Saracens went down fighting in their bid to reach a second successive European final as Wesley Fofana’s try ultimately proved the difference in a titanic tussle with Clermont Auvergne.
Clermont had ruthlessly beaten Northampton Saints in the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-finals but Sarries emerge from Saint-Etienne with much credit after their heroic defence for much of the match.
Charlie Hodgson hit a drop-goal and a penalty in the first half, while the fit-again Owen Farrell added another after the break, but the London club ultimately had no answer to Fofana’s piece of magic.
Brock James also kicked eight points in a composed performance to help send Clermont through to a Twickenham final with either Leinster or Toulon.
Clermont started promisingly – with former Bath Rugby full-back Nick Abendanon flitting around the fringes – but when the ball came back infield, James’ drop-goal attempt wasn’t his best.
And Saracens were handed another reprieve soon after, with Wales centre Jonathan Davies failing to haul in a pass when the overlap was on.
Despite those early Clermont chances Sarries were their typically abrasive selves at the breakdown, while Richard Wigglesworth’s box kicking was keeping the pressure off.
Then after a huge Billy Vunipola carry that dragged in three defenders, Hodgson wound up his boot to execute a brilliantly struck drop goal.
The Vulcans didn’t take long to respond and got their driving maul going to within metres of Sarries’ try-line.
And when the ball broke to Napolioni Nalaga, only the combined efforts of Alex Goode and Chris Ashton forced the big man into touch before he could dot down.
The visitors’ resistance finally broke in the 26th minute after they were pinged for not rolling away, James slotting a penalty that bounced in off the post.
With ball in hand Ashton then conjured up an immediate opportunity for a Saracens reply – this time Clermont were penalised for rolling away – but Hodgson nudged a tricky penalty narrowly wide.
Maro Itoje, in what is sure to be his first European start of many, was also leaving his mark with a number of bruising carries.
And Sarries made sure they had the last say of the first half, as Clermont came in at the side and Hodgson used all of his big game experience to bisect the posts again.
Another penalty – this one at scrumtime – handed Hodgson another chance off the tee just before the break but this time he could not push the ball over the posts.
Clermont started the first half with their tails up, putting Sarries under immediate pressure from the kick-off.
And it took a moment of brilliance to finally open up the Aviva Premiership Rugby side as James delivered a beautifully-weighted chip for Fofana to pounce on over the whitewash.
Saracens looked nonetheless composed despite conceding that score, though concerted pressure in Clermont territory came to nothing.
Chris Wyles and Marcelo Bosch then made inroads into the French side’s half only for Jacques Burger to knock-on after a heavy hit.
Goode’s kick and chase nearly proved the opening they were looking for, with Nalaga coughing up the ball under the force of a Wigglesworth tackle.
And after winning the battle in the scrum, replacement Farrell – back from injury – just about squeezed in a penalty to reduce the deficit to one point.
Clermont were not to be deterred however and stormed up the field – with Davies at the forefront – to win another penalty which James made no mistake with.
And the hosts won one final scrum as Sarries ran out of time to book their place at Twickenham.