Dublin, Ireland — I’d like to give a huge shoutout to the rugby gods because THAT was the #ChampionsCup final we were all hoping for.
The on-field product displayed in Saturday’s European Rugby #ChampionsCup Final by eventual champions, Saracens, and reigning finalists, Clermont Auvergne, was enthralling. There were big hits, beautiful offloads, stunning tries, and records broken at Murrayfield to the witness of the 55,272 fans in attendance.
What transpired at the home of Scottish Rugby, though, turned out to be a tactical shocker.
Pundits, myself included, expected Clermont to make an opening attacking statement as they had done for most of their European campaign. Saracens were supposed to be the opportunistic counterattackers, the team predicted to start methodical, calculatedly progressing through the match by the adherence to game-plan Director of Rugby, Mark McCall, has spoken about all season.
Those predictions were thrown out the window within the first five minutes. Sarries must have been inspired by Usain Bolt because they were off the blocks quicker than anyone would’ve thought.
The north Londoners set the pace from the kickoff and after just two minutes outside-center Marcelo Bosch bounced his way through the flat-footed Clermont defense to set up winger Chris Ashton in space for what looked to be the first try of the match. To the relief of the traveling French support, Clermont winger Nick Abendanon wrestled Ashton down just meters from goal and the pressure was relieved.
To the dismay of Clermont, Saracens kept the pressure on for the next 10 minutes and wound up with the match’s first score thanks to a picture-perfect combination between fullback Alex Goode and Ashton. Goode’s perfectly weighted cross-field-er bounced beautifully into the outstretched arms of the English winger who, with his signature love-or-hate swan dive, crossed the line for his record-breaking 37th European try.
Clermont looked stunned from the attacking onslaught they faced and couldn’t find a way to respond before Saracens put another try on the board. Alex Goode made the best of a gap in the Clermont defense and pushed himself just short of the line before getting tackled. The fragmented defense wasn’t even set before scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth found George Kruis on a beautiful line for the powerful score.
With fly-half Owen Farrell‘s conversion, Sarries were up 12-0.
Clermont managed to make a quick response and get themselves back into the match only five minutes later. Maro Itoje was caught offside and the French side opted for a kick to the corner.
Clermont were eventually handed a 5 m scrum and made the most of the opportunity. Outside-center Aurelien Rougerie charged straight up the middle of the Saracens defense on the ensuing attack and made a sneaky offload to midfield-partner Remi Lamerat for the unsuspecting score. Lopez tacked on the extras from in front of the sticks to bring the score at the half to 12-7.
The opening 10 minutes of the first half were an exciting patchwork of linebreaks, turnovers, big hits, and no scoring; both sides made plenty of opportunities but neither were able to capitalize.
It wasn’t until the 50th minute that the scoreboard begin ticking over once again. Clermont didn’t roll away in a ruck and Farrell found goal with an easy penalty kick.
His kick was forgotten only 45 seconds later thanks to Clermont’s first score of the half. Farrell was humiliated by Clermont flanker Peceli Yato on a devastating counterattack. Clermont charged down the wing through the hands of Fritz Lee who found Yato in extra space. Yato de-cleated Farrell with a huge stiff arm to the chest and found Abendanon who trotted over for the French club’s second try. Parra knocked through the conversion to bring the score to 15-14 in Saracens favor.
Farrell and Parra exchanged penalties around the hour mark, but Saracens had already found a new gear.
The reigning English and European champions shored up their defense and became a brick wall. Clermont immediately found themselves on the back foot with waves of red shirts running at them.
Billy Vunipola nearly scored in the 67th minute off a 5 m scrum but was forced out by a swarm of last ditch tackles from the men in blue and yellow.
Sarries couldn’t be denied much longer though and found their breakthrough in the 72nd minute. A perfect dummy run from Marcelo Bosch sucked in Rougerie and Lamerat in the midfield, opening space for Goode who received a well-timed pass from Farrell for the deciding try of the match. Farrell tacked on the conversion and a 78th minute penalty to secure the second executive European championship for Saracens.
The English club now join an elite group with Leicester, Leinster, and Toulon as the only teams in European championship history to retain the title.
Saracens in honesty were the in-form team of the day by far, with Clermont’s moments of brilliance keeping the game much tighter than it seemed. The North Londoners return home to prepare for a run at the Aviva Premiership knockouts while the French club returns home bridesmaids once more, eyes on the Top 14 knockouts for redemption.
I do have one beef with the match. How did Alex Goode not get man of the match? Just saying, two beautiful assists and a try should have earned him the award.
Oh well, congratulations to Saracens on an amazing season.
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