With temperatures struggling to get above freezing, a committed Scarlets following braved the conditions to see their side play at home for the first time in five weeks. They had faced a torrid time on the road, but facing undefeated Clermont Auvergne would be far from an easy task.
It was a nervy start to the game from the Scarlets, and Clermont attacked from the first, a style they were to stick to for the whole match. With sublime passing and offloading, they quickly worked the ball to Nalaga on the wing, who stormed over for a try. Parra added the extras.
It was to go from bad to worse for the Scarlets, already 3 points further behind after a successful Parra penalty, when a scrum on the edge of their 22 saw McCusker flick the ball up for scrum half Knoyle, only for the excellent Parra to have read the pass to catch it and run in unopposed.
The next twenty minutes saw the Scarlets edge their way back into the game, although point scoring chances were few and far between. Their defence held and time again they managed to beat back waves of Clermont attack, whose offloading and supporting play was a joy to watch.
Loose head Phil John was making his 250th appearance for the club, and teaming up with the young front row pair of Ken Owens and Samson Lee, they coped surprisingly well against a fearsome front row from the French side.
As half time edged ever closer it looked like the Scarlets had managed to get some semblance of a foot hold on the game, when a lapse in defence and a great line from centre Stanley saw him cross for the visitors’ third try of the game, converted by Skrela who had taken over the kicking duties after an earlier Parra substitution.
Half time saw the Scarlets go in at the break trailing 24-0, being the victim of two glaring defensive errors that a team as ruthless as Clermont Auvergne were more than happy to exploit.
There was a tribute at half time for the excellent Morgan Stoddart. It was announced last week that he sadly had to retire, having failed to recover sufficiently from a double leg break sustained in August 2011. Club President Phil Bennett joined him on the pitch to address the crowd and rightly lauded Stoddart’s talent pride and efforts in a Scarlets shirt. It was the perfect chance for fans to say farewell to one of the standouts in a Scarlets shirt over the last few seasons.
The second half showed a vast improvement in the Scarlets defensive effort. Bodies were put on the line as Clermont Auvergne tried unrelentingly to gain a try bonus point. Despite this the Scarlets unfortunately could do little with the ball they had. They managed to make inroads into the Clermont half, yet their uninventive and often predictable play was easily soaked up by the French side’s excellent defence.
Ex-Scarlet Regan King came on as a substitution for another ex-Scarlet Lee Byrne to warm applause, although it was with wry smiles the Scarlets support saw again the magic of King’s hands, for a change working against them.
Where the Scarlets defence seemingly had the Clermont attack covered, it was a deftly timed pass from King to centre Rougerie that saw the Clermont captain cross easily for his teams’ fourth try of the evening, which Skrela failed to convert.
Going in to the last ten minutes, the Scarlets were desperate to give their fans something to cheer. A superb break from centre Adam Warren saw him race down the field into the Clermont 22, but wing Nalaga was there to haul him down. Phase after phase the Scarlets kept pushing closer to the Clermont line. Snyman was stopped just short of the line and in the next phase Josh Turnbull agonizingly knocked on as he was double tackled over the line.
The final whistle came, and whilst the Scarlets had been comprehensively outplayed by what has to be one of the most complete sides to grace the field at Parc Y Scarlets, their second half efforts showed how strong they could be in defence, although big worries need to be addressed in terms of their attacking play.
Clermont Auvergne had talent across the pitch, and with their set piece play, their defence and their devastating attacking play they have to be one of the favourites to go on and win the Heineken Cup. Given their style of play, attitude and talent – they certainly would be more than deserving of it.
Full Time Score: Scarlets 0 – 29 Clermont Auvergne
Scarlets: Liam Williams; George North, Jonathan Davies, Adam Warren, Kristian Phillips; Aled Thomas, Tavis Knoyle; Phil John, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, George Earle, Johan Snyman, Sione Timani, Rob McCusker (capt), Josh Turnbull.
Replacements: Nic Reynolds for L Williams (67), Gareth Davies for Knoyle (63), Rhodri Jones for John (61), Jacobie Adriaanse for Lee (63), Richard Kelly for Earle (75), Aaron Shingler for Timani (65), Matthew Rees for Owens (60)
Not Used: A Davies.
Clermont Auvergne: Lee Byrne; Julien Malzieu, Aurelian Rougerie (capt), Benson Stanley, Napolioni Nalaga; David Skrela, Morgan Parra; Raphael Chaume, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakachvili, Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines, Julien Bonnaire, Elvis Vermeulen, Alexandre Lapandry.
Replacements: Regan King for Byrne (58), Ludovic Radoslavjevic for Parra (34), Ti’i Paulo for Kayser (52), Daniel Kotze for Zirakashvili (56), Julien Pierre for Cudmore (45), Damien Chouly for Vermeulen (63), Kevin Senio for Radoslavjevic (75).
Not Used: Debaty.