After a season that has tested teams beyond limits ever seen before in European Rugby, it came down to Clermont Auvergne and reigning Champions Saracens to battle it out in the galleon of Murrayfield. Clermont had never won a Champions Cup title despite appearing in the final twice before. Desperate to join the ranks of Leicester, Leinster and Toulon in achieving back-to-back wins, could Saracens retain title number two in style? And with the French fans were in fine voice, the burning questions was ‘who would prove to be best on field?’
Saracens began strong, with Chris Ashton making a thundering charge down the wing, to be stopped firmly in his tracks by the Clermont defence. The men in blue and yellow were yet to switch on, whilst Sarries were tight. The tension began to rise as Mark McCall’s men mounted pressure in the Clermont 22. A sublime kick through from Goode saw Ashton poach an opportunity and collect the ball to swan dive over for the first points of the game. His 37th score in European Rugby – a new record set by the controversial winger.
Farrell was fighting against the wind in the opening 15 minutes of the match. A missed conversion was closely followed by a penalty, earned from the scrum, that drifted inches wide of the posts. Both teams grabbed metres here and there without conviction of any points, however Saracens were visibly growing in confidence. At the 22 minute mark, George Kruis took chance at the breakdown and battled over at the bottom of the posts, and this time a successful conversion from Farrell took the score to 0-12. Clermont certainly had some waking up to do.
A rolling maul in Saracens’ 22 allowed their rivals to eat up metres and head for the line. It crumbled to the ground and a hungry Clermont were given advantage. A slippery ball was gathered by Remi Lamerat who wriggled through the Saracens defence and touched down to get their first points on the board – 7-12. A series of fisticuffs and physically demanding play meant both teams wound up the first half with bloodied faces. The players took solace in the changing rooms, no doubt with a few words to share on a demanding first half.
Both sides made little progress in the opening minutes of the second half as neither stretched to anything worthwhile. Clermont had more possession and therefore looked more hopeful, however a knock on left Saracens with advantage at the scrum. The French side were displaying more wide, open play meaning Sarries were chasing a ball that they were struggling to keep hold of. Substitutions rolled on, most noticeably a fresh pair of legs in the Saracens front row as Schalk Brits replaced Jamie George. A lineout on Clermonts 22 allowed the London based side to turn the screw and earn the penalty. Farrell slotted it easily between the posts to take it to 7-15.
It took seconds for the trailers to respond, and oh how they did it in style – Nick Abendanon collected he ball, cruised 100 metres down the wing and across the pitch to slide over the line. A perfect kick from Parra edged them closer to their opponents with one point between them. 14-15 at 55 minutes.
An offence from Clermont, judged at length by referee Nigel Owens, gave Farrell another chance at the posts to strike an easy three points. At 14-18 the game was heating up nicely, whilst Murrayfield buzzed with atmosphere. A trickle of set pieces and advantage play kept the clock ticking over nicely, taking it to the climax of the game. With 15 minutes to go Billy Vunipola displayed the brutality that has earned him a Lions shirt as he charged through four of the Clermont defence. He fell short five metres and the ball was scrambled out wide, flicking through two, three, four pairs of Saracens hands, only to be knocked on by Camille Lopez for Clermont. A call to check the TMO in fear of a deliberate knock on, Lopez got off lightly with a penalty against him and not a stint in the sin bin.
This triggered the turning point of the game; fired up, Saracens were awarded a scrum ten metres out and, against the will of Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers who attempted to barge through, it was left to Goode to find a gap and race towards the line. A simple place over the line and Saracens had extended the gap. A great conversion from Farrell meant the score read 17-25 with five minutes on the clock. Could Clermont claw it back?
A penalty taken by Lopez was sent far wide of the posts as Saracens escaped the chance of a comeback. Play continued and the breakdown lottery awarded Saracens with a penalty this time. Choosing to opt for the sticks, Farrel kicked successfully to extend their lead. All they had to do to retain the title was run the minutes down on the clock. Billy Vunipola was announced as Man of the Match as he took part in a game of cat and mouse with the opposition, but in the end time ran out. One final lineout gave the leaders control and a simple kick to touch signalled the end of an almighty battle. Saracens had done it. They were Champions again.
And whilst individuals had set records, it was the whole team that proved more determined than their French counterparts, for which McCall described them as “hungry enough and good enough.” Another trophy for the cabinet, another game won, another chance where they’ve proven to be one of the worlds best.
Speaking after the match, Clermont boss Franck Azema praised his players for displaying characteristics that challenged their rivals, saying:
“We didn’t give up. We didn’t break, but Saracens have shown the pressure that’s needed.
“We weren’t able to express our full rugby… [but] we shouldn’t be ashamed of this game.”
Ashton, who is set to leave the English giants at the end of this season, paid tribute to the club for many of his “highs and lows” within his rugby career:
“I’ve had five unbelievable years here.
“A lot of it [top European try scorer record] is down to the club.
“I’ll be sad to go, but it’s now time for a change.”
And speaking about that try that got his team their first points on the board, Ashton said:
“I was really happy when Alex [Goode] put his first decent kick in of this season!”
Saracens retain title number two, and sit atop the European Professional Rugby Club ranks. On to Sandy Park, and a date with the Exeter Chiefs, to aim to possibly achieve the ‘double-double’.