Toulon 29-35 Clermont Auvergne, Top 14 semi-final, May 15
Clermont edge out Toulon in epic
May 15, 2010
Pierre Mignoni halts Elvis Vermeulen during a tight opening half
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Clermont Auvergne will play Perpignan in this season's Top 14 final after battling past Toulon 35-29 in a thrilling semi-final at the Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier.
An extra time try from Clermont centre Julien Malzieu and a sensational drop goal from fly-half Brock James proved to be the decisive scores in a pulsating clash that sets up a repeat of last season's final.
The boot of scrum-half Morgan Parra had put Clermont in control before prop David Zirakashvili crossed in the closing stages of normal time to put his side on course for the Paris finale. But Toulon centre Sonny Bill Williams struck at the death to give his side hope and Jonny Wilkinson, who finished the game with 17 points, levelled the scores with a massive penalty. Clermont stole the initiative in extra time with James slotting a penalty and a drop goal before Malzieu pounced against a tiring defence. But back came Toulon with a try from replacement scrum-half Fabien Cibray but they were thwarted in their last ditch attempts to rescue the game.
Clermont received a major boost prior to kick-off with Pumas hooker Mario Ledesma passing a late fitness test to join Martin Scelzo and Thomas Domingo in the front-row. Skipper Aurelien Rougerie switched to outside-centre with Brock James facing off against Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half.
Some helter-skelter handling from Toulon in the opening moments yielded a fortunate penalty against Rougerie and Wilkinson made absolutely no mistake. Clermont burst into life through James, imbued with confidence despite a difficult few weeks, whose superb catch sparked a break through Floch and wing Julien Malzieu. Malzieu was hauled down but patient phase play saw the ball shipped back for Floch to clip over a drop-goal.
James continued to run from the restart, using Marius Joubert on the short ball to make big gains before Floch missed a penalty after a high tackle on Alexandre Lapandry from Toulon lock Jocelino Suta. Wilkinson also missed his next shot, a monster effort from halfway, but smashed over a 40 metre drop-goal to snatch the lead despite more expressive play from Clermont.
James pushed an attempted drop-goal across the face but his pack enjoyed better fortune in crushing the Toulon scrum to win a penalty. Unfortunately their lineout skills were not of the same order and a strong attacking platform was wasted as Joe van Niekerk broke away.
Clermont won two scrum penalties in quick succession, with Para taking the first quickly and dispatching the second through the uprights to level the scores. The differing styles of the two sides continued with Clermont breaking from their 22 through Malzieu and the rapid openside Alex Lapandry before Wilkinson put boot to ball in an unsuccessful attempt to turn Napolioni Nalaga.
A Toulon bomb brought the next score for Wilkinson after a mix up between Julien Bonnaire and Domingo led to a penalty for offside. Clermont frantically sought an advantage before half-time and after Parra had seen a long-range penalty attempt drop short, they believed that they had it.
An overthrown Toulon lineout fell to Parra and after the ball had been shipped wide to Rougerie it was forced across the line by Canadian lock Jamie Cudmore. Referee Jerome Garces was unmoved, taking a short look before signalling that the ball had been held up, bringing the half to an end.
Felipe Contepomi was introduced by Toulon at the break for Luke Rooney but the Pumas veteran lost an early kicking battle with James as the Clermont pivot pinned the opposition deep inside their 22 with a raking kick. Again the ball was overthrown but Parra was unable to gather this time under pressure.
The diminutive scrum-half levelled the scores moments later however, stroking over a long-range effort with his best kick of the afternoon, and was on target again moments later from similar range to secure the lead. It was nearly the shortest of advantages though as Wilkinson was inches away from slotting a levelling kick seconds later after a brief dust up between Parra and Mignoni.
Toulon finally threw caution to the wind as Sonny Bill Williams broke from his 22, using van Niekerk and Mafileo Kefu in support before Tana Umaga spilled the ball forward. Another overthrown lineout gave Parra his next three points as Olivier Missoup launched himself over the top at a ruck, rewarding a strong scrum and great Parra nudge in the build-up.
To the joy of their fans Toulon bit back in the scrum battle, winning a penalty 30 metres out after taking the ball against the head following an accidental offside. Wilkinson put the noise in the ground aside to bisect the posts.
Superb handling from the Toulon backs had Clermont grasping at thin air soon after, with Contepomi, Wilkinson and Kefu combining to put replacement prop Saimone Taumoepeau free along the wing. A textbook cover tackle from Parra saved the day for Les Jaunards, the tiny scrum-half felling his giant opponent just in time.
His intervention looked all the more important moments later as replacement prop Zirakashvili bundled over for a vital try. Parra had been collared high by Ross Skeate and from the penalty Clermont's pack took control with an imposing maul. The ball was shipped wide to Rougerie who was hauled down short, but the Georgian prop dived over from close range. The try was awarded on sight by Garces but there was more controversy as Zirakashvili appeared to knock on before grounding the ball.
Toulon hit back immediately following a sweeping move from deep. With Rougerie down with a head injury, and Parra later in the move, Toulon exploited the extra gaps with quick hands and willing support. Van Niekerk was stopped inches short by Nalaga, but Williams was able to launch over from close range. Wilkinson converted and soon after levelled proceedings with a massive penalty from halfway.
With neither side able to break the deadlock before the final whistle, the contest went into extra time where early pressure from Clermont drew a penalty. But instead of going for the posts they opted for the scrum and were made to regret their decision as Toulon eventually turned the ball over and cleared. They were soon pressing again and when the whistle went in their favour there was no debate with James slotting the simple kick.
And James edged his side towards the Paris finale moments into the second half of extra time with a sensational drop goal from just inside his own half. Toulon responded well but their handling let them down at the crucial moment and Malzieu pounced before launching the decisive kick and chase before beating Lovobalavu to touch the ball down. James' conversion looked to have put the result beyond doubt but Cibray skipped through for Toulon and Wilkinson's conversion brought them to within six points with just two minutes left on the clock. Van Niekerk then put Lovobalavu into space down the short side and the winger was bundled into touch just short of the line by Canale to send his side into their fourth straight Top 14 Final.