Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle are still looking for a first win of the Top 14 season, and their first victory at Stade Marcel Michelin since 1956, as new Clermont boss Jono Gibbes claimed early bragging rights between the former coaching colleagues.
Clermont’s 23-22 win at a rain and wind-lashed Stade Marcel Michelin wasn’t always pretty - conditions put paid to any hope of all-out KBA rugby.
But what it lacked in refined Rolls-Royce handling it made up for in muscle-car grunt as the two sides willingly crashed into each other from first to last.
And it was somehow fitting La Rochelle had the final word, having been behind the eight-ball for most of the match, when Matthias Haddad intercepted a poor pass from a bonus-point chasing Clermont to score under the posts to head home with a losing bonus of their own.
The early reunion of Gibbes and O’Gara - who headed La Rochelle’s charge to the Champions Cup and Top 14 finals last season - in the third weekend of the 2021/22 campaign was always expected to be a tasty affair after the fixture list was released. That both sides headed into the game on the back of two defeats apiece simply added extra spice.
O’Gara welcomed Brice Dulin and Levani Botia to his squad for the first time this season. Gibbes, meanwhile, was able to make first use of Peceli Yato, Fritz Lee and Kotaro Matsushima as he made seven changes to the side that lost at home to Castres last Saturday - the first time they have lost their first game at home in Top 14 history.
And it was Yato who scored the game’s opening try - ploughing over from close range in the 18 minutes after Camille Lopez and Jules Plisson had traded early penalties. Despite the best efforts of both sides, the Fijian’s try was the only scoring high-point of the opening 40 minutes.
But it was centre Tani Vili’s touchdown 10 minutes into the second half that broke La Rochelle. Lopez, whose quadruple-pump pass shattered the defensive line that allowed Vili to burst into the clear, was celebrating long before Vili dived over.
By now it was Plisson who was just about keeping the visitors in the game. He slotted his fifth penalty with half an hour left to drag the scores back to 20-15, but the hosts were, by this time, the most threatening side by some distance.
But he’d already missed a penalty and a drop goal attempt - and would miss another, despite his protestations to the referee with just over 20 minutes to go. There’s no wonder O’Gara is looking to refresh his fly-half options with goalkickers.
Lopez, too, was missing kicks he’d expect to slot. Not that it mattered, despite the fact the scores were so close. Clermont were in a far stronger position than the scoreline suggested. One late, desperate attack from La Rochelle - with Botia and hooker Pierre Bougarit among those stopped just short of the line before the hosts won a crucial penalty - rather proved the point before Haddad's after-the-hooter intervention.