CASTRES – FRANCE “I don’t know what happened to Clermont.” That’s what Saracens’ director of rugby Mark McCall said after the Londoners’ 46-6 demolition job in the first Heineken Cup semi final at Twickenham on Saturday.
He’s not the only one. In the end, McCall could only put the result down to it being one of those days, when everything the Aviva Premiership side attempted worked, and everything the Top 14 side attempted didn’t.
Saracens set all sorts of records at “Headquarters”. They scored the most points, the most tries (six) and won by the biggest margin in Heineken Cup semi final history. It was also Clermont’s heaviest defeat in 76 Heineken Cup clashes and made sure that Scotland-bound coach Vern Cotter’s 50th European Cup match with the French side turned out to be his last – and was a nightmare to boot. Pity poor Perpignan who face Clermont at Stade Marcel Michelin in the Top 14 next weekend.
In truth, it was almost as easy as McCall hinted. Sarries’ plan was simple. It was, according to McCall, based on pure effort and sheer hard work. “The plan was,” he said, “to put them under pressure that they had not been under all season.”
“I think we achieved that,” he said.
A third Heineken Cup semi final appearance turned out to be the charm for Saracens, as they booked their place in next month’s showpiece match for the first time, and just about erased the torment of last year’s 24-12 defeat against Toulon – the side they will meet at Cardiff at the end of May.
Namibian back row Jacques Burger was the rock on which Saracens’ win was built.
In 69 brutal minutes, he contributed 28 of Saracens’ 193 tackles in the game and thoroughly deserved his man of the match award – even though Chris Ashton scored twice to take his personal record tally in this season’s competition to 11; and Alex Goode proved a more-than worthy kicking stand-in for Owen Farrell. Despite his foot injury, the England fly-half was on the pitch from the opening whistle, but wasn’t able to kick penalties, or – as it turned out after just five minutes – from hand.
“I thought he did okay,” McCall joked of Burger after the match. “He did miss a couple of tackles…”
Burger’s performance is even more remarkable since it looked for all the world that his career was over at this time last year. McCall said that he has an icepack on his knee for five hours a day and can’t run for most of the week just to ensure he can keep playing.
The game turned on referee Nigel Owens’ decision to award a penalty try and send Brock James to the sin bin after 13 minutes. In an aerial battle for the ball with Marcelo Bosch behind his own try line, James flicked the ball dead. After seeing the replays on the big screen, the referee decided it was worthy of the double punishment. It seemed harsh.
Saracens were already a try to the good, thanks to England’s forgotten swan-diving winger Chris Ashton. He scored his 10th try in the Heineken Cup this season six minutes earlier.
The predictably converted penalty try made it 14-3 inside 15 minutes.
Things would only get worse for the French side. They thought the largely anonymous Benson Stanley had scored a try to cut the deficit a short while later. But, the rugby gods, the TV referee and Mr Owens were against Clermont a second time. Damien Chouly was ruled to have blocked Farrell. Both players were a fair distance from the man with the ball at the time. As many similar decisions have gone the other way.
If this try had been awarded, the game would have exploded. As it was, Clermont imploded. It was all over when Farrell’s knee got in on the act to allow the England man to score unopposed. It was 24-6 at halftime. By then, Clermont’s number 8 Fritz Lee had left the field with a knee injury.
Three more tries in the second 40 – courtesy of Ashton’s second, who then set up Chris Wyles and was a decoy for Tim Streather’s 80th-minute score – added glister to a golden afternoon for Saracens.
Farrell may not have been on kicking duties for Sarries on Saturday – but the man who taught him a tough lesson in tactical use of the boot at the same stage of the 2012/13 tournament did his bit 24 hours later at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome.
Lord Sir Jonny of Wilkinson kicked 21 of Toulon’s 24 points as they broke Munster with the sheer force of their will.
The Irish side’s record-breaking 11th Heineken Cup semi final will not go down in the 19-year history of the competition as their greatest – but, for a few glorious minutes, it threatened to be the most romantic of them all.
Like Saturday’s semi-final, it looked all over bar the shouting at halftime. But, where Saracens had blown Clermont apart, Toulon were clinical. This was death by a thousand kicks for Munster.
Wilkinson landed four penalties and a drop goal, and Delon Armitage added a 59m penalty of his own as the Top 14 side went in at the break 18-9 to the good.
It would have been a bigger margin, but for a try-saving tackle from Simon Zebo. The winger forced enough of Steffon Armitage’s toe over the touchline for it to be spotted by the TV referee when the Var side’s number 8, who has caught the eye of England coach Stuart Lancaster, looked certain to score.
Munster were battered, but unbowed. Carl Hayman had his opposite number Kilcoyne in all kinds of trouble in the scrum. The Irish side were penalised nine times in the first half. Three times Kilcoyne was singled out.
Then, somewhere from the depths of their souls, the Irish side remembered the passion of semi finals past. Zebo was the man who profited from a fierce driving maul. He went over in the corner, despite the attentions of Drew Mitchell and Steffon Armitage. Referee Wayne Barnes didn’t bother to check upstairs. After a quick word with his assistant, he awarded the try. Replays suggested that he perhaps was a little hasty.
Regardless, suddenly it was 18-14 – and Keatley slotted the conversion from out wide to cut the deficit to just two points.
The fly-half, however, shaved the posts with a penalty on the hour that would have taken the three-time champions into the lead.
And that was the beginning of the end for Munster. Keith Earls was sin-binned for a late tackle on David Smith. Wilkinson slotted the penalty – then, as Munster chased the game with the clock ticking down, Donncha O’Callaghan conceded a last-minute penalty and Wilkinson took the game beyond the Irishmen’s reach.
So, the final Heineken Cup final will be a repeat of one of last year’s semi finals. If Toulon do become only the third side in the competition’s history to successfully defend their title, it would be a fitting end to Jonny Wilkinson’s glittering career – assuming, that is, he doesn’t have an appointment to play in the Top 14 final a week later…
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@ :RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.