French giants Clermont edged Saracens 13-9 in the first semi-final of the European Champions Cup on Saturday to advance to the final where they will play the winner of Toulon’s clash with Leinster.
Australian Brock James was the architect of Clermont’s victory, sweet revenge for the 46-6 thumping Saracens handed the Top 14 club at the same stage of the competition last season.
James booted two penalties and also converted Wesley Fofana’s second-half try, set up by the fly-half’s deft chip.
The game was for long periods a midfield arm wrestle between two very efficient defensive sides that gave little away, and Saracens could only respond with a penalty and drop-goal from Charlie Hodgson and an Owen Farrell penalty.
“I don’t want to jinx it but we honestly believe this is our year,” said Clermont’s English full-back Nick Abendanon.
Saracens captain Brad Barritt bemoaned his side’s missed opportunities.
“In games like this, they are decided often by small margins,” the South Africa-born England centre said.
“We didn’t take our chances. But we can be proud of the effort.”
Barritt added: “These games are always on a knife-edge and we fell on the wrong side today.”
After James saw an early effort drift wide, Hodgson opened the scoring after 14 minutes with a well-taken drop-goal.
Napolioni Nalaga had a try disallowed immediately after, Chris Ashton bundling Clermont’s Fijian try-scoring machine into touch just before he could ground the ball. The England international will consider himself lucky that Irish referee George Clancy neither brandished a yellow card nor awarded a penalty try after his blatant no-arms tackle.
James drew Clermont level with a 27th-minute penalty to the delight of a swathe of yellow at the sell-out 41,000-capacity Geoffroy-Guichard stadium, the ground of Ligue 1 football club Saint-Etienne.
Hodgson sent a first penalty effort wide but nailed his second to leave Saracens 6-3 up at half-time.
Clermont, however, set their fans’ flags flying straight into the second half.
France No.8 Damien Chouly’s barn-storming charge set up quick ruck ball that was spun wide to James whose chip bounced perfectly for Fofana to gather and touch down, James kicking the conversion.
Saracens, who lost to Toulon in the 2014 final, stuck gamely to their task and ever-willing full-back Alex Goode raked a long kick into the corner.
Abendanon fed Nalaga inside him but a great follow-up tackle by Richard Wigglesworth saw the Fijian spill the ball just metres from his line.
Clermont, with prop Vincent Debaty under enormous pressure, were penalised in the resulting scrum, and Farrell made it a one-point game with a successful kick.
However, James made no mistake with his second penalty, all but closing out the game and setting up what promises to be an enticing final.
Two-time defending champions Toulon play in the second semi-final in Marseille on Sunday against three-time title winners Leinster. The two clubs have been European champions five times in the past six years.
Clermont will be back in European action against the winners of that match in the May 2 final at Twickenham.