PARIS: Clermont finally held firm when it mattered most, beating Toulon 22-16 in Paris on Sunday to win the French Top 14 final.
Having lost 11 of 12 previous finals, Clermont had earned the unwanted monicker of perennial “chokers”.
But Morgan Parra kicked 17 points as the favourites delivered for once after so many disappointments, including losing European Champions Cup finals to Toulon in 2013 and 2015, and Saracens earlier last month.
Two years ago, they were also beaten Top 14 finalists by Stade Francais.
“I’m proud, we’ve had some years of struggle but I’m proud of everyone — the players, the fans, no-one ever gave up,” Parra told France Televisions.
Coach Franck Azema added: “This team deserves it. On that last (Toulon) line-out, honestly, we thought we’d lose out again.
“It was really tough but so good and intense that you quickly forget it.”
Having played scintillating first half rugby, without getting the reward their dominance deserved, Clermont doggedly held firm in the second period as Toulon, beaten finalists last year by Racing 92, came storming back.
“Two years in a row where we come up short at the same stage — European Cup quarter-finals and league final, it’s tough to swallow. We’re going to have to pick ourselves up,” admitted Toulon captain Guilhem Guirado.
After an immaculately-respected minute’s silence in memory of the victims of Saturday’s London attack, Clermont made a blistering start and only a knock-on by captain Damien Chouly a yard from the line prevented them from opening their account early doors.
Toulon were restricted to some desperate, last-ditch — and at times barely legal — defending with one Ma’a Nonu tackle resembling a shoulder charge.
Under pressure, Toulon collapsed a scrum and Parra kicked a sixth minute penalty to give Clermont the lead.
On 10 minutes, Clermont held firm against a wave of battering Toulon attacks before Nick Abendanon ripped the ball from Romain Taofifenua’s grasp and the Jaunards launched a counter from deep inside their own 22.
Damian Penaud did brilliantly with a mazy run to scamper 50 metres upfield before passing to Fijian wing Alivereti Raka, who hitch-kicked and side-stepped inside compatriot Josua Tuisova before strolling under the posts.
Parra converted and added a second penalty to give the Vulcans a 13-0 lead.
Zest and intensity
Clermont were playing with a zest and intensity that Toulon simply couldn’t manage but New Zealand great Nonu managed to stem the yellow tide with a crucial interception off Parra inside the Toulon 22.
Barring an Anthony Belleau penalty, all the team in red could manage in attacking terms were some testing up-and-unders for full-back Abendanon.
That was until a reckless high tackle from Clermont No.8 Fritz Lee knocked Australian full-back James O’Connor unconscious.
Samoan Lee was perhaps a touch lucky to be shown only a yellow card but Clermont were soon made to pay.
South African prop Marcel van der Merwe made ground up the middle and quick ball spread wide allowed the bulldozing Tuisova to take revenge on Raka, flattening his countryman in contact and then holding off a double tackle from Penaud and Abendanon to touch down in the corner.
Belleau’s conversion from the flank brought Toulon back to within three points but a Parra penalty made it 16-10 at the break.
Clermont had scored a combined 59 points to 15 in the last two meetings between these sides but Toulon were a different proposition this time.
It was a brutal game with Clermont locks Sitaleki Timani and Arthur Iturria both forced off following head knocks, leaving Fijian back rower Peceli Yato to come on in an unfamiliar position.
Belleau and Parra traded penalties and the former could have levelled the scores but saw two penalties hit the uprights.
Toulon’s rugged, relentless power play was starting to wear down Clermont and a Francis Trinh-Duc penalty nine minutes from time had them back to within three points.
But these were not the Clermont chokers of old and Parra responded immediately with a kick of his own before the yellow shirted warriors held out close to their own line as Toulon launched one last-ditch attack, but in vain.