Clermont hold on for Challenge Cup glory

Clermont Auvergne won the European Challenge Cup on Saturday with a 22-16 win over Bath at the Twickenham Stoop, holding off a fierce fightback from the West Countrymen.

It was a fitting way for Clermont veteran Tony Marsh to sign off from the European stage, with the expatriated New Zealander marking his final European match with a try and an excellent performance.

Bath’s defeat also cost them the chance of a place in next season’s senior European competition, assuming it eventually goes ahead once the politics have run their course.

Harlequins take the final English Heineken Cup berth by virtue of their seventh-place finish in the Guinness Premiership.

It was a terrific match; all the way from a rugged start to an open third quarter, and then to a nerve-wracking finale. Clermont were on top for much of it, and should have been out of sight by the final whistle. Instead it fell to Danny Grewcock’s tired hand, failing to take a pass from Tom Cheeseman, to give the French outfit its reprieve in the final play of the game.

Had he taken the pass, Bath would have won. Clermont had notched nineteen unanswered points in the nineteen minutes after half-time to go 22-6 in the lead, and then simply turned around and basked in the glory.

Joe Maddock then stepped through for a fabulous individual try to bring Bath back to 22-13, the Bath pack suddenly began shoving their opposition off their own ball, and the French team looked well and truly sucker-punched.

A 50-50 video ref call over Peter Short’s touchdown then held Bath back when a try would have given them unstoppable momentum.

As it was, Olly Barkley kicked a penalty with five minutes to go to bring Bath to within a score of victory, and for the final five minutes, the men in black and blue hammered away at the Clermont defence in a pulsating finale, but just ran out of time.

The first half yielded nine measly points, a poor return for a forty minutes in which it was dangerous to let your eyes wander from the screen.

Clermont enjoyed so much of the possession, yet chucked so much of it away through a series of easy turnovers, forward passes, knock-ons, and wrong options.

Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu terrorised the Bath defence coming off their wings, but the Clermont backs stood so flat in attack that any momentum generated dissipated in the midst of some well-drilled Bath defence.

Clermont had only one scrum in the entire first half, and Bath had only two line-outs. By contrast, Bath had eight scrums, and Clermont nine line-outs. That disparity was entirely due to the territorial dominance of the men in yellow: they spent an awful lot of time making errors after working their way into the Bath 22, and letting the opposition clear from the scrums.

Clermont also conceded six turnovers in the first half, an unforgiveable count at this level, and Brock James missed two shots at goal he might normally expect to land. Thus it was that despite the dominance, Bath led 6-3 at the break through two penalties from Olly Barkley.

Both sides prodded at each other’s defence in the opening skirmishes, trying to find a quick way through. Malzieu provided the game’s first clean break after four minutes, but he opted to pass to the supporting Sam Broomhall rather than grubber ahead into the space.

Rougerie shook off four tackles after ten minutes to get to within five metres of the Bath line and the Bath defence killed the ball, handing James a penalty, but the Australian missed.

Instead, it was Bath who took the lead, with Barkley landing a penalty after a Nick Abendanon break.

James missed a second penalty immediately after, with Bath’s forwards messing up the restart and then going off their feet, but equalised on 20 minutes when referee Nigel Owens marched a penalty ten metres further on because of back-chat, bringing James within range.

At 3-

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