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McCall lauds side after narrow exit

Saracens boss Mark McCall showered praise on his players after they went toe to toe with French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne before bowing out of this season's European Champions Cup.

Saracens delivered a brave and battling display at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard as English representation in this season's competition came to an agonising end.

France star Wesley Fofana scored the game's solitary try just after half-time as Clermont prevailed 13-9 to reach their second European final in three seasons.

Defending champions Toulon or Irish challengers Leinster await them at Twickenham next month - they clash in Marseille on Sunday - but Saracens were left to reflect on what might have been following a performance packed with courage and intent.

"I thought the effort and many, many aspects of the performance were phenomenal," rugby director McCall said.

"We made Clermont play a game that they didn't really want to play.

"The game was on a knife-edge all the way through. We made maybe a few too many errors at crucial times, but in terms of the big things that we judge ourselves on, we were magnificent.

"In the starting pack, there were five players who were 24 and under, which is unbelievably young for a competition like this, but all of them are ready. They showed that today.

"They are five young English players, and hopefully they are going to be the mainstay of our club for years to come.

"The energy of the team and how we hunted them down, it was just one of those big titanic games. That young pack of forwards is going to get better and better after experiences like this."

Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell each kicked penalties, while Hodgson also dropped a goal, but Clermont triumphed in front of a capacity 41,000 crowd through Fofana's sweet finish, plus a Brock James conversion and two penalties.

Clermont did not remotely have things their own way, though, having arrived in the semi-finals following a 37-5 rout of reigning Aviva Premiership champions Northampton a fortnight ago.

McCall added: "With 10 minutes to go, it was anybody's game. We needed some field position, and we didn't quite get that in the last 10 minutes.

"It was the most amazing atmosphere I think I have ever experienced in international or club rugby.

"Clermont are a club I have huge admiration for because of their ability to bounce back. They keep coming back for more. They have a pretty special group of players, and their public are amazing.

"If anybody deserves to win this trophy, it would be them."

Saracens skipper Brad Barritt said: "We will look back in terms of the opportunities we had in their half from set-pieces where we weren't quite up to it in terms of getting the ball out and having a go.

"There were a few chances we probably left out there.

"In big games like this, it is about small margins. Often, it is the team that takes that small chance which comes out the victor.

"Today was a pretty special atmosphere. As far as club rugby goes, I haven't experienced anything like that, and I think it raised us and gave us an extra boost.

"To play in games like these, it brings out the best in competitors, and I am thoroughly proud of how the Saracens team stuck to their guns and kept pushing for the full 80 minutes."

Saracens will now switch their attention to domestic matters and securing a Premiership play-off place, and there can be no let-up, with Northampton awaiting them next weekend.

"The mark of this group is that I don't think it is going to deter us from our goal of winning something," Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth said.

"We've come away to France and nearly done the job on a very good Clermont team.

"The boys will be disappointed, but we have got to take a lot out of that.

"If we play with that intensity and fix a few little things, I think we are going to be hard to stop."

It was not pretty, and there was little gilt-edged attacking rugby on show from either team, yet it proved to be absorbing, attritional battle that ultimately went Clermont's way.

"Saracens are a very pragmatic and efficient team," Clermont head coach Franck Azema said.

"I was impressed by our collective maturity against a robust team that tries to put pressure on the opposition.

"The atmosphere was very emotional, and of course, we wanted to take full advantage of that."


From Belfast Telegraph