Classy Clermont give Chiefs a harsh lesson in first-ever home Heineken Cup game
Exeter Chiefs were always going to need circumstances to work in their favour against the all-stars of Clermont Auvergne, in their first-ever Heineken Cup game at Sandy Park.
Sadly, too many elements – some of their own making – conspired against the Devon club in a 46-12 defeat.
The final scoreline was a severe punishment and mainly a reflection of one side's supreme ability to turn pressure into points when the other could not.
Despite the Chiefs' frustrations, they were matching and even surpassing the Top 14 side until one crucial period of play went against them in the second half.
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At 13-12, a Clermont break advanced further than it should when Chiefs' centre Jason Shoemark was prevented from making a tackle.
And then visiting centre Wesley Fofana was pushed into touch by Tom Johnson before completing a crucial score that changed the very nature of the challenge ahead.
Crucially, referee John Lacey refused to refer the try to the television match official, despite his willingness to do so earlier in the game.
The replays on the big screens around Sandy Park highlighted the injustice for all to see, and when Julien Bonnaire crossed for another try moments later, the last 25 minutes became a demoralising score chase for Chiefs that played straight into the clinical French side's hands.
That game-changing few minutes might have been avoided had Chiefs' influential No.8 Rich Baxter not been shown a yellow card in the last five minutes of the first half for killing the ball.
Clermont's brutal display against Scarlets the previous week had shown the perils of going a man down against the likes of Lee Byrne, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Fofana and Morgan Parra – to name just four of their many danger men.
The quality of Clermont's play cannot be understated. They scored six tries from Napolioni Nalaga (two), Fofana (two), Bonnaire and Sitiveni Sivivatu with a ruthlessness rarely seen at Sandy Park before.
The first half showed that Chiefs had learned well from the first Heineken Cup game in their history against holders Leinster in Dublin.
That narrow defeat against the reigning champions inspired them to start with purpose and tempo, they committed men to the breakdown and punched significant holes through Clermont's defensive lines.
Shoemark, fellow centre Phil Dollman and scrum-half Haydn Thomas ran at the French side with pace, power and intelligence.
The pressure soon built and Clermont starting making mistakes. Home fly-half Gareth Steenson kicked two penalties in the opening ten minutes before Parra missed one from a comparatively simple position – it summed up both sides' approach to those early minutes.
Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter had expressed concerns about Clermont's ability to break from anywhere, at a moment's notice, in the week leading up to the game. Unfortunately, his fears were well-founded.
Seconds after failing to finish a superb chance in the left corner, Nalaga took advantage of Chiefs' inability to complete a line-out in their own 22. Clermont stole possession and the Fijian wing crashed over for the game's first try with Parra converting.
An inevitable period of pressure followed but Chiefs, showing all the craft and knowledge gleaned from two fine seasons in the Aviva Premiership, stood their ground and regrouped.
And, having reasserted themselves, more piercing runs caused problems for the visitors. The home side's excellence yielded two more Steenson penalties but their play really warranted more.
Too often Chiefs would break into the Clermont 22 only to surrender possession or snatch at a chance. Their opponents were far less forgiving and knew they had an opportunity to take control once Baxter had been sent to the sin-bin as the first half drew to a close.
Clermont moved the ball so quickly, Chiefs barely knew where to look at the start of the second half. But still they resisted, for the loss of a single Parra penalty that put his side in front.
With just one point separating the teams, there was little indication of the avalanche set to come Chiefs' way over the next 30 minutes.
It started with that fateful Fofana try in the 51st minute. The home crowd continued their protest as Parra added the conversion, but they could only admire what was to follow.
Bonnaire completed a free-flowing move to score again on the opposite flank and suddenly any thoughts of nudging back in front through the boot of Steenson were gone.
Chiefs' need to take greater risks left them vulnerable. They had some great moments that came to nothing. Full-back Luke Arscott went closer than most with a series of exceptional breaks.
Clermont made it look startlingly easy, adding two more tries within the blink of an eye through Sivivatu and Fofana. Replacement Ignacio Mieres was shown a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on and then Nalaga delivered the final blow with David Skrela converting.