Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Close in Clermont

In the end we were close.  Dam close.  But we fell short.  With the ball in our possession and the match in our control we fell short.  Afterwards the press said we should be happy with the performance but at Tigers we set our sights higher.  Yes we are proud of the character shown once 16-0 down, but we came here to win and we didn’t do that.  As Cockerill said we don’t do gallant in defeat, whoever the opposition.

There has been talk that Rolland shouldn’t have let Clermont run down the clock after the game’s final penalty, and that is fair, but we are not Saints fans.  If we had taken one more of the perfectly good chances we had we wouldn’t have needed another. 

The atmosphere pre-match was like nothing I have ever experienced.  Clermont’s fans were louder in the warm up than most English crowds in the final minutes.  Their Ultras Vulcans were the inspiration for the name of this blog and they continue to be an inspiration in their support.

In the opening stages we seemed defensive, Tait twice kicking good counter attack ball back to Clermont but Tigers had the first chance after only 5 minutes.  

Julian Salvi pilfered the ball at the ruck.  Manu broke free down the left touchline with Goneva outside him and Tait inside.  The defensive shape marginally favoured the inside pass to Tait; Manu tried to force the off load but Tait couldn’t gather the ball.

Clermont broke straight away; Fofana spirited between Deacon and Mulipola, racing through the midfield it took a tremendous tap tackle from Goneva to stop him.  The Fijian covered at least 30m chasing back for the tackle.

The initial points came after Salvi entered a ruck from the side, rather than coming all the way round to the back foot.  Easy three points for Parra. 

Both teams were cagey, Tigers kicking game functional though lacking in a rally ending winner.  Mat Tait’s kicking had great length, utilising the “torpedo” technique he risked the odd skew but gained greater distance.

Their try came from nothing.  A maul stopped at source then one phase short right.  Parra whipped it out to Rougerie coming back at an angle.  Feeling pressure from the Tigers defence he goes inside, but the inside pincer is missing; Deacon is fended away as Salvi steams up to take him.  But there is little cover only Ayerza and Scully against 4 Clermont men.  Quick hands from Fofana put Zirakashvili into space; the prop executes a similar inside pass to the one Manu and Tait muff to put Fofana away for the line.  The Frenchman’s pace takes him past Allen’s despairing tackle.

The Marcel Michelin is seriously rocking now.  Tigers still stick to their plan of kicking but are undone; following a period of kick tennis Salvi seals off a Clermont counter ruck just outside our 22.  Parra makes it 13-0.  When Williams’ penalty hits the ornamental flag on top of the post there were serious worries that we might cop a hiding and be nilled.

That feeling only grows when a Clermont go 16-0 up.  Salvi is judged to have been offside winning a goal line turnover.  Clermont had surged from the halfway through Chouley and were rampant.

Things looked bleak.  Rugby is a game of momentum and we had none. 

Then like a shining burst of blonde energy Jordan Crane produces a moment of pure rugby skill to raise morale.  And finally we run the ball.  And finally we score. 

Crane gathers the bouncing ball with a casual flick of the boot, the ball magnetically drawn to his paws.  Williams spreads the ball left to Tuilagi, his brute strength gains 10m and attracts three defenders.  The Clermont defence drawn narrow, Williams sees the play and cross kicks for Gibson on the charge.  Gibson draws his man and frees Scully.  The Californian comes inside, drawing one, drawing two, drawing three defenders!  His inside one handed slung off load finds Crane sweeping in support charging under the posts.

A try!  Finally we have scored.  Finally we have run the ball.

Before half time there is time for one more call.  The penalty is signalled 4m away from the 10m line with 39 minutes exactly on the clock.  The penalty is awarded with the ball held up over the line and with 40:11 on the clock.  Over a minute of possession and 35m territory gain is advantage over in anyone’s book. 

19-7 at half time but the momentum is still in our favour.  A penalty, a couple great kicks and then a Gibson charge down.  Rougerie garrottes Tuilagi on the half way line.  Williams points at the posts.  A good yard inside his half but it sails clear over.  19-10.

Parra misses his kick at goal; the penalty is for Deacon entering a maul in the side. 

Clermont are tightening up.  The crowd is going, relatively, quiet and the players making mistakes.  Nalaga fumbles, Clermont cannot deal with Mulipola’s power in the scrum or on the rumble, with good turnover ball they concede a holding on penalty.  Williams strokes another over from inside his own half.  19-13 now and we are within a score.

Clermont’s long history of blowing leads is surely playing on their minds now.  Tigers have their tails up; Ben Youngs breaks from inside his 22 with Goneva in support.  The Tigers take it to 5m from the Clermont line before Tuilagi is forced into touch.   Clermont change kicker and blow another penalty after two successful mauls.

Williams closes the gap to just 3 on 60 minutes.  His cross field boom is gathered superbly by a flying Blaine Scully.  The American rose above French test full back Buttin to claim the ball, then the penalty as Buttin failed to release his man in the tackle.

Goneva’s attempted interception would have put us clear but the Fijian could only juggle at it, perhaps it was the last chance.

3 minutes later and all the momentum Tigers had built was lost.  Waldrom, on only 3 minutes earlier, was rightly shown yellow for side entry at a maul.  Parra kicked the testing penalty.  The noise lifted.  The tension lifted.  The momentum was gone.

Tigers attack stalled, Ben Youngs’ delicate chip took a wicked bounce to landed dead in goal, the scrum penalty goes to Clermont.  Everything that was going for us, suddenly against. 

Under immense pressure Tigers held out with the puncher’s chance of victory still in their grasp.  A 78th minute scrum penalty is kicked to the corner, it goes to Tuilagi then Flood goes himself.  Kitchener picks and goes for good yardage before Scully weaves his way to 5m out.  Ed Slater on a captain’s charge takes it to 3m.  He gets isolated.  He gets pinged.  Rolland in the heat of the moment doesn’t see the defenders failing to release or them coming in from the side.

It’s all over.

Another Quarter Final another defeat.  Since 2006 every time Tigers have entered the knock out stages they have been eliminated by the eventual champions.  So what is the key lesson to learn from single score defeats to Leinster, Toulon and Clermont in the last 4 years?  Silence a home crowd?  Play faster?  Sign bigger, stronger players?  No. 

If we had kept our lead at home to Ulster we would have got our first home Quarter Final in 5 years.  Get the pool stages right, play at home and avoid going away to Lansdowne Road, to the Mayol to the Marcel Michelin in the first place. 

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