Clermont 36-16 La Rochelle: All-Top 14 final sees Clermont seal Challenge Cup
By Michael Cantillon at St James' Park
Last Updated: 11/05/19 1:03am
Tries from Damian Penaud, Fritz Lee and Wesley Fofana ensured Clermont picked up European silverware for the first time in 12 years as they beat Top 14 rivals La Rochelle 36-16 at a chilly St James' Park in Newcastle on Friday evening.
Contesting the first all-French Challenge Cup final for seven years, Clermont won out in an ultra-physical encounter to arrest a run of three consecutive European final defeats (2013, 2015 and 2017).
La Rochelle - featuring in the first European final of their club history - played some wonderful attacking rugby but struggled to live with Clermont at the set-piece.
The boot of Ihaia West and a try from tighthead prop Uini Atonio brought La Rochelle's points, while Greig Laidlaw kicked 12 points from penalties - and Morgan Parra three - in addition to Clermont's three converted tries.
The final was the first of the weekend's European encounters to be staged at St James' Park, with Saracens facing Leinster in the Champions Cup final at the same venue on Saturday (5pm kick off).
Clermont settled by far the quicker of the two teams and had two clear openings inside the first five minutes: Isaiah Toeava's offload to George Moala falling behind the centre's path with the tryline in sight, before wing Penaud knocked on in the act of attempting to ground the ball having collected a sumptuous Camille Lopez cross-field kick.
Parra, Clermont's captain, did kick the opening points of the final when he slotted a penalty over from around 30 metres out after 13 minutes with La Rochelle prop Atonio penalised for failing to roll away.
Clermont lock Sitaleki Timani knocked on five metres from the tryline soon after La Rochelle's first attack, but play was brought back for a penalty, allowing Parra's replacement - the skipper exiting with a gruesome-looking knee injury - Laidlaw to double Clermont's lead from close range.
West kicked La Rochelle's first points of the final on 25 minutes when Clermont flanker Alexandre Lapandry was caught offside, but the first try of the day would go Clermont's way.
Having kicked to the corner after earning a scrum penalty against the head, Clermont dragged the La Rochelle defence across the pitch in a series of phases before several close-range drives down the right sucked Jono Gibbes' side narrow.
From there, Clermont sprung the ball wide where Penaud had swapped over from the opposite wing to dart round West and inside Arthur Retiere to dot down. Laidlaw's superb conversion gave Clermont a 10 point lead.
West cut the lead to 13-6 when he split the uprights from a central position off the tee with Lapandre penalised for a high tackle on loosehead Dany Priso, before centre Pierre Aguillon came within inches of La Rochelle's first try in the closing stages of the first period: Penaud called upon to make a try-saving tackle in the corner.
West hit the post with a penalty minutes into the second half, but did cut the Clermont lead to 13-9 when he punished blindside Arthur Iturria's breakdown indiscretion off the tee on 48 minutes.
Laidlaw added three more points to the Clermont lead two minutes later though when wing Alivereti Raka was taken out without the ball, restoring their advantage to seven points.
The Scotland international scrum-half stretched that lead to 10 points on 57 minutes with La Rochelle penalised for failing to roll away, and moments later Clermont had their second try of the evening.
When No 8 Lee won a breakdown penalty in midfield, Lopez found the La Rochelle 22 with a kick to touch. Clermont then produced a devastating rolling maul which proved unstoppable from over 20 metres out - Lee the man to dive over and ground the ball.
When Laidlaw curled over the conversion from wide out, the lead was a seemingly insurmountable 26-9.
La Rochelle hit back almost immediately, however, when prop Atonio barrelled over from close range after flanker Kevin Gourdon had made an incisive break inside the Clermont 22 and just been stopped short.
Replacement Levani Botia was tackled into touch with 13 minutes left as La Rochelle started to come forward in waves, but a collapsed maul from the resulting lineout in the Clermont 22 gave the men from the Auvergne some respite.
Clermont's driving maul paid great dividends, as two more dominant efforts in succession earned penalties - the second of which allowed Lopez to kick ahead on advantage for the chasing Fofana, who caught up with the ball to dive over and kill the contest.
Wing Raka was sin-binned for cynically tapping the ball down with La Rochelle on the break inside the final five minutes, but it proved immaterial as La Rochelle failed to score, while Laidlaw soon added three more points off the tee to cue celebrations.