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There was drama and disappointment as London Wasps went from within touching distance of an historic victory to surrendering their bonus point in the final play of the game at the Parc Des Sport Marcel Michelin this afternoon.
Following a controversial try from Mario Ledesma that gave the French team a ten point lead at half time, a jaw-jutting comeback from Wasps early in the second half allowed them to hit the front for the first time with half an hour to go. However, they may rue the mistakes that allowed Clermont fly half Brock James to kick four second half penalties and take his team ahead again, keeping Wasps chasing the game as the game's dramatic climax approached.
Cipriani's gutsy 76th minute penalty had put Wasps back within bonus point territory, and when Tom Voyce kicked a penalty to the corner with a minute of injury time remaining, Wasps supporters may have dared to dream of an historic victory. However, the line out was lost and instead it was Clermont who scored the final dramatic try that snatched the bonus point out of Wasps hands.
The game got off to a relatively inauspicious start. In the opening exchanges neither side could maintain possession and thus achieve any rhythm in their game, though Clermont crept ahead by two penalties to one. The game finally sparked into life in the 14th minute, when a half break from Riki Flutey provided the first flash of danger. Though Clermont conceded a penalty under the consequent pressure, Danny Cipriani could not convert the chance from out wide on the left hand side.
The French side responded when from the 22 restart, Brock James spotted his winger Malzieu in space wide to his left, Only an excellent tackle from Wasps captain Lawrence Dallaglio denied the Clermont speedster a 70 metre sprint to the line, and shortly after that another scything tackle was required, this time from Man of the Match, James Haskell as he cut down a dangerous looking counter attack from Clermont full back Anthony Floch.
With 20 minutes gone, Clermont scored the first try from a simple first phase move. Stacking the short side at a scrum, James spun out a miss pass and Marius Joubert was in space on the wing. Paul Sackey could not stop Joubert from offloading as he drove him into touch, and left winger Julien Malzieu was on the South African's shoulder to collect the inside pass and score.
James was growing in confidence, able to mix up his game as the pack in front of him gained the upper hand over Wasps in the middle third of the half. Dallaglio and Co had to be alert as James alternated between chipping over the midfield, putting in pinpoint crossfield kicks for his dangerous wingers, or just popping off to his ball carrying front rowers Ledsma and Schelzo who ran at the heart of the Londoners defence.
Haskell evades the Clermont Back Row
Wasps stood strong however, and bided their time for an opportunity of their own. It came just after the half hour when again it was Flutey who made the initial break, with Skivington, Reddan and Voyce supporting to set up an attacking platform on the Clermont 22. With quick ball, Payne bashed up the middle and from there James Haskell simply ran straight and hard for Wasps first score. Collecting Reddan's long pass, he ran at the gap between back rowers Elvis Vermeulen and Sam Broomhall, and his powerful leg drive took him through the grasping tackles of both to gallop the final 10 metres to the line.
The score did not dent the French team's confidence however, and it seems luck was also on their side when they were awarded a dubious try just before half time. With their forwards continuing to enjoy the upper hand, Clermont had set up a driving maul on the Wasps 22 that took them to within five metres of the line. Close quarter charges from the forwards edged them closer still, but Wasps defence was stubborn and, finding no way through, Clermont moved the ball wide to the left, and then back to the right for hooker Ledesma to try and squeeze in at the corner.
The video replay appeared to show that the Argentinean international had lost control of the ball after his attempt to ground it had hit James Haskell's boot, full back Mark Van Gisbergen getting a hand on the ball himself to save the score. However, TMO David McHugh did not see it in the same way, and instructed referee Alan Lewis to allow the score, giving Clermont a 20-10 lead at half time.
The start of the second half saw Wasps respond to this set back in the best possible style, taking the lead after 50minutes with tries from Tim Payne and James Haskell. The first came almost directly from the restart. Wasps gathered, and after Ibanez drove on Reddan put a high up and under into the Clermont half. Riki Flutey was underneath it to palm the ball back, Simon Shaw, John Hart and Haskell taking it on towards the 22. Given quick ball, Cipriani grubbered behind the Clermont midfield for Fraser Waters to gather under pressure and set up the ruck. Vickery, Ibanez and Haskell bashed for the line, but when Clermont got a hand to Reddan's pass from a ruck, the ball dribbled back to Payne, who charged up the side of the ruck and over for the try.
Riki Flutey breaking the line against Clermont Auvergne 08/12/2007
Having noted the success of Reddan's up and under, Cipriani continued with the tactic, Flutey again gathering to set up another promising attack. Shaw was again in support, passing to Voyce and then Van Gisbergen, but Clermont captain Aurelien Rougerie did brilliantly to stop Van Gisbergen sliding in to score in the corner.
Clermont were still in danger though, with a five metre line out to execute in order to relieve the pressure. Ledesma threw long to Vermeulen at the back, but George Skivington and John Hart at the back of the Wasps line were alive to the throw, and stripped the ball from Vermeulen's hands. Hart's beautiful little pop out of the back door fell perfectly into the hands of Haskell, who twisted out of the tackle of Joubert to ground the ball over the line.
Cipriani's conversion put Wasps ahead 23-24, but the lead was short-lived as a Wasps' mistake allowed James, - who had an immaculate afternoon with the boot, missing only his last kick of the day to return stats of 8 from 9 'to kick his side ahead with his second penalty of the second half.
However, it was James's mistake from the restart, when he fumbled the kick off reception, that gave Wasps a chance to score again. Chasing back to collect the ball, he hooked it away only as far as Reddan on the 22. The scrum half slung a pass to Ibanez who moved it on to Cipriani, but the fly half couldn't get his pass over the leaping Joubert, and Clermont's defence gained valuable seconds to re organise and snuff out the danger. Lewis gave Wasps a penalty for offside as a result, but Cipriani could not land the difficult kick.James, however went on the nail two further three pointers from silly Wasps mistakes that gave his side a 32-24 lead after 72 minutes, meaning no bonus point for Wasps as it stood. Despite missing with his previous attempt Cipriani then proved his mettle when, just two minutes after James's kick, he nailed a crucial long range penalty of his own to put Wasps back into bonus point territory. And when Wasps won another penalty with a minute remaining on the clock Wasps supporters may have dared to think an historic win was within reach.
Tom Voyce kicked for the corner to set up a Wasps line out, but the ball was not cleanly taken and though they were able to keep possession after Ledesma hacked the loose ball downfield, Wasps were forced back into their own half by an aggressive Clermont defence. Though Wasps battled manfully to get back up field, when the ball rolled out of the back of a ruck Clermont pounced and spun the ball wide for their captain, Aurelien Rougerie to go over in the corner and snatch a four points to nothing win for his team.
The result puts Wasps and Clermont level on points, with 9 each after three games though Munster could take over at the head of the pool if they beat Llanelli on Saturday evening.
Referee: Alan Lewis
Man of the Match: James Haskell