Clermont Auvergne stormed into the final of the European Challenge Cup on Saturday with a convincing 46-29 win over the Dragons in France, in a terrific game of European rugby which should serve as a very real wake-up call to the suits trying their damnedest to rob of such spectacles.
There was a full stadium, blue skies, a cracking atmosphere on and off the pitch, and eleven tries from all manner of positions on the field. What more could you ask for?
Much of the Auvergne is a volcanic massif and it seemed for the first half hour that the Dragons had indeed found a comfy place to sleep. By contrast, the French erupted into the game with a performance every bit as red-hot as the magma that once scorched the hills and makes the region so verdant.
The hills were further scorched on Saturday under the glare of a blistering hot sun which ensured that referee Dave Pearson called for regular water breaks. It might have been the heat that put paid to Clermont's total dominance but for the first half hour, the French were untouchable.
They conceded not one single penalty until minute 33, by which time they were 27-5 ahead. Their lone mistake in any set piece had been a skew line-out throw, and where they had conceded no penalties, they had won eight. The movement in the backs was slick and threatening, the support was quick and clinical, and Pierre Mignoni's service was as good as it was all Six Nations for France. And as for the pack... twice the 'beast with sixteen legs' as the French have nick-named it rolled driving mauls more than 20 metres upfield. The Dragons pack had no answer - it really was where the game was won and lost.
The Dragons struggled everywhere in the first half hour though. They barely had any ball at all, and of the four scrums and six line-outs they did have, three scrums were lost to a variety of infringements, and three line-outs were stolen by Clermont.
Four of those eight Clermont penalties came in the first ten minutes, and two of them were goaled for an early 6-0 lead by the Top 14's leading scorer Brock James. At the fourth, the second in two minutes given for going in on the side, referee Pearson made his first threat to go to his pocket. It staunched the flow of penalties for a bit, but the flow of tries began instead.
The first came, very much against the run of play, from the visitors. Rhys Thomas did marvellously to turn over some midfield ball, and after Paul Emerick had broken the defensive line, Michael Owen did his link-man job to send Aled Brew scampering to the line.
Clermont's reply was devastating. They ran in three tries in seven minutes to make the score 27-5, and to add insult to injury, the Dragons saw flanker Jamie Ringer sent to the sin-bin for a repeated infringement.
The first try was born of a moment of magic by Fijian winger Vilimoni Delasau, whose chip and regather took him into the Dragons' 22 from inside his own half. Three quick phases later, Aurelien Rougerie tore through some tackles and jinked inside Kevin Morgan to go under the posts.
Then a Dragons line-out on their own 22 was overthrown straight to Michel Dieude, who wasted no time in charging to the line. He was stopped just short, but again, three quick phases later there was no stopping Argentinean number eight Gonzalo Longo on a pick and go.
The third was a tribute to the Clermont pack's dominance, once again picking off a Dragons line-out and then keeping the ball at close quarters before finally prop Thomas Domingo sneaked over. James converted all three tries, and the prognosis for the final scoreline was worrying for the Welsh.
There might have been another try for Rougerie had Aled Brew not clawed away a deft James chip bound for Rougerie's corner.
But Welsh teams do not lie down these days, and with nothing left to lose, the Dragons opened up and presented us with a feast of rugby. Finally the pack got some ball and forced a series of drives and penalties of their own near the Clermont line - one of which saw Emmanuel Etien sent to the bin.
The final penalty yielded a move which re-kindled memories of schoolboys on muddy pitches from long winters of yesteryear for those watching. Four Dragons forwards stood in a line with their backs to the Clermont line. The ball went to them from Gareth Cooper, and chargers charged at all angles before the line of four parted and let prop Adam Black juggernaut through both the gap and defence for a try. Black will also be fined, in the finest of post-match traditions, for his dive as he touched down.
Sweeney's conversion rounded off the scoring for the first half, and his chip started the scoring for the second half. It was not the best chip but it bounced horribly, causing Anthony Floch to lose his footing, and Aled Brew - whose brother Nathan had been carried from the field with a suspected broken ankle - pounced for his second. Sweeney made it 27-19, and the game had somehow become a close-run thing.
Clermont's pack took a hold again, and eventually the stretched Dragons defence could not stop Tony Marsh going over in the corner to make it 32-19, but moments later Kevin Morgan and Ringer combined to send lock Ian Gough galloping away down the left and make it 32-24.
The sun finally took its toll on the visitors, and Clermont's class came through in the final twenty minutes. Hooker Brice Miguel crashed over on the hour after Mignoni had orchestrated some exquisite forward pressure from his pack, and then the scrum-half capped a fine display by finishing off a fine pair of offloads from his charging flankers and making the game safe. James' conversions made it 46-24.
The Dragons had a final word of thanks for their fans, with Morgan breaking outside and Phil Dollman chipping and re-gathering for a score, rounding off a marvellous day for European Rugby. I wonder if those who would deny the clubs the right to govern their own tournaments were watching...
Tries: Rougerie, Longo, Domingo, Marsh, Miguel, Mignoni
Cons: James 5
Pens: James 2
For the Dragons:
Tries: Aled Brew 2, Black, Gough, Dollman
Cons: Sweeney 2
Yellow cards: Ringer (Dragons, 25, repeated infringement), Etien (Clermont, 38, repeated infringement)
Clermont Auvergne: 15 Alexandre Peclier, 14 Aurélien Rougerie (c), 13 Grant Esterhuizen, 12 Tony Marsh, 11 Vilimoni Delasau, 10 Brock James, 9 Alessandro Troncon, 8 Gonzalo Longo, 7 Emmanuel Etien, 6 Michel Dieude, 5 Thibaut Privat, 4 David Barrier, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Brice Miguel, 1 Thomas Domingo
Replacements: 16 Mario Ledesma, 17 Martin Scelzo, 18 Jamie Cudmore, 19 Elvis Vermeulen, 20 Pierre Mignoni, 21 Raphael Chanal, 22 Anthony Floch
The Dragons: 15 Kevin Morgan, 14 Gareth Wyatt, 13 Paul Emerick, 12 Nathan Brew, 11 Aled Brew, 10 Ceri Sweeney, 9 Gareth Cooper, 8 Michael Owen, 7 Jamie Ringer, 6 Joe Bearman, 5 Luke Charteris, 4 Ian Gough, 3 Rhys Thomas, 2 Steve Jones, 1 Adam Black
Replacements: 16 Ben Daly, 17 Jamie Corsi, 18 Andrew Hall, 19 Nic Fitisemanu, 20 Alex Walker, 21 Aled Thomas, 22 Phil Dollman
Referee: David Pearson (England)
By Richard Anderson