MARSEILLES, FRANCE – It will be an all-French European final after Clermont and Toulon punched their tickets to Twickenham. Both teams faced unexpectedly strong resistance from their foreign counterparts. Toulon’s match against Leinster went into extra time and Saracens fought bravely before succumbing. Rugby fans can now look forward to a rematch of the 2013 final, to be played in London. Toulon will attempt to become the first team to win three European championships in a row, while Clermont still seek their first title in the Northern Hemisphere’s premiere competition.
Clermont vs. Saracens
The atmosphere built for hours in the south of France, and when the teams emerged from the tunnel they were greeted with an extraordinary wall of sound. For the next 80 minutes, Clermont’s supporters refused to be silenced, and they were rewarded with a victory. The match began cagily. Charlie Hodgson made the first entry on the score sheet with a trademark drop goal in the 14th minute. Clermont responded with a well-worked attack, and appeared to put Napolioni Nalaga over in the corner. However, Alex Goode and Chris Ashton scrambled and managed to prevent Nalaga from grounding the ball in play. After a lengthy TMO consultation, the try was disallowed, much to the chagrin of the partisan crowd. Brock James pulled the teams even with a penalty, but Saracens went into the half with the advantage after Charlie Hodgson nailed a kick of his own.
The match was decided with a moment of brilliance between James and Wesley Fofana. James, spotting space behind Saracens defense, chipped a kick over the top, and Fofana ran onto it to score. The try was converted, and Saracens stared down a sudden 10-6 deficit. Clermont’s superior bench strength showed over the course of the second half. Owen Farrell was able to bring Saracens to within a point after a 65th minute penalty, but Clermont slowly squeezed the life out of Sarries’ attack. After losing the territorial battle in the first half, Clermont responded by playing mostly in the opposition half during the final forty miutes. Both teams managed to keep their wits, and only conceded 8 penalties.
Clermont have been here before, with more dominant teams. The 2013 side that entered the final looked like one of the finest clubs assembled, and had run through their opposition throughout the season. In contrast, this side has occasionally scuffled, and there has been little of the high-flying attacking rugby which marked Vern Cotter’s tenure. The Yellow Submarine will be more than happy to win ugly if it will deliver the inaugural European Champions Cup to the Stade Marcel Michelin. It took Clermont 11 finals to win their first French title. They will desperately hope to avoid the same fate in European competition.
Toulon vs. Leinster
Toulon breathed a hearty sigh of relief after they snuck through to the final despite a dire performance. Both sides failed to truly threaten the try-line during the first eighty minutes. Almost the entire game was played between the 22’s, and George Clancy’s whistle dictated the flow of the game far more than the players. Frederic Michalak endured a particularly poor afternoon. His departure in the 46th minute was a relief for the former France number 10 and Toulon’s supporters. All told, the teams combined for 39 turnovers, with 19 contributed by the home side. Toulon dominated possession and territory in the first half, with 65 percent of the former, and 70 percent of the latter. It was not enough to put them in the lead. Repeated infringements gave Ian Madigan the chance to take shots at goal, and he converted three first-half opportunities to send the Irish province into the locker room with a 9-6 advantage.
Leigh Halfpenny proved to be Toulon’s hero, fully justifying his salary (and the lengthy wait for his services) with a 20 point haul. Madigan will rue an easy 30 meter kick that bounced off the post in the last ten minutes, allowing the teams to head into extra time tied at 12. Belatedly, the match sprang into life. Lock Ali Williams was shown a yellow card, but Toulon did not panic when they were down to 14 men. The man disadvantage forced Toulon to organize their offense and maintain possession. Though Ian Madigan nailed the ensuing penalty, disaster struck at the end of the first period of added time. Madigan tried a long miss pass that was anticipated by the wily veteran Bryan Habana. He raced away and scored under the posts. Toulon led by 10, despite being a man down. Though Leinster fought back in the second half of extra time, scoring a try from a maul, Toulon managed to hold on for the nervous win.
When Clermont and Toulon met in the 2013 final, the men in yellow were the bookmakers’ favorite. Clermont enter this match with a very slight edge, despite Toulon triumphing 27-19 in the pair’s league match this season.
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