Planet Rugby

Clermont lay down the challenge

11th November 2007 16:46


Brock James Clermont

Pivotal: Brock James supplied a try, four conversions and a penalty to Clermont's tally

Clermont Auvergne opened their Heineken cup campaign with an impressive 48-21 bonus-point victory over the Scarlets at Stade Marcel Michelin on Sunday.

Last season's Challenge Cup winners made the step up to the top-flight of Europe with consummate ease and raced away to an early lead in a pulsating game.

Julien Bonnaire's try just after half-time wrapped up the bonus point before the Scarlets rallied with two tries in as many minutes.

But any hopes of a comeback were quashed soon after as Aurélien Rougerie completed his hat-trick and Brock James scored a well-earned try.

It seems fitting that this fine opening weekend of European rugby ended with a ten-try cracker packed with more action and adventure than a teenager's dream weekend.

Much was expected from the clash between these two attack-oriented sides and they didn't disappoint. Indeed, referee Chris White was reduced to a mere onlooker for all but the opening period as passes stuck and off-loads were collected.

But not even the Scarlets would complain about the final score - Clermont were deserving winners and must now be considered favourites to be crowned European champions come the end of May.

Whilst the Scarlets' take on free-flowing rugby looked laboured, Clermont's players were surely born to run with ball in hand - and they are mighty clever, too. James and Pierre Mignoni made all the right decisions behind an obedient pack and the backline made cunning use of the decoy-runner.

First points came early and from the back of collapsed scrum. The nod went the home side's way, and James made no mistake off the tee.

Stephen Jones then decided to maintain friendly relations with his former fan-base by pumping a kickable penalty into the corner. But, in a harbinger of things to come, the advantage was lost to some over-elaborate inter-passing in the wake of the line-out.

Anthony Floch, Clermont's long-range marksman, was the next man at the tee after Rougerie was molested off the ball, but his effort fell well short.

Yet the missed kick mattered not one wit. From the drop-out, Jones took an age before deciding to send out a long pass, and Rougerie collected the gift and galloped in for an opportune try. James added the extras and Clermont were 10-0 up with 16 minutes played.

The local fans had hardly settled back into the seats before Regan King had danced down the right, shrugging off three tackles before feeding Dafydd James, and the Wales wing dotted down in the corner as he has so often before. Jones added the tricky conversion and suddenly we had a free-flowing fiesta on our hands.

Cheeky skills started to break out all over the field, with varying degrees of success. A fumble in defence from the visitors lead to a scrum outside the red 22 and James threaded a beautiful grubber into the path of Julien Malzieu, and the France hopeful beat his opposite number to touch down for an unconverted try.

And before the Scarlets could steady themselves, Clermont had their third.

Alexandre Audebert showed great composure as he made a trundling break down the right, selling a dummy before drawing the defence and sending Rougerie free. There was a hint of a double movement as the big France star twisted across the line, but the video referee confirmed that the Welsh visitors were in big trouble.

Despite the succession of sucker punches, the Scarlets kept true to their game-plan, keeping the ball alive and in hand wherever and whenever possible.

But Clermont's superior handling skill laid the seeds of doubt in Welsh heads, and Alix Popham highlighted the growing frustrations with an armless tackle on a ball-less player.

From the ensuing penalty, Clermont decided to switch tactics and sparked up a series of rolling mauls. How close they got on a number of occassion, but how well the Scarlets defended their line, proving they have the physicality to match any side in the competition.

Yellow wave after yellow wave was repelled, with King and Matthew Watkins to the fore, and the siege was finally lifted by the whistle signalling the end of the first half.

But bravery in defence does not win matches, particularly when you find yourself pinned to your sticks and 13 points adrift at the break. The Scarlets were in a sizable hole, and the home crowd knew it.

The visitors started the second half in a positive mood, sending their big men at the French fringes. But Clermont pounced as Welsh hands broke down out wide. In came the support players and Mignoni shepherded Julien Bonnaire over the line. With the half barely three minutes old, the home side already had their bonus point, and James added the conversion for good measure.

As the drums sounded up around Stade Marcel Michelin, the awful truth hit home for the Welsh: only a superhuman fightback could save them from the ignominy of returning home with nothing to show from their travels.

To their credit, they made a good fist of the response, managing to set up camp in the home side's half. Suddenly, Dwayne Peel rounded the back of a red line-out on the yellow 22 and jinked his way to the line past a flummoxed set of Clermont backs - not a finger touched him. Jones added the conversion as the French crowd fell silent.

Peel's moment of individual brilliance sparked the Scarlets back to life and Jones was soon lining up another conversion as King got on the end of slick move that came sprawling out of their own half. Jones converted his kick and suddenly the sides were just seven points apart.

But the hosts refused to panic. A chip ahead from James soon had them planted on the red line. The ball was moved right and Rougerie showed great strength to power past two tacklers to score.

James secured the extras before adding a try to his impressive tally, finishing off a simple move by taking Mignoni's pass on the short side. Another conversion from the Australian fly-half duly followed and suddenly we were back to where we were just ten short minutes before, with the Scarlets trailing by 20 points.

Clermont were enjoying life again, and the appearance off the bench of South Africa captain John Smit and former Wasps pivot Alex King would have put the wind up the Welsh.

With the Englishman now kicking for territory, it was left to Clermont's forwards to deliver the coup de grace, and Thomas Domingo rumbled over the whitewash from the tail of a line-out for his side's seventh and final try before King opened his French account with the conversion.

Coming back from the brink is feasible, but doing it twice in a game is beyond the capabilities of most teams - and so it was for the Scarlets.

With the game gone but with that all-important fourth try still dangling within their grasps, they threw body and soul into the last ten minutes of the game, but Clermont held them back with equal ferocity.

Points will surely decided the fate of the four sides unlucky enough to find themselves in Pool Five, and the first round of action seems to have already offered up a candidate for sacrifice: whilst Munster snatched a point off Wasps, the Scarlets return home with nothing.

It's an early and harsh assessment, but that's the horrible beauty of this wonderful tournament. If you want happy endings for all, move below the equator.

Man of the match: Regan King and Alix Popham kept Welsh fires burning from start to finish, but this award will remain here in France. Aurélien Rougerie came looking for work and was duly rewarded with a hat-trick. Julien Bonnaire did the dirty work in the tight and Pierre Mignoni pulled all the right stings from scrum-half, but it is Brock James who takes the spoils for an intelligent performance in which he hardly put a foot wrong.

The scorers:

For Clermont Auvergne:

Tries: Rougerie 3, Malzieu, Bonnaire, James, Domingo

Cons: James 4, King

Pen: James

For Scarlets:

Tries: D James, Peel, King

Cons: S Jones 3

The teams:

Clermont Auvergne: 15 Anthony Floch, 14 Aurélien Rougerie (c), 13 Gonzalo Canale, 12 Seremaďa Bai, 11 Julien Malzieu, 10 Brock James, 9 Pierre Mignoni, 8 Elvis Vermeulen, 7 Alexandre Audebert, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Thibaut Privat, 4 Loic Jacquet, 3 Martín Scelzo, 2 Mario Ledesma, 1 Laurent Emmanuelli.

Replacements: 16 John Smit, 17 Thomas Domingo, 18 Christophe Samson, 19 Emmanuel Etien, 20 Arnaud Pic, 21 Pierre-Manuel Garcia, 22 Vilimoni Delasau.

Scarlets: 15 Morgan Stoddart, 14 Dafydd James, 13 Regan King, 12 Gavin Evans, 11 Matthew Watkins, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Dwayne Peel (c), 8 Alix Popham, 7 Gavin Thomas, 6 James Bater, 5 Scot MacLeod, 4 Vernon Cooper, 3 Deacon Manu, 2 Matthew Rees, 1 Iestyn Thomas.

Replacements: 16 James Hayter, 17 Bruce Douglas, 18 Adam Eustace, 19 Dafydd Jones, 20 Gavin Cattle, 21 Rhys Priestland, 22 Garan Evans.

Referee: Chris White (England)

Touch judges: Ashley Rowden (England), Paul Dix (England)

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