Saturday, 20th April 2019 @ 21:00
Clermont Auvergne dug in to claim their place in the European Rugby Challenge Cup Final after a valiant fightback from Harlequins fell just short.
At 32-8 in the 54th minute the path to the final looked relatively clear for the hosts under the lights at Stade Marcel Michelin, but the resilience of the Harlequins players got them back into the contest, scoring 19 unanswered points and at times silencing the 18,000-strong crowd. It was a comeback of grit, determination and character with Harlequins giving their all to fight their way back in, to finish the match 32-27.
With the Clermont faithful creating a cauldron of noise, hitting their free clappers in time to the relentless beat of the drum it was a fitting environment for the semi-final of this European competition.
In their lime green away kit Harlequins stood out from the Jaune et Bleu which surrounded the Stade Marcel Michelin. Under an incredible atmosphere where the noise barely abated, the visitors held their ground for the first half an hour before Clermont really made their mark on the game with a try in the 34th minute from Number 8 Fritz Lee, who took a pass and cut a straight line from five metres out to score the first try of the match. Morgan Parra added the extras to make it 16-3.
Before that Camille Lopez had slotted two drop goals, the first in the 11th minute when he placed himself in the pocket as the hosts delivered incredibly quick ball and then again in the 26th minute with an almost carbon copy of the first. A Marcus Smith penalty within minutes of the first drop goal was Harlequins first points on the board. The visitors made it 9-3 on half an hour after Sam Hidalgo-Clyne was penalised in front of the posts for tackling off the ball in defence. As Parra stepped up to the plate to take the penalty the crowd were deafening in their applause.
Within minutes of the restart after Clermont’s try, they were at it again after a mistake in the Harlequins line out saw the hosts ship quick ball across the pitch to Damian Penaud who chipped Mike Brown; the fullback then slipped and Penaud took advantage of the ensuing lucky bounce to skip round and score. Parra converted to take it to 23-3.
Harlequins gave the best response minutes later scoring their own try through Brown in the corner. Ben Tapuai gathered a pass at his feet in the centres and shipped it out to Smith who ran it wide and gave it to Brown who dummied the defence and held off Penaud to score in the corner.
On the stroke of half-time Clermont punished Harlequins further as they were penalised for being offside and Parra made no mistake as he led the team in 26-8 up at half-time.
After the break Parra extended Clermont’s lead with two quick penalties putting the hosts 32-8 ahead in the 54th minute. But Quins refused to give up. Minutes after Parra’s penalty they surged forward with intent, Francis Saili, who had replaced Tapuai, released the ball out of the back of his hand to Alex Dombrandt, who was supporting on the wing, who nipped it inside to Ross Chisholm.
The winger ran in to score, but a review by the TMO ruled Dombrandt was in touch and the try was disallowed. This passage of play gave the visitors renewed impetus and minutes later they did score. After winning a scrum in Clermont’s half, Hidalgo-Clyne darted towards the line, but was held back a metre from the whitewash. He managed to get the ball away to captain Chris Robshaw, who with a supporting Matt Symons powered through to ground the ball at the base of the posts. Smith added the conversion to bring the score to 32-15.
Within ten minutes Harlequins were at it again, pushing up field through Charlie Walker, who had spotted a gap in the Clermont defence. Walker chipped the ball to create more space, but it was gathered on the wing by the hosts on the full who immediately counter attacked, giving quick ball and creating space.
It was Semi Kunatani, who had come on for Jack Clifford, who halted this particular attack, with a solid tackle initially and then scrambling back and tackling again, forcing a knock on by Clermont metres from the line.
Two minutes later, in the 66th minute, with Harlequins in the ascendancy Smith kicked the ball through from deep within his half. James Lang, who had replaced Alofa Alofa in the centres, chased it down hard and caught Clermont static on their tryline. He poached the loose ball to score and with Smith once again adding the extras, Harlequins were right back in it at 32-22.
Clermont had the chance to increase their lead in the 73rd minute, but Greig Laidlaw, who was on for Parra, missed the penalty. In the dying minutes Dombrandt did get his try. From a line out Harlequins pushed up field forming a rolling maul against a tiring Clermont defence and bulldozered over to score the visitors’ fourth try.
It was a valiant effort by Paul Gustard’s side, competing in their first semi final in three years and will give them confidence as they shift their focus now to the Gallagher Premiership and Exeter Chiefs away next weekend.