European Rugby Champions Cup: Saracens beat Clermont Auvergne
|Saracens (10) 30|
|Tries: Ashton 2, Strettle 2 Con: Hodgson 2 Pens: Hodgson 2|
|Clermont Auvergne (10) 23|
|Tries: Guildford 2 Cons: Lopez 2 Pens: Lopez 2 Drop-goal: Lopez|
Saracens again beat Clermont Auvergne, but it was a far closer affair than the hammering the French side suffered in the European Cup semi-finals last term.
It was 10-10 at the break, Sarries scoring through Chris Ashton and David Strettle, with Clermont replying via a Zac Guildford try and a conversion and penalty from Camile Lopez.
Tit for tat tries from Guildford and Strettle kept things nip and tuck.
And Saracens secured victory when Ashton also completed his brace.
The last time the two teams met Saracens hammered Clermont 46-6 in the last four of the Heineken Cup in April, but any hopes the French visitors had that the change to the new European Rugby Champions Cup would bring them a different result were dashed as Sarries made home advantage count in a lively encounter.
England number eight Billy Vunipola was a huge force for the Londoners and the ageless Charlie Hodgson ran things so well at 10 that England fly-half Owen Farrell's return from a knee injury only amounted to five minutes at the end of the match.
Ashton - who broke the European Cup record with 11 tries last season - carried on where he left off as the right winger popped up on the left to open the scoring after only five minutes.
However, the visitors had the wind behind them and they went in front as former All Black winger Guildford profited from a slashing Noa Nakaitaci break, with Lopez's conversion and subsequent penalty making it 10-5.
Saracens were looking very lively out wide and they were level at the break after Strettle produced a stunning finish in the corner, but in a see-saw encounter the visitors once again went in front as Guildford soared above home full-back Alex Goode before racing 50 metres to score.
The boots of Lopez and Hodgson kept the scoreboard ticking over before 31-year-old Strettle produced his second spectacular finish in the left-hand corner to level at 20-20.
A penalty apiece kept the sides locked together entering the final quarter before Ashton won it, minutes after conceding a silly penalty that could have cost Sarries dear.
The 27-year-old claimed a swirling Hodgson kick and ran round near enough to the sticks for Hodgson to convert and get Saracens' bid to go one better than last year, when they lost to Toulon in the final, up and running.
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall:
"The two of them [Strettle and Ashton] have been in outstanding form for quite some time now, not just this season but the last 18 months as well.
"It all depends on what England want to do - do they want to go with youth or experience?
"But either way, it would be hard to find two better finishes than David Strettle's against Clermont. They were high, high class.
"We showed energy and intensity against a really good team."
Saracens: Goode, Ashton, Wyles, Barritt, Strettle, Hodgson, Wigglesworth, Barrington, George, Du Plessis, Kruis, Hargreaves, Brown, Fraser, B. Vunipola.
Replacements: Bosch for Wyles (49), Farrell for Hodgson (76), de Kock for Wigglesworth (51), Brits for George (50), Johnston for Du Plessis (72), Gill for Fraser (61).
Not Used: Hamilton, Wray.
Clermont Auvergne: Abendanon, Nakaitaci, Rougerie, Fofana, Guildford, Lopez, Radosavljevic, Domingo, Kayser, Zirakashvili, Cudmore, Vahaamahina, Lee, Bonnaire, Chouly.
Replacements: Stanley for Rougerie (72), Chaume for Domingo (70), Ric for Zirakashvili (41), Jacquet for Cudmore (47), Bardy for Lee (70).
Not Used: Ulugia, Lacrampe, James.
Ref: John Lacey (Ireland).