At least the ball for the final was delivered by Grand National winning jockey, Gala’s Ryan Mania, who got one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon.
Both Aberdeen and Ayr worked their way through to the semi-finals and both were a little unlucky not to go one better. Ayr’s 22-12 loss to Clermont was nowhere near as comfortable as the score line suggests and Aberdeen took Saracens to extra-time before finally conceding defeat in the bottom half of the draw.
Sarries drew first blood in the final with early tries from James Short and Nick Tomkins before the French replied through Julien Kazubek and Alex Mourot. Clermont flyer Pierre Santalier then danced through some tired tackles to nose his side 17-12 ahead at the break.
The second half was a nip and tuck affair with both defences getting the upper hand at least until Sarries’ Jack Wilson evened things up at 17-17 with three minutes left on the clock.
Clermont then took the lead in bizarre and controversial circumstances when, after a hack and chase, Jean Ric dived on the ball which appeared to have crossed the dead ball line. After due consultation the try was awarded but Joe Maddock scored with the last play of regular time and Nils Mordt kicked what may have been the most important conversion of his life to give Saracens back-to-back wins.
Not all of the guest teams fared quite so well. In the earlier rounds, India did no better than Hong Kong Scottish did last year, going down heavily to Gala in their first match by 45-0. The lure of the exotic is all very well but there is little point in inviting teams that contribute so little on the field of play.
Gala’s run was short-lived as the hosts’ next door neighbours were unable to cope with the power and pace that Clermont brought to their quarter-final. The Maroons stuck to the task, as you’d expect, with just the one try separating the sides until late in the first half. Gala threatened often enough but didn’t quite have the finishing power of the French although they salvaged some pride with two well-worked second-half tries.
The best of the early matches was between Jed Forest and Aberdeen after the Border side scored three unanswered tries only to see Aberdeen hit back with four of their own. Another Jed try from Lewis Young with the last play of the game sent the match into overtime where Aberdeen sneaked through thanks to Murray Douglas who also grabbed a crucial score in Aberdeen’s next match.
The fates had drawn Aberdeen, with former Greenyards’ favourite Scott Wight in their ranks, against Melrose in the quarter-final. The Glasgow stand-off did his former team-mates no favours as he set up Aberdeen’s first two tries and tackled back like a man trying to prove something. Aberdeen eventually triumphed 17-14 no small thanks to Wight’s sterling efforts.
Aberdeen’s challenge finally faltered at the next hurdle where they were beaten 24-19 in the second semi-final but only after extra time, the second time in the afternoon Aberdeen went past the allotted 14 minutes. The lead changed hands countless times until it seemed as Nick Tomkins won it for the Londoners with a 50-metre effort.
Aberdeen then put together the best move of the match, possibly the entire afternoon, including a blind back-flip, that took them the length of the field only for Tony McGuinness to drop the ball in the act of scoring. The groan from the crowd probably carried all the way to Aberdeen.
Despite that hiccup, Scotland flyer James Fleming still managed to tie the scores in the dying minutes but his try was right by the corner flag and Wight fluffed the conversion.
The two teams were staggering like two punch-drunk boxers by this stage by Sarries Ben Spenser somehow found some gas in the bottom of the tank to score the winner and take the holders through to the final.
Ayr fell at the same stage but only after some mightily impressive early rounds. They swatted aside Kelso’s challenge with impunity before seeing off Worcester’s young warriors with a mature and complete performance that ended in a 33-17 win.
Ayr were actually leading Clermont at half time thanks to tries from Ross Curle and Grant Anderson but the French upped their efforts after the break to creep ahead by 19-12. Still Ayr had an opportunity to grab the winner but Anderson put boot to ball instead of looking inside and the chance went west. Instead Clermont kicked a late penalty to edge into the final but that was as good as it got.