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James inspires Clermont to Champions Cup semi-final win over Saracens
The Australian out-half was man of the match at an electric Stade Geoffrey-Guichard.

Clermont 13

Saracens 9

Murray Kinsella reports from Stade Geoffrey-Guichard

CLERMONT WILL GET another chance to end their European hurt after they advanced into the final of the Champions Cup thanks to a Brock James-inspired 13-9 win over Saracens at an electric Stade Geoffrey-Guichard in Saint-Étienne.

Wesley Fofana tackled by Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

A French semi-final record crowd of 41,500 provided a stunning atmospheric backdrop to a hard-fought Clermont victory in which they did show frailties at times. Frank Azéma’s men were well worth their win, however, and now await either Toulon or Leinster in the Twickenham final on 2 May.

Man of the match James’ gorgeous chip kick set up the only try of the game for Wesley Fofana, while the Australian also took all three of his chances from the tee.

Saracens were worthy semi-finalists and were led by powerhouse number eight Billy Vunipola in a physical, combative performance. That said, they lacked the cutting edge with ball in hand that might have helped them over the whitewash.

So it is that Clermont will return to the European final, having been beaten by Toulon in 2013′s Heineken Cup decider. Defeats in two semi-finals in the past three seasons mean the Auvergne club have some baggage, but they believe this is finally their year.

The French side were first to show off their attacking wares in this game, surging into the Saracens 22 early on with some impressive carrying from Nick Abendanon, Damien Chouly and Sébastien Vahaamahina, before James attempted a snap drop goal effort that missed to the left.

The scrum contest began with a penalty for Saracens, and they would get some rewards in this area throughout the half, though a missed kick to touch from out-half Hodgson was costly on that first occasion.

Alex Goode Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

After their initial ball-in-hand approach, Azéma’s side settled into a more kicking-based game plan as James and scrum-half Ludovic Radoslavjevic looked for space deep behind Sarries.

Alex Goode was up to the task of returning some overly-long kicking and it was the fullback’s counter that helped to set up the position for the opening points of the game.

The Vunipola brothers followed Goode’s carrying example, before Richard Wigglesworth found Hodgson in the pocket and the former England international slotted a clean drop goal from outside the 22.

Clermont almost responded in style. A big scrum penalty earned them a visit to Saracens’ 22, the forward pack mauling and carrying to within metres of the line, before a sublime Fofana pirouette almost saw the centre dash in under the posts.

McCall’s energetic defence scrambled, but Clermont still appeared to have numbers wide on the left. The ball was delayed just enough, however, and Naipolioni Nalaga was denied a try in the left corner by Chris Ashton’s muscular effort.

The England wing appeared to blatantly shoulder charge Nalaga out of play before he could dot down, but Irish referee George Clancy and his TMO Simon McDowell ruled out a try and handed Saracens a 22 drop out.

Clermont did equalise six minutes later after Jim Hamilton failed to roll away from the tackle. James stepped up amidst the vocal encouragement of Clermont’s fans to pop over the penalty, the ball deflecting in off the right post.

General view of Stade Geoffroy-Guichard James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Hodgson had a chance to send Saracens back in front within minutes, but his 45-metre attempt from wide on the left missed the target.

Any idea Clermont had of gaining first-half dominance was not transpiring as Maro Itoje and Vunipola in particular led a determined Saracens performance. The English side took the lead with three minutes left in the half, Hodgson converting a penalty from a similar position to his previous miss following an offside offence from Clermont.

With the Top 14 side’s set-piece encountering trouble, first at the lineout and then in the scrum, Hodgson even had one further chance to grab points before the break. From that same zone on the left and 45 or so metres out again, he pushed it to the right.

Clermont came back onto the Saint-Étienne turf revived and refocused after the interval, winning a turnover directly from the restart. After Saracens spoiled the first scrum platform, Azéma’s side pounced second time around.

Captain Chouly carried strongly off the tail of the set-piece, before Jonathan Davies and Nalaga trucked it up in midfield. There was nothing obviously on when the ball came to out-half James, but the Australian conjured a magnificent chip that bounced up into the hands of the onrushing Fofana.

The France centre dove majestically to finish a wonderful score, having beaten the despairing Goode to the ball. James’ conversion from out on the right was almost as impressive as his assist for the try itself.

The ASM faithful turned the volume back up to ‘deafening’ and Clermont were suddenly empowered by that emotional drive that can make them such a juggernaut. The maniacal tackling of Julien Bardy continued, the maul fired up and the ferocity of every collision was magnified.

Billy Vunipola and Brock James James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

But Saracens are nothing if not durable and they rode this latest Clermont wave until a deep kick from the inspirational Goode forced Nalaga into showing his frail side as we entered the final quarter.

The enormous Fijian spilled the ball forward inside his 22 as he covered the kick, and Saracens turned the scrum into a penalty on the third attempt. On for Hodgson at out-half, Owen Farrell stepped up impressively to a chorus of boos to bring the game back to 10-9 on the 66-minute mark.

And so we entered the sort of territory in which Clermont’s recent history might have made their supporters nervous. Instead, the Top 14 outfit turned things up another notch.

They threatened another try twice, with outside centre Davies barrelling through on the second occasion only for the magnificent Vunipola to produce a turnover penalty on the next phase.

A superb chase of replacement Morgan Parra’s box kick then allowed Clermont to win a crucial penalty as Vunipola was pinged for not releasing the ball.

Australian playmaker James stepped up with an assuredness that has often been absent in the past to send Clermont four points clear and set Stade Geoffrey-Guichard bouncing.

Clermont scorers:

Tries: Wesley Fofana

Conversions: Brock James [1 from 1]

Penalties: Brock James [2 from 2]

Saracens scorers:

Penalties: Charlie Hodgson [1 from 3], Owen Farrell [1 from 1]

Drop goal: Charlie Hodgson

CLERMONT: Nick Abendanon; Noa Nakaitaci, Jonathan Davies, Wesley Fofana, Naipolioni Nalaga (Aurélien Rougerie ’75); Brock James, Ludovic Radoslavjevic (Morgan Parra ’55); Vincent Debaty (Raphael Chaume ’74), Benjamin Kayser (John Ulugia ’67), Davit Zirakashivili; Jamie Cudmore (Julien Pierre ’23 to ’33 – concussion test), Sébastien Vahaamahina; Julien Bonnaire, Julian Bardy (Alexandre Lapandry ’56), Damien Chouly (capt.).

Replacements not used: Clément Ric, Camille Lopez.

SARACENS: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Marcelo Bosch, Brad Barritt (capt.), Chris Wyles (David Strettle ’73); Charlie Hodgson (Owen Farrell ’58), Richard Wigglesworth (Neil de Kock ’69); Mako Vunipola (Rhys Gill ’74), Jamie George (Schalk Brits ’52), Petrus du Plessis (James Johnston ’52); George Kruis, Jim Hamilton (Jackson Wray ’56); Maro Itoje, Jacques Burger (Kelly Brown ’75), Billy Vunipola.

Referee: George Clancy [Ireland].

Attendance: 41,500.

‘It’s a massive job, it’s something that gets a bit understated at times’

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