Clermont crush England’s last hope

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall put English rugby’s European failure down to the gulf in the salary cap between the Aviva Premiership and the rest.

Saracens crashed out of the Heineken Cup with a comprehensive quarter-final defeat to the star-studded French giants Clermont Auvergne.

For only the third time in the history of English clubs’ involvement in the Heineken Cup, there will be no Premiership representatives in the semi-finals.

Exeter, Harlequins and Wasps, who are all required to operate within the Premiership’s £4.2m (€5.1m) salary cap, lost to French opposition in Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals this weekend.

“You could almost see the difference in the salary caps as you looked down on the pitch at various times today, there is no question about that,” McCall said.

“The squad they were able to bring is outstanding and the stats don’t lie. It is getting increasingly difficult to get into the quarter-final stages. For England to have absolutely no involvement in the semi-finals of the Amlin or the Heineken Cup speaks for itself.”

However Clermont coach Vern Cotter does not believe the result, which saw his side overpower the Premiership champions, was down to the salary.

“There is a salary cap in France as well, it is probably slightly more elevated than it is here. I don’t believe that was the reason for the result today,” Cotter said.

Saracens, the Premiership champions, could not live with Clermont’s physicality and James buried memories of his Heineken Cup quarter-final nightmare from 2010. On that occasion, the Australian choked in front of goal and his two fluffed drop goal attempts at the death gifted victory to Leinster.

But James pulled the strings expertly yesterday after replacing David Skrela, landing four penalties, a conversion and a drop goal to thrill the estimated 2,000 travelling supporters.

Saracens struggled for most of the first half to live with the French champions’ scrummaging power, with Rhys Gill and Matt Stevens both penalised. James kicked Clermont into a seventh-minute lead and extended to 9-0 without fuss.

James missed two shots at goal after Farrell had kicked what turned out to be Saracens’ only point of the day and the home side finished the first half positively, earning two scrum penalties.

But any hope of a Saracens comeback in the second half were erased within four minutes of the restart when Hines offloaded to Rougerie, who cut a brilliant angle to create a four-on-one overlap.

Parra took the ball on, drew the stranded Saracens full-back Alex Goode and sent Byrne clear for the try, which James converted and then followed up with a sweetly-taken drop goal and a fourth penalty.

It was not until the French giants were out of sight that Mark McCall’s side were able to build any pressure but they could not breach the Clermont defence.

Scorers for Saracens: Pen: O Farrell.

Scorers for Clermont Auvergne: Try: L Byrne. Con: B James. Pen: D Skrela, B James (three). Drop goal: B James.

SARACENS: A Goode; D Strettle, O Farrell, B Barritt, C Wyles; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth; R Gill, S Brits, M Stevens, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha, J Melck, W Fraser (J George 66), E Joubert.

Replacements: J Wray for Melck (50), J Short for Farrell (54), N de Kock for R Wigglesworth (54), G Kruis for M Botha (54), M Vunipola for R Gill (64), J George for Fraser (66)A Powell for Barritt (66), C Nieto for Stevens (69).

ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie [capt], W Fofana, J Malzieu; D Skrela (B James 3), M Parra (L Radoslavjevic 76); L Faure (V Debaty 49), B Kayser (T Paulo 57), D Zirakashvili (D Kotze 56), J Cudmore (J Pierre 54), N Hines, J Bonnaire, A Lapandry, E Vermeulen (J Bardy 54).

Replacements: B James for Skrela (3), V Debaty for Faure (49), J Pierre for Cudmore (54), J Bardy for Vermeulen (54), D Kotze for D Zirakashvili (56), T Paulo for Kayser (57), L Radoslavjevic for Parra (76).

Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).

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