The Yellow Army triumph 36-16 against La Rochelle in Newcastle
Clermont win 2019 European Challenge Cup final
For many the Challenge Cup final is the appetiser for the Champions Cup main course but the 28,438 people who filed into St James’ Park to see Clermont and La Rochelle battle it out in the second-tier competition will certainly have left satiated.
It was a record crowd for a Challenge Cup final in the UK – pretty significant given this was an all-French final – and they were rewarded with a fast, frenetic and highly entertaining game, which Clermont won 36-16.
Clermont moved the ball left to right with their offloading game, pulling defenders every which way, while La Rochelle – with Ihaia West pulling the strings – capitalised on any error, scything through holes and pouncing on loose balls as they tried to catch Clermont on the counter-attack.
Still, it took a while for the first try to come. Nearly half an hour in fact. Clermont launched phase after phase of attack from an eight-metre lineout, not only drawing in La Rochelle defenders but tiring them.
They eventually made the breakthrough when switching the play from right to left, Isaia Toeava releasing Damian Penaud, who glided over the line having earlier come up short when stretching for it.
Their second try, in the 59th minute, did not require such build-up play. Clermont had a lineout just inside the La Rochelle 22 from a penalty, won the ball, set the maul and crossed the line with the speed of a sports car and power of a steamroller.
The pace with which the forwards motored to the whitewash, splintering the La Rochelle defenders before Man of the Match Fritz Lee touched down, was remarkable and the conversion made it 26-9.
La Rochelle are not a team to throw in the proverbial towel, though, and hit back within a few minutes. They kicked for a lineout in the 22 from a penalty and a few phases later Uini Atonio span around in the tackle to score next to the posts.
However, in the final ten minutes Wesley Fofana provided a fitting finishing touch. Clermont set up from a five-metre lineout, Camille Lopez out through a kick, Fofana collected and dived under the posts.
La Rochelle did push for a consolation after Alivereti Raka was sin-binned for a deliberate knock-on but the bounce of the ball just would not fall for them.
The first ten minutes delivered one of the lighter moments of the match when Camille Lopez was picked up and carried into touch by La Rochelle prop Dany Priso, with a little help from West.
Clermont lost their captain Morgan Parra midway through the first period, the scrum-half appearing to suffer a serious knee injury and being replaced by Greig Laidlaw. Yet he was able to return to the pitch for the trophy presentation – on crutches.
Clermont – Tries: Penaud, Lee, Fofana. Cons: Laidlaw 3. Pens: Parra, Laidlaw 4.
La Rochelle – Try: Atonio. Con: West. Pens: West 3.
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