Saracens’ Heineken Cup hopes were dashed after a deflating 22-3 home defeat to Clermont Auvergne in their quarter-final this afternoon.
A series of penalties from Brock James gave Clermont a 9-3 advantage at the break in front of a raucous away contingent. Lee Byrne’s early second-half try put the game beyond Sarries as Clermont reached the last-four of the competition for the first time.
The defeat leaves Saracens to concentrate on their Premiership title defence but, after two disappointing setbacks in a row, they will have to lift their spirits and form quickly if they are to retain their domestic championship.
Sarries made three changes from the team which was beaten at Wembley by Harlequins last weekend. Brad Barritt returned to the backline, after being given a rest in the last match, in place of James Short.
Richard Wigglesworth made his first start since October, after recovering from his serious knee injury, with Neil de Kock moving on to the bench. Prop Rhys Gill was also brought back into the front row in place of Carlos Nieto.
There was a terrific atmosphere at Vicarage Road, with more than 2,000 supporters travelling from France, as the last-eight clash got underway.
The Men in Black conceded the first penalty after six minutes and replacement fly-half Brock James, on for the injured David Skrela, kicked the visitors in front.
The Premiership champions were penalised for bringing down a scrum and James punished them by extending Clermont’s lead.
Saracens’ problems continued to add up as they gave away another penalty on the halfway line and James’ long-range kick made it 9-0 after just 13 minutes.
But the hosts were handed an immediate reprieve as they were awarded a penalty and England star Owen Farrell got them off the mark with a confident strike.
The French giants had made an impressive start to the match and their early dominance was again rewarded with a fourth penalty. But for the first time in the contest James missed his attempt.
Against the run of play, Sarries were given another chance to get three more points but Farrell’s kick was wide of the target.
Mark McCall’s side were penalised for taking out the opposition in the lineout but James could not quite direct the kick, from his own half, between the posts.
The hosts started the second half still only six points behind but a Clermont try four minutes after the restart gave them a mountain to climb.
A fine attack from the French outfit saw Aurelien Rougerie release Morgan Parra and he passed to full-back Lee Byrne for the finish in the corner. James’ conversion gave the visitors a commanding 16-3 lead.
It got even worse for Saracens minutes later when James booted over a drop goal with the match looking all but over with half an hour remaining.
The Clermont supporters were turning this into a ‘home’ game with their passionate support from the stands and their side rewarded them with another three points after a penalty from James.
The Men in Black were lacking in inspiration and their best efforts to try and get back in the match did not cause Clermont enough problems.
Late pressure from the hosts saw them push for a consolation try but outstanding defence from Clermont denied them as their European hopes came to a disappointing end.
Saracens: Goode, Strettle, Farrell (Short, 57), Barritt, Wyles (Barritt, 66), Hodgson, Wigglesworth (De Kock, 57); Gill (Vunipola, 65), Brits, Stevens (Nieto, 69), Borthwick, Botha (Kruis, 57), Melck (Wray, 50), Fraser (George, 66), Joubert
Clermont Auvergne: Byrne, Sivivatu, Rougerie, Fofana, Malzieu, Skrela (James, 3), Parra; Faure, Kayser, Zirakashvili, Cudmore, Hines, Bonnaire, Lapandry, Vermeulen
Scoring: 0-3, 0-6, 0-9, 3-9, 3-14, 3-16, 3-19, 3-22
Referee: Alain Rolland