The Ospreys left France with two points after an incredible afternoon of high drama at Stade Marcel Michelin.
On the region’s third visit to the stadium they showed enormous character and spirit to stick at the task, running in four tries, including two in the final two minutes, to not only secure the try bonus but also a losing bonus for finishing within seven of last season’s Champions Cup runners-up, the first time that they have left the Massif Central with anything to show for their efforts.
The visitors trailed by 17 points at the break but tries from Justin Tipuric and Eli Walker early in the second half brought them back to within three points.
However, the French giants once again put daylight between the sides, securing their own try bonus in the closing minutes, before a stunning late rally saw the Ospreys touch down twice late on despite being a man short following a yellow card for Sam Davies, Sam Parry and Tom Habberfield providing a dramatic finale as the Ospreys finished in style.
The size of the challenge facing the Ospreys pre-match was clear. Clermont had won their last 23 home games in the competition and between 2009 and 2014 were unbeaten at home in all competitions, a run that lasted for 77 matches in total.
Pre-match, players officials and supporters were as one to pay an emotional tribute to the victims of the Paris attacks nine days ago, a minute of silence followed by a stirring rendition of Le Marseillaise.
Inevitably, the atmosphere was red hot as Camille Lopez got the game underway on a cold but bright afternoon in the Massif Central, the home support making their presence felt at one of European rugby’s true fortresses.
The opening 10 minutes were played out mainly between the 22s, neither side really stamping their authority on the contest, although the Ospreys were handed an early sight of the posts only to opt to go to the corner instead, setting the pattern for the afternoon in terms of going for tries not three points but, on this occasion, failing to create anything from the resulting lineout.
With 12 minute gone a scrum penalty to the visitors led to a similar decision, Biggar putting the ball in the corner and this time the line out saw the Ospreys work a positive move, Dmitri Arhip going for the line only to be held up just short. After it was referred upstairs, the TMO confirmed a yellow for Clermont’s’ Alexandre Lapandry for tackling Arhip without the ball, but the seemingly inevitable penalty try didn’t follow, the decision simply a penalty as the TMO ruled that there was cover that would have prevented a certain try.
The Ospreys opted for the scrum only to lose possession, allowing Clermont to clear from behind their own line.
However, back came the visitors and after a spell of concerted pressure, pick and drive after pick and drive taking them back into the 22, Biggar slotted over a neat drop goal to edge his team ahead in the 16th minute.
Unfortunately the home team were level just a minute later, Lopez with the penalty after Biggar took out a Clermont player in the air attempting to collect his own kick.
The majority of the 10 minute sin bin period was played between halfway but Clermont stormed into the lead on 25 minutes.
It was England wing David Strettle who scythed through the Ospreys defence to score after the visitors ran Brendon Leonard’s clearing kick back from inside their own half. Lopez was successful with the conversion and the home team led 10-3.
As Clermont looked to turn the screw, a penalty for a high tackle then allowed them to put the ball deep inside Ospreys territory but they were unable to make the pressure count, a timely Tipuric tackle in the corner on Strettle saving the day, before a penalty to the Ospreys at the resulting scrum resulted in Biggar taking his team back upfield.
However, they found themselves back under the sticks just a couple of minutes later after Clermont’s second try of the afternoon.
It stemmed from a poor kick chase, the home team running the ball back with ease. They took it close to the line, Benjamin Kayser being pulled down before it was recycled, and a huge gap eventually opened up for Aurelien Rougerie to take full advantage of a deft final pass from Lopez. Again Lopez added the extras and with five minutes until the break the Ospreys trailed by 14 points.
With time up in the first half a high tackle by Tipuric on the 10m line gave Lopez another kick at goal and he made no mistake with his fourth successful kick of the afternoon.
HALF-TIME: CLERMONT AUVERGNE 20 OSPREYS 3
The Ospreys needed a positive start to the second half and they almost grabbed a try within three minutes of the restart.
It was Biggar’s up and under that put them in the danger zone, Jonathan Spratt and Alun Wyn Jones carried well, before Arhip stretched at full length in an attempt to ground the ball on the line.
Cruelly denied in the first half, this one was referred upstairs again and this time the TMO confirmed he was inches away from the five points.
The resulting scrum gave the Ospreys a solid platform from which to attack and they probed left then right, Hanno Dirksen on for Josh Matavesi carrying well, before Eli Walker got turned over close to the line, allowing Clermont to clear.
It was all Ospreys after a riproaring start to the second half and another penalty allowed them to go to the corner again. After Clermont illegally halted the first attempted drive, there was no stopping the second go, Tipuric grounding and Biggar converting.
Just a minute later the Stade Marcel Michelin crowd was silenced as the Ospreys grabbed a second try.
It was started and finished by Walker, the winger collecting a loose ball just inside his own half before chipping forward for Tipuric. The flanker was well placed to kick the ball ahead into the wide open space and although Fritz Lee’s outstretched foot illegally halted his attempted chase it was Walker himself who won the race with Noa Nakaitaci out wide for a score confirmed by the TMO.
Biggar’s conversion brought the Ospreys back to within three points and they kept the pressure on Clermont with aggressive defence that was forcing the home team into uncharacteristic errors, the edginess transferring to the crowd as the hour approached.
Having weathered the storm though back came Clermont and they really should have stretched their lead in the 65th minute, the Ospreys doing a great job to bring down an attempted line out drive only for an up and under from Brock James to land perfectly for Wesey Fofana just three metres from line, the French international somehow contriving to knock on with no defender within touching distance of him.
The third Clermont try did come just a couple of minutes later, Strettle eventually grabbing his second, collecting a loose pass close to the touchline and arcing his way in past two tackles to go under the posts. Morgan Parra’s conversion meant Clermont led by 10.
Inside last 10 minutes the Ospreys were reduced to 14 when Sam Davies was yellow carded for interfering with Strettle as he chased his own kick through for the line. Accordingly, the home team looked to turn the screw and thought they’d got the bonus try when Cudmore crashed over from close range only for the TMO to rule no try for an obstruction in the build-up.
It was only a temporary respite though as the inevitable bonus point came Clermont’s way when Fofana collected a James cross kick in acres of space on the right for his team’s fourth try, Parra’s second conversion putting Clermont 34-17 ahead inside the last five minutes.
There can be no questions about the character and attitude of this Ospreys team though as an incredible rally at the death saw them do what very few teams do at Stade Marcel Michelin, and leave with two points in the bag.
Try number three came with just two minutes to go, a quick tap and go penalty on halfway putting the Ospreys on the front foot. It was Tipuric and Ryan Bevington who made huge ground up the right, allowing the supporting Sam Parry to go over for try number three, his first in the Champions Cup. With just 30 seconds on the clock Dan Biggar took a quick drop goal, which missed the target, to ensure there would be time for a restart. allowing the Ospreys to look for one final attack.
What followed was absolutely astonishing as, with time up, the Ospreys regained possession from the kick-off close to their own line and, after some great interplay involving Biggar, James King and Hanno Dirksen took them to have halfway replacement scrum half, Tom Habberfield, then raced away from the Clermont defence to score a fourth try that secured two bonus points, also his debut try in the competition.
Biggar added the extras to bring a wonderful spectacle to an end, and there were fantastic scenes at the whistle as the Ospreys players and supporters enjoyed the moment together, with the home supporters staying behind to show their approval of the visitors’ effort.
Next up for the Ospreys in Europe is a back to back test against Bordeaux Begles, the Liberty Stadium playing host to the first leg on Saturday 12th December, while next weekend they welcome Cardiff Blues to Ospreylia in the PRO12.