In a weekend that sees few surprises French clubs claim the inaugral European Champions Cup as their own!

Posted: April 22, 2015 in European Champions Cup
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Let’s be honest, many of us were hoping for an upset but realistically felt that it was unlikely to happen, as the only two non-French clubs left in the competition travelled to France to take on the two best teams in Europe on home soil.  Leinster hadn’t really shown us in the semis that they had the attacking prowess to make inroads into Toulon’s World XV’s defences, while Saracens had also struggled to cross the white line in their previous trip to France.  Clermont on the other hand looked like the try scoring team of the tournament and in front of the formidable Yellow Army, it seemed an impossible task for Saracens.  In short, France would bask in the glory that their national team seems incapable of delivering while Europe’s other big two, England and Ireland would head back across the Channel trying to fathom why national success doesn’t translate into results at club level on the European stage.

Clermont-Ferrand vs Saracens
Final Score – Cle 13/Sar 9
Saint-Étienne

This match was being touted as possibly the closest to call of the weekend, and with Clermont’s formidable try scoring threat in the shape of Fofana, Abendanon, Nakaitaci and co. the anticipation around this match was high.  Saracens after struggling to contain a rampant Racing Metro side a fortnight ago in Paris, and being saved at the bell by the boot of Marcelo Bosch had it all to do as well as convince their critics that the try scoring aptitude they have shown in the English Premiership this year could be replicated on the European stage.  On paper we were set for a cracker.

What we got instead was a tight close affair with in reality as predicted only one side really looking like they could score a try, yes you guessed it – Clermont.  Saracens as they did against Racing played an impressive defensive game until a lapse in defensive awareness left a hole big enough for Clermont danger man Wesley Fofana to rush through and score the game’s only try and ultimately end up being the pivot point of the match in the Frenchmen’s favour.  Despite referee George Clancy missing a blatant no arm tackle by Chris Ashton on Clermont’s Naipolioni Nalaga which would have resulted in two tries for the Frenchmen, it was a close and tense match which kept us all guessing till the end.  In his defence, referee Clancy actually had one of his better days with the whistle despite the intimidating background of a very vocal and significant presence by Clermont’s Yellow Army of supporters.

It was an intensely physical game from both sides but particularly from Saracens as they knew they had to stop Clermont getting quick ball and building any kind of momentum through the phases.  Clermont looked dangerous all match though perhaps given the occasion slightly more cautious than they had been against Northampton a fortnight ago. However, to their credit Saracens regained their composure after an initial surge by Clermont which should have ended in a try, but instead Chris Ashton was lucky to avoid a yellow card after his desperate no arm body slam against Clermont’s Naipolioni Nalaga which shoved the Clermont winger into touch millimetres from the Saracens try line.  After this initial scare, Saracens then enjoyed some quality possession of their own which never really looked like it would end in a try but did set Saracens flyhalf Charlie Hodgson up for a well taken drop goal attempt.

However, in much of Saracens attacks there were too many errors and wayward passes whereas Clermont looked much more clinical and polished in this aspect of their gameplay. After Hodgson’s drop goal, Clermont came back hard at Saracens and put the English club’s defenses to the test, and despite a defensive lapse which saw a penalty for Clermont, Saracens stood up well. Nevertheless the handling errors, particularly on the part of Saracens made sure the scrums got a serious workout in the first quarter and despite many thinking Saracens would have the edge here the Frenchmen held up well much to the delight of the Yellow Army. Then what looked like a convincing try from Clermont’s Nalanga was amazingly not reviewed by the TMO after in the replay it was clear to see that Saracens’ Chris Ashton used a no arm tackle to force Nalanga into touch. No yellow card and no penalty try and it was felt that 20 minutes into the game the usual poor standard of refereeing we have seen for much of this year was to be the norm. However, despite this glaring oversight, I was pleased to see that in general the officials had a relatively good match for the remainder of the game.

In an exciting first half which flowed from one end of the field to the other.  It was evenly poised with Saracens just in front by 6-3 at halftime. However, fly half Charlie Hodgson was not having a good day with the boot having missed two attempts which would have seen Saracens with a commanding lead of 12-3 at halftime. The second half however was a case of Clermont gradually increasing the pressure to the point where Saracens were out of ideas by the last 10 minutes. To their credit Saracens gave it everything they had, but ultimately could not unlock the Clermont defence enough to score that elusive try. Clermont’s defence was huge in the second half and their continuing sniping runs into space ultimately wore down Saracens. In the first five minutes some brilliant vision from Clermont flyhalf Brock James who had a superb game, put Wesley Fofana into some huge space behind Saracens defensive line, so much so that Fofana could almost have walked across the try line.

At 62 minutes, Saracens could have been in front after some superb play from Alex Goode got some huge gains for Saracens into Clermont’s 22, only then to have a loose ball knocked on by Saracens Jacques Burger when he had acres of space in front of him to cross the try line. It was perhaps this error count on the part of Saracens that ultimately cost them the match. They worked hard at containing Clermont and for much of the match succeeded but when they needed it the finishing wasn’t quite there as much as it was for Clermont. Add to this the fact that Hodgson’s kicking was not quite what it had been a fortnight ago and the writing was starting to be there for all to see. In fairness to Saracens, they kept coming back at Clermont right till the very end, but Clermont were better at hanging on to the ball under pressure and making inroads back into Saracens 22, ultimately making them do all the work and thus chase the game.

In the end, Clermont were deserved winners even if they didn’t quite give us the spectacle they provided against Northampton a fortnight ago. They were the better team and clinically more effective at what they did than Saracens for the full eighty minutes. Saracens challenged but ultimately just didn’t have that extra edge, and in front of a truly deafening Yellow Army Saracens were always going to have a mountain to climb. It was a good game from both sides but fair play to Clermont it was an incredible atmosphere and they made the best use of it. Twickenham now await the arrival of the Yellow Army!

Toulon vs Leinster
Final Score – Tou 25/Lei 20
Marseille

Let’s be fair to Leinster, they came into this match as huge underdogs but ultimately gave us the game of the weekend and showed us that despite poor form domestically and in this competition to a certain degree, the pedigree they have in European club rugby came to the fore on Sunday and we saw a performance that had plenty of grit and pride in it. However, it was Toulon’s game to lose and despite the almost spoilt brat superstar nature of some of their players, Toulon’s investment in buying some of the world’s best paid off.

After watching this performance, I couldn’t help coming away with the feeling that Toulon are good but certainly not invincible, and in terms of a team with a real sense of destiny and team ethos I think that Clermont may well have the edge in fortnight in the duel of these two French giants. Watching the two games you couldn’t help feeling that the Toulon crowd expected their team to win whereas Clermont’s Yellow Army wanted their team to win and if they could have been down on the pitch playing for their club they would have. In terms of passion and heart after this weekend, which I still hold are very underrated commodities in the modern game, my money and hopes are on Clermont on May 2nd.

Still back to the matter at hand – a clash of two European heavyweights in Marseille. Leinster have had their hands on European silverware enough times in recent years to make them a strong contender against Toulon who are going for their third consecutive year of lifting the European Cup trophy. Many may have written off Leinster leading up to the match, but the expression on the Irish players’ faces as they emerged from the tunnel in Marseille, made it clear to one and all that the underdog label was an opinion only and one they didn’t hold much stock in. What we saw was a very brave and often heroic performance from Leinster. The Irishmen took an incredibly close match to extra time and ultimately the game was lost on one lapse of judgement from the unfortunate Ian Madigan which highlighted that despite his skill set he doesn’t quite have the experience and vision that many of those he was up against in the Toulon side have. It was sad that perhaps the game will be seen to have hinged on one man’s mistake and I think that is unfair to Madigan, but when you are up against a team boasting a combined tally of international test appearances well in excess of three hundred, then sadly such mistakes are the difference between winning and losing.

In stark contrast to the glorious weather seen in Saint-Étienne the day before, the first half was a rain-sodden affair which made the ball difficult to handle, especially as the game was being played at a frenetic pace. Despite the conditions, if anything Leinster looked the more composed and effective side and in stark contrast to what would happen to him in extra time, Leinster’s Ian Madigan was controlling the game well and proving to be deadly accurate with the boot, with the exception of his glaring error on the initial kick off as he put the ball out. His counterpart for Toulon, Freddie Michalak was, despite his stellar performance a fortnight ago, once more showing that you really only get one good game in ten out of him. Michalak was having a truly woeful game with many of his teammates scratching their heads in bewilderment as he played a kicking game that only he seemed to know the plan for. As a result there were no surprises when he was summarily hauled off the pitch just after half time.

In general, the first 80 minutes were not the most exciting as a spectacle and both teams seemed to be working excessively hard to produce very little rugby as the skills from both sides were somewhat lacking despite the conditions. Even Toulon’s all-star XV were not exactly looking like world beaters.

At 80 minutes, despite a last gasp kick from Delon Armitage for Toulon to avoid extra time, it was 12-12 and neither side looking that dominant, despite the weather improving at half time and Toulon starting to look slightly more adventurous.

In many ways, the extra time was the match and the excitement that had been promised. It was frenetic stuff that had us all on the edge of our seats. Toulon got the scoring underway through Halfpenny’s boot, but Madigan was soon to reply. Toulon’s Ali Williams then got a yellow card for apparently taking Leinster’s Devin Toner out in the air, and even though it may have been a marginal call, many felt it was just recompense for Williams after his shirt pulling incident a fortnight ago against Wasps which he escaped unpunished. So now with Leinster’s 15 against Toulon’s 14, could Leinster pull off a miracle? It was here where Toulon’s investment in the big names and Leinster’s Ian Madigan’s lack of experience was there for all to see. To give away a try against a side with a man down when you are in ascendancy and on the attack, usually means that from there the history books have been written and so it was this past Sunday. Ian Madigan saw space out on the left but far out on the left and didn’t take into account that South Africa’s Bryan Habana who has poached adventurous passes for the last ten years for the Springboks, was waiting with open arms. Habana saw the pass which wasn’t the best in the first place from Madigan and he was off from a textbook interception. Habana with space in front of him is essentially unstoppable and the rest was history. With an easy conversion for Halfpenny to follow, Leinster were now in deep trouble as they headed into the final ten minutes 25-15 down.

What we saw in the final ten minutes was classic Leinster and a display of pride from this side that showed their European heritage and pedigree. It was Irish wonder weapon Sean O’Brien who would give the Irish side something to cheer about as in a sustained passage of play that showed some classic Irish ferocity at the breakdown, the flanker would ultimately crash over from a brilliant rolling maul. Gopperth would ultimately miss the conversion for Leinster and Toulon were back up to 15 men again for the last 5 minutes.  Toulon fluffed the restart and Leinster only needed another five pointer to tie the game and go to a penalty shootout. Leinster looked like they could do it but despite the mistake at the restart by Toulon they soon re-established themselves in terms of dominance and the last three minutes essentially belonged to the Frenchmen. Leinster were heroic in defence and desperately sought to find some space and work a miracle turnover but sadly it wasn’t to be. In the end it was Toulon’s day and we prepare for the anomaly of an all French final at England’s rugby HQ at Twickenham in a fortnight. Leinster may have lost but they showed character and heart and I sincerely hope that is what their fans and the press will focus on rather than one individual error by Ian Madigan. Leinster showed that despite that they could all rally to the cause as a team to make amends as evidenced by the Sean O’Brien try. Nevertheless, Toulon just had the better of a very spirited Leinster side and deserve their place in the final. Leinster can go home with their head held high and hope that the grit they showed in this match will translate into some much-needed success in the remainder of their season in the PRO 12.

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