IF CLERMONT’S coach Vern Cotter is to set up office in Murrayfield as Scotland’s next coach, as looks increasingly likely, the Kiwi will do without the added kudos that comes with winning the Heineken Cup.
His side beat Toulon in every facet of this final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin except the most important one… the scoreboard. No team has ever gone through the entire tournament unbeaten and that statistic remains in place because yesterday’s defeat was Clermont’s first in this cup campaign.
It took Clermont 11 visits to the Top 14 final before they won domestic glory and that old inability to drag themselves over the finish line came back to haunt them once again. They were the better side for most of this match and led by 15-6 midway through the second half, only to lose by the narrowest margin possible.
The first half was a relatively nervy and tense affair with just one penalty each from the two kickers, Morgan Parra and Jonny Wilkinson, even if Clermont enjoyed the better of what few scoring chances popped up. The nearest anyone came to breaking the deadlock was when Clermont’s Brock James took advantage of turnover ball to chase his own kick ahead. The stand-off beat Chris Masoe to the ball inside the dead ball area but the video ref correctly decided that he had touched it down on the line and therefore out of play.
With the game finely balanced at 3-3 early in the second half, it seemed as if this match had been decided in the first eight minutes of the second period when Clermont scored two tries good enough to grace any final.
The first went to Napolioni Nalaga and the second to Brock James but skipper Aurelien Rougerie was the key ingredient in both. He missed the Munster semi-final with a hamstring injury but Clermont were pleased to have him back in harness and Rougerie repaid their confidence in spades.
With Clermont leading 15-6 early in the second half, this low-scoring game looked all over bar the shouting, but Toulon are nothing if not tenacious. Wilkinson kicked his third penalty of the afternoon to breathe some hope into his red and black army before Delon Armitage scored a breakaway try entirely against the run of play. It came from a quite brilliant turnover by Argentine Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and it stunned Clermont. Inevitably, Wilkinson knocked over the tricky conversion to give his side a one-point advantage for the first time in the entire match with 14 minutes to play.
Clermont went for broke, throwing everything at the thin red defensive line but a mixture of heroic defence and poor handling in the wet Dublin weather combined to see Toulon home. At the death, Clermont’s big men drove towards the Toulon posts for reserve stand-off David Skrela to line up a drop goal, only to see his effort charged down.
In the end Sitiveni Sivivatu threw a forward pass into touch and that mistake proved to be the last of the afternoon. It was a heartbreaking finish for a club that have suffered more than their share of sob stories over the years but they arguably lost this match in that first half when they got no return for all their domination.
Toulon spent much of the game on the back foot, defending inside their own half, but they threw bodies into the breakdown with an enthusiasm and energy that took Clermont by surprise. It took Les Jaunards (The Vulcans) until the second half before they managed to penetrate the mean-minded Toulon defence and even then it wasn’t enough.
The match was a personal victory for the giant wrecking ball that is Toulon centre Mathieu Bastareaud. The big bruiser stood out in a stellar backline, he ran right over the top of several defenders and probably won more turnovers at the breakdown than any of the Toulon loosies. He deservedly walked away with the man of the match award.
It was a brutally physical match throughout as you’d expect, with Clermont skipper Aurelien Rougerie putting Wilkinson on his backside in one early collision. Time and again giant forwards from both sides carried the ball into contact only to be rocked backwards by two or even three equally large tacklers.
After a try-less first 40 the Clermont fans were celebrating the first five-pointer within two minutes of the restart when the tournament’s top try-scorer added to his tally. Rougerie straightened the line, Alex Palisson was tempted off his wing and Nalaga took advantage of the space to speed up the left touchline like a man on a high wire before diving over in the corner with Armitage along for the ride.
Five minutes later and James was the facilitator and the finisher of a quite brilliant score. His perfectly judged chip kick was fielded by Rougerie, who bumped Wilkinson aside to get to the ball before feeding inside to his stand-off who just made it to the line.
But those two tries sandwiched a second penalty from Wilkinson after some indiscipline at the breakdown. He added a third on the hour mark after Freddie Michalak kicked long and James was caught in possession just five metres from his try line. Going into the final quarter Toulon suddenly found themselves within one converted try of the lead and Delon Armitage scored it on 63 minutes.
Wilkinson’s conversion gave his side a precious, precarious lead for the first time in the match and somehow Toulon held on for a first, famous Heineken Cup win.
It gives Wilkinson European silverware to go with his 2003 World Cup win and it was only appropriate that the Englishman lifted the cup with Toulon’s backer Mourad Boudjellal on the pitch in tears – a comic-book ending for the comic-book millionaire.
Cotter coy on Scotland job
Vern Cotter, the man the Scottish Rugby Union wants to be the new national head coach, has spoken publicly for the first time about the offer from Murrayfield.
The New Zealander offered a coy response when quizzed after his Clermont Auvergne side lost yesterday’s Heineken Cup final to Toulon in Dublin.
Asked outright whether he wanted the Scotland job, Cotter told the BBC: “That’s a fascinating question. At the moment that’s ‘hitting the waves’, as we say. I have had contact but nothing will be decided until after the season.”
Cotter’s Clermont side still hope to contest the final of France’s Top 14 domestic championship which takes place on 1 June. They meet Castres in the semi-final on Saturday.