James redeemed as Clermont win Top 14 thriller

Australian fly-half Brock James emerged from weeks of torment to inspire Clermont to their fourth successive Top 14 final and 11th in all on Saturday as they edged out three-time champions Toulon 35-29 after extra-time.

Clermont, who saw a 10-point lead wiped out with just three minutes of regular time remaining by a resilient Toulon outfit, will face titleholders Perpignan – who beat Toulouse on Friday – in the final on May 29 at the Stade de France.

James, who was distraught after a dreadful performance with the boot in the European Cup quarter-final defeat by Leinster in March, landed a penalty and then a stunning 50-metre drop goal in extra-time to turn the match their way once more.

The match had been a kicking contest between Morgan Parra and Jonny Wilkinson with two late tries in regulation time, by Clermont’s Georgian prop Davit Zhirakashvili and then Toulon’s Kiwi former rugby league star Sonny Bill Williams taking it into extra-time.

A tight opening quarter saw Toulon – unbeaten in their last 11 matches -shade it 6-3 with their points coming from Wilkinson, one a superlative drop goal in reply to Anthony Floch’s drop goal from 30 metres out in the fifth minute after being set up by Parra.

Wilkinson, who had a poor Six Nations before being replaced in the starting line-up for the final match against France, had put Toulon ahead in the third minute with a penalty.

Parra – one of France’s players of their Six Nations Grand Slam win -levelled matters with a penalty in the 27th minute only for Wilkinson to restore the three-point lead four minutes later.

Clermont – who trounced Toulon 39-3 in January and beat them twice in championship semi-finals on the two previous occasions they met – should have been down to 14 men as Malzieu was fortunate just to get a ticking off rather than a yellow card for deliberately treading on a Toulon player.

Clermont, though, were to draw level and then take the lead for the first time in the match within the opening 10 minutes of the second-half thanks to two superbly taken penalties by Parra, the first from 50 metres out and then the second from 55 metres.

Parra extended their lead with another penalty just before the hour mark, only for Wilkinson to land one of his own in the 63rd minute.

However, Clermont looked to have sealed their place in the final when they scored the first try of the match through Zirakashvili whose try was controversially awarded by the referee.

The Georgian dropped the ball over the line only to regather and touch it down.

Parra converted to make it 22-12 with just 10 minutes remaining.

Toulon, though, were level within seven minutes as first Williams went over from five metres out flattening Parra in the process who had to go off.

Wilkinson converted and then the England fly-half added a penalty to make it 22-22 and take the game into extra-time.

Clermont had all the possession in the first-half of extra-time and were parked on the Toulon five metres line but despite that all they came away with was a James penalty late in the period which gave them a 25-22 advantage going into the second-half.

James then trumped that as picking up a clearance by Wilkinson inside his half, he unleashed a stunning drop goal from over 50 metres out which sailed between the posts.

Clermont then looked to have once again sealed their place in the final when Malzieu kicked deep into opposition territory and outpaced Gabriele Lovobalavu to touch down which James converted to make it 35-22 with five minutes remaining.

However, back came Toulon again and replacement scrum-half Fabien Cibray went over which he also converted.

Only a last ditch tackle prevented Toulon from drawing to within a point as Lovobalavu was bundled into touch metres from the line.

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