It was a gladiatorial contest with a mercenary ending for Mark McCall's Saracens in their European Semi Final. Saracens rode the waves of emotion, they successfully silenced the forty thousand plus fanatical French fans and yet they fell short as one moment and one lapse of concentration cost them and Les Jaunards now edge ever closer to their greatest desire, the European Champions Cup.
Clermont had fired the warning signs during their Quarter Final against the Northampton Saints, they ran the ball like a dream and attacked with joyful abandon, it was sensational and fired a huge warning sign to every side left in the competition. Yesterday, they fired another, as they showed that they can also do it the hard way, they were made to play a tighter game, dare I say it a more unfamiliar game, and yet they flourished. The most successful teams have the ability to pluck out whichever game plan is required, those with one singular strategy are found out and yesterday Clermont showed their hand beautifully.
The decisive try was so wonderfully executed that it looked as if it was in slow motion, Brock James' chip over was delightfully weighted, a product of his years of experience and the man on the end of it, Wesley Fofana. Should Fofana choose to play in the manner that he does for Clermont in the blue of France then we should all take note, for when he turns it on, he's some player and I believe even saying that is an understatement.
What will have turned Toulon & Leinster heads was the fact that Clermont then weathered a thirty six minute storm from Saracens for Fofana's try was just four minutes in the second half. Undeniably it was the most important time to score in order to wrestle the game back following their half time deficit however if you subscribe to the theory that it takes just 20 seconds to score a try, the match was far from finished. Desire and level heads were shown across the park, the nagging feeling of 'we could really do this' didn't push any man to do anything nonsensical, instead it carried them through sensibly and delivered their end goal.
So what about Saracens, I hear you say? What of their performance? Personally I believe that the positivity of Mark McCall post match says it all, of course he was upset and in his changing room hearts were broken, that is not an exaggeration, that it is a fact. The words 'this will make us stronger' and 'this won't deter us going forwards' are not smoke and mirrors, Saracens know that they were up against the best in Europe, a team that is in their groove and feeling that it is their time and yet they forced them to play out of their comfort zone. The result will hurt, the margin of defeat and the manner of defeat will hurt... they should have fired a few more shots of their own, they shouldn't have switched off to allow James' chip however ultimately what is done is done, it cannot be changed by dwelling on it. Instead I expect the result to ignite their Aviva Premiership desires and the Northampton Saints should be prepared to be on the receiving end of a reaction at the Stadium mK.
Mark McCall's squad kept clarity of thought and precision in the face of the most intense and intimidating atmosphere that they will experience this season. The mental strength to counter the forty thousand fanatical fans is something that no other Aviva Premiership side has done, even Bath's trip to Toulouse looked like a walk in the park in comparison and their ability to process and counter this will provide their platform for anything that this domestic season will now throw at them. Individual performances must be noted; Richard Wiggelsworth continued to kick like a dream, Billy Vunipola never had less than two men on him and yet he made meters and of course the rare gemstone that is Maro Itoje sparkled. Itoje defies his years, he soars over every hurdle that is put in his way and on the European stage he looked completely and utterly at home.
It was a European Semi Final between two teams that knew each other extremely well and it was a cagey and nervous affair, the pressure of what was on the line ultimately showed however to say that it wasn't a thrilling and compelling game of rugby would be crazy! Saracens benefitted from a early piece of luck with what can only be described as a TMO clanger, they kept their heads and weathered the storm of the 'neutral' venue, however it wasn't enough. As Toulon progressed following an epic one hundred minute encounter with Leinster Rugby the stage is set for the fifth all French Final of the European competition, it will be one hell of a Final and perhaps will deliver another set of extra time, for there is little to choose between the two Top 14 giants at this moment in time.