Burger with a performance to relish
Tom Hamilton at Twickenham
April 26, 2014
Jacques Burger put in a remarkable performance © Getty Images
It was a remarkable victory built on Saracens' defence with Jacques Burger putting in a performance for the ages. The superb Saracens openside made 27 tackles, turned over the ball at will and generally caused a sense of panic in Clermont's ranks. If ever there was an apt recipient for Man of the Match, it was Burger.
Saracens are now through to their first Heineken Cup final and after years of making noise off the pitch, they are chasing two trophies to add to their Aviva Premiership triumph back in 2011. For Saracens, the manner in which they made Clermont look ordinary is testament to the club as a whole. Off the field marketing, gimmicks can only go so far, you need the team to deliver and that it did at Twickenham on Saturday.
The talk leading up to the game surrounded the poor attendance expected at Twickenham and those fears were realised with just 25,942 coming to the game. The number of green, empty seats will do little to boost European domestic rugby's image and the apathy supporters showed the match is something the new tournament must address next season.
But those that did make the effort witnessed a unique performance; the eventual 40-point margin of victory was the highest at the semi-final stage in this fine tournament's history. Those in the stands saw a Saracens team play with a lethal cutting edge and no sense of awe as they faced Clermont, a team with a pedigree as one of Europe's premier sides.
Clermont's attack was blunt and lacked imagination. Despite their supporters' best efforts to raise their team with constant drum banging throughout, only Wesley Fofana offered a spark in the backline but they never got going.
This was due to Saracens' defence. Clermont simply had no answer to their ferocity at the breakdown and the bulldozing Burger. Saracens also had that key added ingredient, luck.
Referee Nigel Owens, widely regarded as the world's best official, will come in for scrutiny for his decision to award a first-half penalty try to Saracens after Brock James knocked the ball into touch in his own in-goal area while under pressure from Marcelo Bosch. It was a harsh decision as for all the world it looked like James was going for the ball with the intention of catching it rather than looking for the emergency option of knocking it straight over the dead-ball line. A penalty would have been a fairer outcome.
Owen Farrell's try, and Saracens' third, came after the ball bounced off his knee rather than his outstretched hand. On nine occasions out of 10, his hand would have brushed the ball and the try would have been chalked off, but not today.
Luck aside, Chris Ashton put down a marker ahead of England's summer tour with two tries. Both efforts needed him to be at the right place at the right time, but that is the sign of a good finisher. His double sees him become the first player to register 11 tries in a Heineken Cup season. He also did well in defence putting in a try-saving tackle on Vincent Debaty.
Elsewhere, Alex Goode performed well at fullback and rarely put a foot wrong while Bosch offered an assured presence in the midfield. The Saracens supporters have clearly taken to their Argentinean outside centre as when a long-distance penalty was awarded to their team, the immediate cry was "Bosch, Bosch, Bosch".
But it was Burger who collected the plaudits and rightly so. How his body is still going is a medical mystery; he has absolutely no regard for his own safety, and at times to be fair the opposition's, as he flies into rucks and players. The Clermont back-row is not an insignificant one with Julien Bonnaire one of Europe's premier blindsides and Fritz Lee enjoying a successful first season for Clermont, but it was an area of the field completely governed by Burger.
Alongside pre-match mention of empty seats was also talk of this match being an important occasion for two individuals - Saracens' skipper Steve Borthwick and Clermont's coach Vern Cotter, At the end of the season Borthwick retires while Cotter takes charge of Clermont but it will be the quietly-spoken busted-nose second-row who has a final shot at winning the tournament that has evaded him in the past.
Two years ago Saracens lost 22-3 to Clermont in the quarter-finals, Sarries boss Mark McCall said his team felt they never "threw a punch" back then. Today they threw everything at Clermont and it paid off handsomely. This was one of the finest performances by an English side in Europe and they will take some stopping in the final.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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