Six tries and a 46-6 thumping for last season’s Heineken Cup runners-up. Be honest, who expected that? Here are five lessons we learned from a fantastic Saracens defeat of Clermont.
The very best of a bad situation
There’s little point sugar-coating anything – Twickenham remaining barely a quarter full for a Heineken Cup semi-final was hugely embarrassing. In fact, it was morbidly symbolic of the gripes English clubs have had with the ERC to bring about the public, shambolic transition to the Rugby Champions Cup. Saracens were frustrated they could not market ticket sales and would not have been too unhappy to prove their point by way of a green sea of vacant seats – the official attendance figure limping to 25,492.
Even so, the atmosphere belied those empty expanses. And the rugby responded. Saracens stormed off at a tempo Clermont could not live with and though a few marginals went their way (we’ll get to that), the Premiership front-runners were good value for a thrashing.
They suffocated the Top 14 giants and thoroughly deserve a chance to take top honours in Cardiff. At the end, chants of “Saracens, Saracens” reverberated around the famous arena, deafening the social media bitterness. Nobody in red and black gave a monkey’s about the noise-to-numbers ratio.
High stakes, big calls
The irony of a referee’s remit is that the men in the middle are often happy to leave proceedings without getting noticed. Usually, facilitating a free-flowing game without fuss makes for a decent day at the office. But under the bright lights of a significant stage, it is impossible to slip under the radar. Nigel Owens had two mammoth decisions to make in a manic first half. Whichever way they went, there would have been complaints.
As it was, each benefitted Saracens – but not without a thorough, logical thought process. Brock James had a brain fade and illegally denied Marcelo Bosch a glaring chance to dot down. A penalty try was an outcome that benefitted the attacking side, as many punters call out for regularly. Then Clermont’s decoy runners undoubtedly took out would-be tacklers ahead of Benson Stanley’s disallowed try. When Owen Farrell went over after a chaotic flurry minutes later, it was destined to be Mark McCall’s day.
Speaking to the BBC beforehand, Saracens chief executive Ed Griffiths outlined his mantra. “Treat them unbelievably well,” he said. “They’ll work unbelievably hard.” Nicely put. He was spot on.
Jacques Burger deservedly scooped man-of-the match for a 27-tackle display that defied physiology. The astonishing statistics were only the start, as well. From minute one to minute 69 when Jackson Wray replaced him, he directed unbelievable line-speed. Clermont were asphyxiated, and the gnarled Namibian wasn’t the only culprit.
Schalk Brits cut down 13 runners, Mako Vunipola 16 and Steve Borthwick 17. Defence coach Paul Gustard has created and ingrained the ‘wolf pack’ mentality.
The contest was summed up in the dying moments when Clermont broke down the left, 32-6 down and keen for a futile consolation. An offload was spilled and Owens blew for a knock-on. However, Napolioni Nalaga did not hear the whistle.
He sauntered towards the line, only to be scragged by a retreating Brad Barritt. The inside centre had sprinted back to save the situation with nothing at stake but pride. That just happened to be more than enough motivation for his team on Saturday.
England’s not-so-forgotten men
Knockout rugby is a prime platform for players with pedigree. With that in mind, it was no coincidence Alex Goode and Chris Ashton were outstanding, thriving amid the intense pace and physicality. They each gave Stuart Lancaster a robust nudge and will certainly be on the plane to New Zealand this summer.
With Farrell’s foot clearly troubling him, Goode directed proceedings from full-back. He set an assured tone by rising to take the opening kick-off and was incisive on hitting the line.He also landed 13 points from the tee in a display of characteristic calm and class. Some people still do not rate him – that is a total mystery.
Ashton was at his predatory best, storming after runners and living off his finely-tuned predatory instincts to break the record for most tries in a Heineken Cup campaign. But more impressive his the defence. A tally of ten tackles included one to bundle Nalaga – all of 13 kilograms heavier than him – into touch. All in all, this was probably the most complete outing of his career.
As the dust was settling, it was refreshing to see Les Jaunards’ supporters stay behind to applaud the likes of Brits and Goode on a weary but delighted lap of honour. It was an extremely nice touch, more so because they would have been hurting badly. Their heroes did not turn up.
With Vern Cotter off to take the reins with Scotland, there will now be a big re-assessment. Nathan Hines is going to Sale for a start, while Jamie Cudmore and Julien Bonnaire are both 35. All three are cornerstones of Clermont’s side. Stade Marcel-Michelin is a fortress for sure, but this was a slump that exposed some cracks.