Clermont Auvergne kept their Heineken Cup quarter-final hopes alive as they clinched a bonus point with a last-gasp fourth try in an exciting 24-14 victory at Vicarage Road.
Clermont went into the tie needing a maximum five-point haul to give them genuine hope of qualifying from Pool Two, although a win would guarantee them the consolation of an Amlin Challenge Cup last-eight spot. For Saracens this was already a dead rubber as their four previous defeats meant they had no chance of progressing.
The French side swept ahead in the third minute when Kevin Senio and Tasea Lavea combined to rip open the home defence and send centre Wesley Fofana darting through to score by the posts. Anthony Floch added the conversion.
It took the hosts nearly 20 minutes to make an impact, but a sustained attack comprising seven phases was ultimately halted by an offside offence, and fly-half Owen Farrell kicked the resultant penalty. That score lifted the crowd, and Clermont found themselves on the back foot for the first period in the game.
Clermont’s defence was uncompromising, and Irish referee Alan Lewis was quick to pounce on a blatant side-entry to a ruck by Julien Bardy on 28 minutes. Farrell rifled the penalty home from 40 metres. And within four minutes Saracens had raced into the lead. Hooker Schalk Brits did the damage with a strong break before timing a fine pass to England wing David Strettle, who had raced in off his right wing and carved through the remaining cover. Farrell’s conversion attempt rebounded off a post but the hosts led 11-7.
But Clermont replied within minutes. Kini Murimurivalu broke through midfield and passed to Floch. The full-back was grounded feet from the line by Chris Wyles, but managed to pop up a pass for hooker Willie Wepener to score, although Floch’s attempted conversion went wide.
The second half began with Saracens taking the game to the French, whose tackling was up to the test when their line was threatened. Saracens had an opportunity to regain the lead on 49 minutes, but Farrell’s penalty attempt from out on the left missed the target. And another Farrell effort on 52 minutes was even further off target, much to the delight of the visiting French support.
However, Saracens pressure was finally rewarded on 54 minutes when Farrell kept his nerve from 35 metres and drilled a penalty straight between the posts.
Then it was the turn of the home side to produce the big hits as Clermont raised their game following a raft of replacements. They regained control on 64 minutes when a succession of drives on the Saracens line ended with fly-half Lavea crashing between the posts for a try which he also converted.
Saracens surged back on the offensive to inspire a reaction that made the 6,000 crowd sound somewhat larger. But Clermont stood firm despite surging breaks by Noah Cato and Kelly Brown. And they sealed what could be a crucial bonus point as they won a scrum and Ti’i Paulo was driven over to keep them in the hunt for a quarter-final place.