Showing the sort of steely resolve and tremendous footballing abilities we have come to expect, the reigning European Champions overcame the desperate passion and additional neutrals’ support of Clermont Auvergne to ensure that Saracens are still on course for the ‘Double Double’.
What an occasion it was. This was Northern Hemisphere club rugby at its best. 55,000 supporters saw Europe’s two top teams go head to head in a gladiatorial contest which had huge hits and physicality but also, thanks to the conditions, a great deal of running rugby.
Owen Farrell – Man of the Match
Owen Farrell, who was named European Player of the Year 2017 after the game, put in a man of the match performance and showed his continued development running squarely at the Clermont defence and fizzing passes flatly across the back line for the likes of Marcello Bosch and Chris Ashton to take at pace.
It was Ashton who broke the scoring deadlock and in doing so, broke Vincent Clerc’s European try-scoring record. The benefit of having another ball player in midfield in the form of Alex Goode showed as he waited for Scott Spedding to commit to assisting Nick Abendanon. That was the moment he pulled the trigger on a beautiful grubber that sat up delightfully for Ashton to score.
Saracens were showing why they won the title last year making yards on every carry and for all Clermont’s well publicised physical size, it was the North-Londoners who were winning the gain-line collisions with the Vunipola brothers prominent with ball in hand.
The French line speed lacked a yard even though they were piling men into the contact area in order to disrupt the Sarries’ ball but they could not prevent another wave of pressure in their twenty-two and when George Kruis took the ball five yards out at full speed, nobody was going to stop him – a sight that would have warmed Warren Gatland’s heart no doubt.
Top 14 Giants did not Capitulate
The Top 14 giants did not capitulate however and hit back with a score of their own before half time. Remi Lamerat, who was arguably their best player in that first 40 minutes, finished off a move that saw Clermont figure-head Aurelian Rougerie use his size and experience close to the Saracens’ line.
The teams went in at half time with the Aviva Premiership Champions 12 – 7 up with all to play for but you felt Clermont needed to play more of the game in the opposing half in order to give themselves a chance of winning.
The French team started the brighter in the second half with a well worked move involving a cross-field kick by Lopez patted down by Strettle to Spedding but ultimately it came to nothing. That was followed by some lovely interplay between the magnificent Peceli Yato and the ever-present Fritz Lee.
Nigel Owens Taking Charge of his 100th Game
In the end though, it was Saracens who got the first score of the half with a penalty awarded by referee, Nigel Owens, who was taking charge of his 100th European game. However, Clermont hit back immediately with a well worked team try that began five metres out from their own try line.
Scott Spedding spotted an unusually slack Saracens kick-chase and broke through a bunch of forwards to allow the ball to be spread wide where Yato drew the two final defenders before offloading deftly to Abendanon to score.
Saracens were being put under a huge amount of pressure and there were some cracks in their composure at times but Mark McCall had spoken in the week leading up to the final that it was inevitable that Clermont would have strong periods in the game and it would be down to the men in red to deal with those.
Slowly but Surely Turned the Screw
Their bench players started to enter the fray with the two Schalks – Brits and Burger – coming on to add beef and pace to their effort and slowly but surely they turned the screw and reversed the pressure.
Ultimately, their phases told as the decoy runners created the holes required and it was Alex Goode that found the perfect gap to score the crucial try converted by the cool as ever Farrell.
A lifeline of a penalty for Clermont was butchered by Lopez – an action that in microcosm seemed to sum up his game where, ultimately, he never looked to have the time on the ball that his opposite number had.
When Nigel Owens blew the final whistle, Saracens had added a further penalty to put the game beyond doubt and it was the men from Allianz Park that were able to celebrate and the perennial bridesmaids of Europe, Clermont were left wondering what could have been again.
Saracens are Still on Course for the ‘Double Double’
For the men from Barnet though, next week will pose a different challenge but it is now clear that Saracens are still on course for the ‘Double Double’ as they are crowned kings of Europe once again.
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