My 100th Sportsthoughts. Appropriate that it celebrates a truly outstanding sporting feat. Heineken Cup semi final at Twickenham. England’s best club team at the moment, Saracens, against the mighty Clermont Auvergne, up there with Toulon and Toulouse as the best of the French. Clermont regarded as favourites, with just a hint of doubt about their away form (although they beat Quins 16-13 in a hard-fought game in the group stage at the Stoop.)
Score: Saracens 46 Clermont 6. Whaaat happened?
Before I say something about the game, let me say how unreal this feels to be writing a blog in praise of Sarries. It would be the same as lauding Chelsea in the football. The big spenders (how they manage within the salary cap I don’t know). Poached a couple of Quins’ players in recent years: David Strettle and James Johnston. Fans have become newly arrogant, though there still aren’t that many of them. I had intended to write about Quins’ 24-20 victory over Leicester at the Stoop the Friday before last. Two comebacks required, fantastic atmosphere, keeps us in the hunt – just – for a top four place in the Premiership. But I had a busy weekend and then went off to Paris for a few days. The moment for a blog passed. Hard life!
So over to the semi final. The first half was close-fought and featured some unbelievably aggressive defending by Saracens. Their tackle count was amazing and was the result of the linespeed of the defending lines. With flanker Jacques Burger, Namibian behemoth, to the fore. The speed at which he launched into the Clermont attackers, with no regard at all for his own safety, was frightening. He deservedly won the Man Of The Match award, although there were plenty of other contenders.
But the first half also featured three – maybe four – big decisions, by referee Nigel Owens, which all went Sarries’ way. He is one of the best refs, and I’m not suggesting bias in any way, although I imagine the French media will have a field day. Sarries’ first try was beautifully crafted, with England reject Chris Ashton going through. A hint of the forward pass during the move, but no-one seemed to make much of a fuss about that.
Next was more controversial, as Owens awarded a penalty try to Saracens, having judged that Aussie Brock James, the Clermont fly half, had deliberately knocked the ball away in a challenge with the Sarries’ Argentinian centre Marcelo Bosch inside the Clermont try zone. Fair enough to give a penalty and yellow card to James. But the penalty try, when it wasn’t at all clear who might have scored, was harsh.
Clermont then started to put on the pressure. They scored what looked like a beautifully-worked try after a lineout ploy. It was disallowed for alleged blocking by a Clermont player on a Saracens defender. It looked marginal to me. On another day, the benefit of the doubt might have been given to Clermont.
Then, after a general melee, Sarries’ Owen Farrell emerged in space, having looked like he’d knocked the ball on, and ran through unchallenged for a try. Replays did show that the ball had hit his knee rather than hands when going forward, but again, on another day…
It meant that Saracens were 24-6 up at half time.
What would Clermont do to get back into the game? The answer was very little. There was a period of stalemate and then Sarries started to break through. Clermont lost hope and shape. Chris Ashton emerged as one of Sarries’ heroes, scoring two tries and and making another with a superb break and long pass. Andy Goode was excellent as full back, and points kicker on the day, as Owen Farrell had a bruised foot – not that you would have noticed, given the excellence of his general play. There were awesome defensive displays by hooker Schalk Brits, captain and second row Steve Borthwick and centre Brad Barritt, amongst others.
Essentially, Saracens blasted the Clermont pressure with fierce tackling, benefited from a couple of refereeing decisions, soaked up a bit more pressure and then let rip as Clermont’s morale wilted. It was an incredibly impressive display of rugby. Sky’s co-commentator Stuart Barnes – prone to hyperbole, but also speaking from experience as an international player – deemed it the finest club performance he had seen.
That will no doubt be disputed, especially by the Saracens-haters. The refereeing decisions will no doubt take centre stage in the reports on the game.
But while I don’t feel qualified to rank the performance against others, I will say that it was an amazing performance by Saracens – and let us not forget that it was against a normally outstanding French team.
Saracens will face either Toulon or Ireland’s Munster in the final in Cardiff. I will be rooting for Sarries, notwithstanding my normal dislike of the team, as a Quins fan. Rooting for the English boys and admiring their international colleagues. Even, and maybe especially, Jacques Burger…
(Both the photos here are copied from Google Images and are courtesy of Getty images)