Oct 18, 2014
Saracens edge Clermont in Euro classic
Saracens ran in four tries to beat ASM Clermont Auvergne 30-23 in a European classic at Allianz Park
Inspired by the superb Charlie Hodgson, Saracens edged an absorbing contest to go top of Pool 1 of the European Champions Cup after round 1.
The first half was a breathless affair. The quality of both sides was plain to see, with ASM Clermont Auvergne’s possession and phase play impressing the 9,902 crowd inside Allianz Park, and the counter attacking play of Saracens giving a vociferous Saracens fan base a lot to shout about.
Saracens were first to strike when Chris Ashton finished off a free-flowing move, to score left of the posts. From third phase ball, Brad Barritt supplied Billy Vunipola with a well disguised flat pass – Vunipola though spun and expertly fed Alex Goode. The Saracens full-back then drew the cover defence to pop the ball to left winger David Strettle. The 31-year-old scorched down the left hand wing and seeing the onrushing Clermont defenders passed inside to Ashton, only for the Clermont Auvergne centre Wesley Fofana to pat the ball down - Ashton though, gracefully picked up the bouncing ball to score.
Clermont are a champion team, and produced a typical champion response when former All Black winger Zac Guildford wriggled over to level up the scores, before the cultured boot of Camille Lopez slotted over a difficult conversion to give the visitors a 5-7 lead.
Clermont extended their lead when after Noa Nakaitaci (who was a constant threat during the opening stages) burst through the Saracens line, Sarries conceded a penalty at the breakdown. Lopez, sent over the kick to give Le Vulcans a five point lead after twenty minutes.
ASM really should have extended their lead when French maestro Wesley Fofana fluffed the easiest of chances for a player of his calibre, when he had the line at his mercy. Saracens made Clermont pay almost immediately when two pieces of individual brilliance from scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth and winger David Strettle levelled up the scores.
After conceding a penalty in a very kickable position for the excellent Charlie Hodgson to certainly slot over, Richard Wigglesworth quick tapped and raced away past a plethora of French defenders. Whilst scorching away Wigglesworth had the presence of mind to float the most inviting passes in front of the hot-heeled Strettle. Then it was Strettle’s time to shine - scorching away in front of the gasping East Stand supporters, he somehow finished in the left hand corner despite the efforts of the covering Nick Abendanon. Hodgson slotted the kick from the touchline.
Saracens were playing counter-attacking rugby, and diced with death on a few occasions only for the much famed ‘Wolfpack’ defensive menatality to come to the fore, with a 36th minute turnover from Will Fraser a perfect example of the dogged attitude, as the sides went into the break with not even a cigarette paper able to separate them.
The second-half continued in the same vein. Clermont wowed with the offloads and strike running, whilst Saracens under the expert guidance of half-backs Richard Wigglesworth (latterly Neil de Kock) and Charlie Hodgson steering them around the pitch.
It was Hodgson who would edge his side in front, with a routine penalty after the 44th minute, only for the 33-year-old’s opposite number Lopez to knock over a drop goal a minute later to level up the game.
Then, Clermont crossed for their second of the afternoon, with Zac Guildford out-jumping Alex Goode to reach a high Ludovic Radoslavjevic box-kick to race away to score. Lopez converted, Clermont led 30-23.
Saracens were undeterred but stout Auvergne defending meant only a moment of genius could unlock their White and Yellow defensive rear-guard. Up step David Strettle, who judging by this effort, could side-step you in a phone-box.
Strettle received the ball one-on-one with giant loose-forward Fritz Lee. The Warrington-born ace danced around the former Chiefs battering ram still with it all to do. With the covering Clermont defence at good odds to bundle him into to touch, Strettle expertly jumped into the corner, placing the ball down inches from the touchline. Hodgson stepped up and slotted a difficult conversion.
The match was a slug-fest, (think Ali – Fraizer in Manila). As one heavyweight landed a blow, the other would respond, with Lopez jabbing over a penalty kick to edge the French side in front. Then Hodgson clipped a penalty over as the tension rose in this green enclave of north London.
Minutes later, Hodgson launched a towing ‘Garry Owen’ that had Zac Guildford backtracking. The Kiwi spilled the ball only to find chief-poacher Chris Ashton breathing down his neck. Ashton hacked on, re-gathered and scored. Hodgson added the extras to give Saracens a seven point lead.
Then it was the nail-biting period.
Clermont, assuming parity at the set-piece in the eyes of Referee John Lacey continued to prod-and-probe for a match drawing score. Then with seconds left Mr Lacey called for a scrum, with an Auvergen put-in just a few blades of the 4G grassaway from the Saracens try line.
The French side grunted, snarled and pushed, only for Jamie George (back on for Schalk Brits, who was carried off with a serious knee injury) Rhys Gill & James Johnston along with the collective will of the other Sarries five fowards, to earn a penalty.
Saracens cleared into touch as the final whistle was drowned out by Sarries cheers.