I spoke to one of the Tigers about the experience over a coffee the next day and there was no trace of an excuse. As they were against Saracens, Clermont were just far too good.
Of course, the last-four clash against Leinster will hold extra spice thanks to proceedings in the 2010 competition, which saw the Top 14 outfit painfully ousted the quarter-final stage after a 29-28 defeat to the same opponents. On a cold Friday night in the Irish capital, James missed a conversion, five penalties and three drop-goal attempts. At the final whistle, understandably, he was inconsolable. Rather unsympathetically, Sky Sports match commentator Mark Robson laboured the point of revenge and lessons learnt as he interviewed Sunday’s man-of-the-match in much happier circumstances. Admirably,
though his eyes were raging, James maintained a laconic aura with the help of his lazy Victorian tones.
“Obviously, I had quite a difficult time that day and I left a lot of points out there,” he said, before continuing in a much grittier manner. “The good thing about rugby is that there is always a chance to put things right, though. We’ve decided as a group that is the Heineken Cup is something we’d like to do well in this season.”
If the fly-half’s understated determination is shared by each of this squad’s glittering names – and on the weekend’s evidence there can be little doubt that it is – it will take a mammoth effort to stop Clermont capturing their maiden Heineken Cup at Twickenham on May 19.