Strettle: 'Beating Saracens a hell of a job'

Clermont winger David Strettle admits that taking down his old club will take 'a hell of a job' ahead of the Champions Cup Final.

Strettle, who left Saracens after winning the Premiership title in 2015, scored early on for Clermont as they got the better of Leinster to advance to yet another Champions Cup final, with the club yet to lift the title.

Saracens put Munster away in an impressive fashion on Saturday to book their spot in this season's final, with Strettle fully aware of the threat they pose.

And the Clermont wing admitted the despite his team's good start, they were always prepared for a response from Leinster which duly came in the second half having been ahead 15-3.

"I'm knackered, that was a tough game. We knew Leinster wouldn't give up," Strettle said.

"We said we had to start well in front of this remarkable crowd and we did that, but we knew they would have a purple patch and they did.

"In Camille we have got a player who can control the game. Now we have to go and do it all over again in the final.

"You can see how good a team Saracens are - it is going to take a hell of a job to beat them."

Sexton rues Clermont headstart

Leinster number ten Jonathan Sexton was left regretting the fact that Clermont opened up a 15-0 lead in their Champions Cup semi-final.

Les Jaunards went on to win 27-22 to make their third final in five years, with the Top 14 giants still in search of a first title.

Scores from Peceli Yato and David Strettle put Clermont in control, and veteran fly-half Sexton admitted that early advantage proved to be of huge importance.

"We still felt we could have won it at half-time. In the first half we made a lot of errors and gave them some scores that we needed to make them work harder for in matches like this," admitted Sexton.

"We gave them a head start, 15 points, and you can't do that in a semi-final. We are gutted, we gave everything and we'd trained so hard for this.

"But we were beaten by an impressive side, they have been impressive all year, and we have to take our hats off and say we weren't good enough. We have to go again, and we'll be stronger.

"We've got a young squad and only a couple of old heads left like Isa and me. We don't have many more days left and we've got to urge these young players to not think that they've got loads of chances at it - you have got to take every one like it's your last one

"It's a new feeling for us losing in a European semi-final - I've never felt that before and it is a hard thing to take. We were one step away from a final against the best team in Europe."

Sexton also recognised the performance of his opposite man Camille Lopez, who landed two late drop goals to put daylight between the two sides.

"Two drop goals in the heat of the moment. I was questioning the last one because if we had charged it down we could have gone the whole way, but fair play to him, he had a good game," said Sexton.

"All the neutrals will want Clermont to finally go and do it. I said to them afterwards that hopefully it is there time."

Clermont survive Leinster fightback

Clermont will face Saracens in this year's Champions Cup final after they held off a second-half comeback from Leinster, winning 27-22.

The path to the Champions Cup final was always going to be a tricky one to manoeuvre for Leinster. And within 15 minutes, it looked like it was impossible. Peceli Yato and David Strettle helped Clermont to a 15-3 at the break, having scored two tries in the opening quarter of an hour.

Leinster improved though and Johnny Sexton’s four penalties had the visitors within three points midway inside the second half. Clermont kept a sizeable gap until Garry Ringrose went through in a superb solo effort. But despite late pressure, Clermont booked their spot in the final with a 27-22 win.

Saracens' 26-10 victory against Munster ensured they were the first side to book their spot, and Clermont’s opening quarter of an hour almost guaranteed they would follow. Having won in the last two meetings between the sides, the French side went ahead within five minutes thanks to Yato. Strettle chipped possession over the top of Isa Nacewa, and Yato made his way onto the ball, with Morgan Parra adding two.

On his 50th Leinster appearance, things weren't going well for Nacewa and he found himself sin-binned soon after the try for a pull on Strettle that was spotted by Owens and the cameras. That produced a penalty that Parra slotted through to make it 10-0, and the lead increased in a dominant opening 20 minute spell that blew Leinster away.

Strettle was causing all sorts of problems and with Nacewa off the pitch, he eased to the second try. Beating Dan Leavy and Joey Carbery on the way in, the ex-England man steaming his way over. Parra missed the two but a 15 point gap was menacing to say the least.

But Leinster calmed the storm and slowly began to push themselves upfield, with Strettle on hand to stop a promising break from Carbery. Parra missed a chance to increase the lead as he skewed a penalty wide of the posts and just before half-time, Sexton got Leinster onto the board with the final action of the half.

The other side of half-time saw Sexton reduce the lead down to nine and after a lightning start, Clermont’s advantage was disappearing. Another three from Sexton was followed by a fourth, and Leinster had truly brought the tie right back to life as they turned the tide in their favour.

The visitors thought they'd turned it right around as Leavy went over but celebrations were short lived after the TMO spotted an infringement in the build up, and play was brought back to allow Parra to get the lead back to six from a penalty. And that seemed to spark something inside Clermont who started to get things back into their own favour as time began to wear on. Camille Lopez added a drop goal to restore the gap to nine.

But Leinster were back, and in some way. Ringrose did it all by himself, with pace, power and everything else that could be done to sidestep two and dummy another. Sexton converted and the gap was all the way down to two. But it started to run away from Sexton and co, with Lopez’s penalty putting it back to five. And another drop goal finished it off, with Sexton’s late penalty not enough.

The scorers:

For Clermont:
Tries: Yato, Strettle
Con: Parra
Pens: Parra 2, Lopez
Drop Goals: Lopez 2

For Leinster:
Try: Ringrose
Con: Sexton
Pens: Sexton 5
Yellow Card: Nacewa

Clermont: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 David Strettle, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Remi Lamerat, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Peceli Yato, 6 Damien Chouly, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Raphael Chaume
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 22 Pato Fernandez, 23 Damien Penaud

Leinster: 15 Joey Carbery, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Isa Nacewa (c), 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Seán Cronin, 17 Peter Dooley, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Ross Molony, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Zane Kirchner

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Ian Davies (Wales)
TMO: Jonathan Mason (Wales)

Parisse delighted for supporters

Stade Français captain Sergio Parisse was delighted after his side booked their place in the Challenge Cup final at the expense of Bath.

The 28-25 victory was a nervy affair as George Ford's missed penalty at the death meant the Paris outfit would be heading to Murrayfield.

After the game Parisse struggled to hide his emotions after a difficult season for Stade Français, whose hero was fly-half Jules Plisson.

"We knew it was a semi-final and this is great for the supporters. It was a great rugby match and Bath played until the end. I'm proud of the boys," he told EPC Rugby after the game at Stade Jean-Bouin on Sunday.

"It's been a tough season for us in the Top 14, but we're back up and now and we're happy to be going to Edinburgh. We play rugby for moments like this."

The final on Friday, May 12 will see Stade Français face Gloucester and Parisse cannot wait for his fans to enjoy their day in Edinburgh.

"Our supporters have always been behind the team, even though it's been a tough couple of weeks. It was difficult around the team and the environment was tough," he added.

"But the boys stayed close and the fans have been awesome. Hopefully they will be in Scotland to support us in the final."

Plisson drop goal knocks out Bath

A last-minute drop goal from Jules Plisson saw Stade Français beat Bath 28-25 in Sunday's Challenge Cup semi-final at Stade Jean-Bouin.

Geoffrey Doumayrou put Stade Français ahead early on as the hosts went in 11-6 to the good. Plisson extended the lead after the break with a second try, though Semesa Rokoduguni cut the lead with Bath’s first try.

Late tries from Robbie Fruean and Elliott Stooke looked to have swung the game in the hosts favour, only for a Hugh Pyle try to be followed by Plisson’s late drop goal for a 28-25 win.

With a spot in the Challenge Cup final up for grabs against Gloucester, it was the hosts who went in front early on thanks to Plisson’s penalty inside five minutes. Bath recovered well with Jonathan Joseph going close to the line, and a resultant penalty from George Ford levelled the sides up. 

But the opening try went in favour of the Parisians. Doumayrou found space in the right hand corner and snuck inside the corner, though the conversion missed the target as Stade took a five point lead. He did extend the lead soon after though, a penalty from Bath’s 10 metre line putting his side firmly into the ascendancy. The visitors were holding their own and began to spend significant spells metres from the Stade try line, but despite a series of scrums they found themselves unable to get through.

Ford was on hand again though before the break to cut the gap back to five, sending a penalty through having previously missed a drop goal attempt. And Bath had Matt Banahan to thank for saving them from going further behind. He was on hand to deny a certain try with four minutes of the half left, cutting Hugo Bonneval’s path to the line as Stade took an 11-6 lead into half time.

But out the other side of the half, Stade Français did extend the lead with a second try. Coming 10 minutes into the half, Plisson went over after he was found by Will Genia. And he converted his own effort to make the lead 12. Bath continued to push though and that man Rokoduguni found himself over the line. Ford’s extras made the lead five, ensuring a frantic final 20. 

And with 11 on the clock, Fruean made it 18 all. From a line-out outside the 22, the replacement charged his way over, and Ford’s miss from the conversion made it deadlocked with time running down. But Bath smelt blood and turned the game right around with a third try from Stooke. Ford converted but there was a late twist to be had. 

Pyle found space on the left wing to sneak through with three minutes remaining, a Plisson making it 25 apiece. With 20 seconds left on the clock he went one better with a drop goal to seemingly break Bath hearts. But a last minute penalty chance for Ford threatened to cut the celebrations, only for his effort to miss the sticks and end their European dreams.

The scorers:

For Stade Français:
Tries: Doumayrou, Plisson, Pyle
Cons: Plisson 2
Pens: Plisson 2
Drop Goal: Plisson

For Bath:
Tries: Rokoduguni, Fruean, Stooke
Cons: Ford 2
Pens: Ford 2

Stade Français: 15 Hugo Bonneval, 14 Waisea Vuidarvuwalu, 13 Geoffrey Doumayrou, 12 Jonathan Danty, 11 Djibril Camara, 10 Jules Plisson, 9 Will Genia, 8 Sergio Parisse (c), 7 Sylvain Nicolas, 6 Antoine Burban, 5 Paul Gabrillagues, 4 Hugh Pyle, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Laurent Panis, 1 Zurabi Zhvania
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden, 17 Heinke Van der Merwe, 18 Paul Alo Emile, 19 Pascal Papé, 20 Jonathan Ross, 21 Julien Dupuy, 22 Morné Steyn, 23 Julien Arias

Bath: 15 Anthony Watson, 14 Semesa Rokoduguni, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Matt Banahan, 10 George Ford, 9 Kahn Fotuali’i, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Francois Louw (c), 6 Tom Ellis, 5 David Attwood, 4 Luke Charteris, 3 Kane Palma Newport, 2 Ross Batty, 1 Nathan Catt
Replacements: 16 Nathan Charles, 17 Beno Obano, 18 Shaun Knight, 19 Elliott Stooke, 20 Matt Garvey, 21 Chris Cook, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Robbie Fruean

Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Marius Mitrea (Italy), Sean Gallagher (Ireland)
TMO: Simon McDowell (Ireland)

Stormers call duo to New Zealand

Lock JD Schickerling and back-row Kobus van Dyk will join the Stormers in New Zealand as injury cover after their loss to the Crusaders.

Both Dan du Plessis and Cobus Wiese are on their way home due to shoulder injuries sustained in Christchurch and will be surgically assessed in Cape Town.

The other casualty from Christchurch is lock Chris van Zyl who has been ruled out for a week with concussion.

Schickerling and Van Dyk, who both made their Super Rugby debut for the Stormers in 2016, will join the team in Dunedin where they are preparing for their clash with the Highlanders on Friday.

Schickerling is returning from a minor ankle injury, whilst Van Dyk has starred for Maties in the Varsity Cup this year.

Kitakyushu Sevens glory for New Zealand

New Zealand increased their lead at the top of the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series table to 10 points after winning the Kitakyushu Sevens.

After an enthralling 17-14 victory over Canada in the final of the inaugural HSBC Kitakyushu event in Japan on Sunday, the Black Ferns Sevens won.

New Zealand twice had to come from behind in the title decider and only hit the front when Michaela Blyde went over in the right corner with time up on the clock, sparking wild celebrations on the New Zealand bench.

In only their third meeting in a Cup final – and first since Atlanta in 2014 – it was Canada who went into the final arguably as favourites having enjoyed record wins over both Russia and Australia en route, scoring 74 points and conceding none.

Canada thought they had opened the scoring through Jennifer Kish, but she lost control of the ball as she went over the line following a tackle from Blyde. However, it wasn't long before Hannah Darling raced away and, despite being tap-tackled by Portia Woodman, managed to touch down for a 7-0 lead.

A moment of magic from Niall Williams, where she scooped up a pass from Canada captain Ghislaine Landry and ran in under the posts, ensured the teams went into half-time locked at 7-7 after Tyla Nathan-Wong's conversion. Kish then edged Canada ahead once more, but only briefly as the HSBC Player of the Final Woodman charged the length of the pitch to score her seventh try of the tournament.

Nathan-Wong failed to add the conversion from out wide and so New Zealand had to score again if they were to win a third title of the season after their victories in Dubai and Las Vegas. Fortunately for them, Kish fumbled the restart and the Black Ferns Sevens kept their composure before working the ball out for this season's top try-scorer Blyde to find a way over in the corner.

"It was close, Canada are an awesome team," admitted New Zealand captain Sarah Goss. "The way the girls showed so much fight I am just really proud to have such an awesome group of girls around me. We train like that, we train when we’re down and know as long as there are minutes on the clock we know we have the X-factor to pull out winners like that."

Coach Allan Bunting added: "We definitely saved the best until last in this tournament. We played with a lot of heart and character and you can't ask for much more, it was outstanding and I am really stoked for the girls and very proud. For us it was about playing longer and stronger, Canada are a really clinical team, they have been pretty consistent over the last few years so you have to play long and play well. I had no doubt, I knew the ladies were going to play right to the end so until that final whistle went there was a chance."

Olympic champions Australia also needed a late try to beat Fijiana 19-17 in the battle for the bronze medal, denying the Pacific islanders their best-ever finish on the series. Ireland, meanwhile, beat Spain 26-7 to win the Challenge Trophy.

The fifth and penultimate round of the 2016-17 series takes place in Langford, Canada, on 27-28 May.

Humphreys lauds Gloucester effort

Gloucester director of rugby David Humphreys said his side's effort in victory over La Rochelle was "unbelievable" as they won in France.

Victory saw the Cherry and Whites progress into the Challenge Cup final as Billy Burns' crossing proved crucial against the Top 14 leaders.

"The effort out there was unbelievable," Humphreys said after the win.

"I’m delighted for everyone at the club and at long last we got a bit of luck and turned one of those tight games our way. So much of what we planned today came off. The first 40 and 50 minutes were great but then the last 30 minutes were about guts, determination and character.

"To defend the way they did against what is a hugely physical team, talking to a couple of players it was one of the hardest games they have played in. I’m absolutely thrilled for everyone at the club to have won and reached a European final."

Burns scored all of Gloucester's points but the team effort was commendable from the English side, with Humphreys adding: "So many times we’ve talked about the small margins and we’ve talked about the small things not going in your favour and it’s almost felt like we’ve been making some excuses.

"Tonight we’ve got a lot of what we tried to do right and we had that bit that you can’t coach, we showed the spirit and the determination and the bench that came on closed the game out."

Preview: Clermont v Leinster

Left wing Isa Nacewa will win his 50th European cap for Leinster when they face Clermont in Sunday's Champions Cup semi-final on Sunday.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen has made an injury enforced change to his starting XV with Seán O’Brien ruled out with a tightness in his hamstring.

However, Cullen revealed that he will again be assessed next week ahead of the visit of Glasgow Warriors in the PRO12 to the RDS on Friday evening. The 30-year-old back row was named in the British & Irish Lions squad on Wednesday.

Otherwise it is a very similar XV that accounted for Wasps in the quarter-final three weeks ago.

Fergus McFadden comes into the side on the right wing for his 150th Leinster appearance. The winger scored a try an the Aviva Stadium after being introduced against Wasps. Joey Carbery is again selected in the full-back jersey.

In the centre Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose renew their partnership with Luke McGrath and Johnny Sexton in the half backs. Sexton reached the 1,200 point mark for Leinster against Wasps with his 12 points from the boot.

The front row is again the all Irish international trio of Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss and Tadhg Furlong.

In the second row, Devin Toner and Hayden Triggs continue their partnership.

Finally in the back row Rhys Ruddock comes in at blindside flanker, with Dan Leavy moving across to the openside and Jack Conan continuing at number eight.

On the bench there is a welcome return to European action for Seán Cronin, while Peter Dooley is in line to make his first European appearance of the season should he be introduced.

Meanwhile, Clermont head coach Franck Azema has rung the changes to his starting line-up after last weekend's Top 14 victory over Grenoble.

There are 10 changes in all including a positional switch in the backline where Nick Abendanon moves from full-back to the left wing where he replaces Adrien Planté.

The other changes in the backline see Scott Spedding wearing the number 15 jersey while Aurélien Rougerie and Remi Lamerat take over from Damian Penaud and Benson Stanley in midfield, Morgan Parra is preferred to Ludovic Radosavljevic at scrum-half.

In the forwards, Peceli Yato replaces Alexandre Lapandry on the openside flank while Arthur Iturria comes in for Paul Jedrasiak in the second row.

There is also a new front row with Davit Zirakashvili, Benjamin Kayser and Raphael Chaume starting while Aaron Jarvis, John Ulugia and Etienne Falgoux provide cover from the bench.

Form: This will be Leinster's ninth appearance in the semi-finals. Only Munster (12, including this season) and Toulouse (10) have reached the last four more often. This season's number one seeds from the pool stage, ASM Clermont Auvergne, are through to the semi-finals for the fifth time with their previous four games all coming since the beginning of 2011/12 (W2, L2). 

Sunday will be Leinster's 150th European Cup match as they become the third club after Toulouse and Munster to reach the milestone. The three-time champions have won 97, drawn five and lost 47 of their previous 149 games. This is the ninth meeting between the sides in Europe, and no club has faced Clermont more often than Leinster in the competition. Only Leicester Tigers (11) have played against the Irish province more often than the TOP 14 outfit. 

Clermont have won their last two matches against Leinster, this after losing five of the first six meetings. However, Leinster have won both knockout clashes between the two - the 2010 quarter-final at the RDS and the 2012 semi-final in Bordeaux. 

Leinster are unbeaten in their last five Champions Cup games (W4, D1); the last time they went on a longer such run was their record breaking 17 game unbeaten streak from 2010 to 2012 (W16, D1), during which they lifted the trophy twice. 

Leinster (37) and Clermont (34.3) have averaged more points per game in the competition this season than any other side. Leinster are the only side with a 100 percent scrum success rate on their own ball. 

Leinster captain, Isa Nacewa, has scored seven tries to date this season, at least two more than any other player, while Clermont's Camille Lopez has made the most try assists with seven. 

Sébastien Vahaamahina (80/88) has made more tackles than any other player in the competition this season, while teammate Rémi Lamerat has made the most of any back (64/75).

The teams:

Clermont: 15 Scott Spedding, 14 David Strettle, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Remi Lamerat, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Peceli Yato, 6 Damien Chouly, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Arthur Iturria, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Raphael Chaume 
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Etienne Falgoux, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Paul Jedrasiak, 20 Alexandre Lapandry, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic , 22 Pato Fernandez, 23 Damien Penaud

Leinster: 15 Joey Carbery , 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Isa Nacewa (c), 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Jack Conan 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Hayden Triggs, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Richardt Strauss, 1 Jack McGrath 
Replacements: 16 Seán Cronin, 17 Peter Dooley, 18 Michael Bent, 19 Ross Molony, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Zane Kirchner

Date: Sunday, April 23
Venue: Matmut Stadium de Gerland, Lyon
Kick-off: 15:00 local (14:00 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Ian Davies (Wales)
TMO: Jonathan Mason (Wales)

'I'm pretty hungry after that' - Vunipola

Saracens number eight Billy Vunipola revealed he had worked up an appetite after his side's impressive 26-10 victory over Munster.

Vunipola was part of a strong defensive effort as Saracens booked their place in the Champions Cup final at the expense of the Irish province.

After the game at Aviva Stadium, which saw his brother Mako and wing Chris Wyles cross, number eight Vunipola said he was ready for food.

"I'm pretty hungry after that! It's a great way to finish off a big week for some of the players and the group. Our past experiences of losing help us deal with games and occasions like this, being in situations we didn't know how to get of. We are not experts at it now but we're willing to fight," he told EPC Rugby.

"The boys have that fight in them intrinsically and that comes when you lose tight games together before. But it's also the relationships we have, it's an amazing group to be a part of. Everyone on the outside hates us but we don't care, if you come in, you will get so much love you won't want to leave."

Saracens are now just one match away from retaining the European crown and with their May 13 opponent yet to be decided, Vunipola doesn't care who they face at Murrayfield next month.

"Who we play is out of our control, we've got a big weekend ahead and we'll enjoy each other's company before we look at Bristol next week," he said.

"The game was just like life, it's like a rollercoaster. We knew we'd be under the cosh during periods of the game, we just had to get through it. We did magnificently well with a yellow card and stay ahead, and we knew when the game turned our way we had to take advantage, and we did."