The Ospreys were second best this afternoon as Clermont Auvergne recorded an impressive victory to take control of Pool 3 on the penultimate weekend of the Heineken Cup Pool stages.
An impressive opening from the men in black saw them take the lead and ask questions of the home defence early on, but ultimately, they fell short against the T14 leaders.
The crowd was whipped into a frenzy pre-match, with drummers on the pitch, a lively PA announcer, and yellow and blue banners left on every seat for supporters to show their colours ahead of kick-off all helping to create a wonderful atmosphere at the Stade Marcel Michelin.
On the field, there was little sign of the snow that had covered the playing surface right into the middle of this week, the thaw leaving a pitch that was soft underfoot and with weather conditions suitable for a great afternoon of rugby.
The Ospreys came out determined to show that they would not be overawed by the occasion, and twice in the opening two minutes they spread the ball wide from the lineout, creating gaps in the opposition midfield, only for the ball to be knocked forward as they went for the jugular on both occasions.
However, the home side showed that they too were up for the battle, Napolioni Nalaga winning a footrace with Ryan Jones in pursuit of a Brock James kick through from halfway, only for the winger to fail to ground properly, the TMO ruling out the try, much to the annoyance of the French supporters.
After a frenetic opening, the Ospreys stunned the home fans into silence, albeit only momentarily, by snatching the lead in the 8th minute through a well worked Tommy Bowe try. Ricky Januarie worked the ball to Dan Biggar in midfield, his miss pass found Sonny Parker, who in turn fed Lee Byrne coming into the line. Clever angles from Bowe allowed the winger to cut through the Clermont defence and score, Biggar converting.
Januarie almost grabbed a second try just minutes later, doing great work to steal the ball off Nalaga close to his own try line, only for Seremaia Bai to force a knock-on in the tackle as the Springbok scrum-half crossed the line. Brock James got Clermont on the scoreboard in the 16th minute after Byrne was penalised for not releasing the ball after the tackle.
It was proving to be an absorbing spectacle, and the Ospreys were grateful to a last ditch Byrne tackle in the shadow of the posts after Brock James managed to find a way through the heart of the midfield following a lineout near halfway, the ball being knocked forward in the tackle. However, the visitors were then penalised in the resulting scrum, James making no mistake with an easy penalty to make it 7-6 to the Ospreys with 24 minutes gone.
The home side had their tails up and were enjoying their best spell of the game, with the Ospreys forced to absorb considerable pressure. They would have breathed a huge sigh of relief just after the half hour mark when Brock James struck the left upright with what appeared to be a relatively easy penalty after Jerry Collins was pulled up for a high tackle.
He made no mistake a couple of minutes later though, successfully slotting over from the 10 metre line after referee Dave Pearson pinged a number of Ospreys forwards for going off their feet, handing Clermont Auvergne the lead for the first time. With the interval approaching the French side were on top, and James extended the lead just seconds before the whistle with an opportunistic drop goal to send his side in at the break with a five-point lead.
HALF TIME: ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE 12 OSPREYS 7
Indiscipline had proven costly during the first period, and it was the same at the start of the second half, although on this occasion Clermont failed to take advantage, Brock James pushing his long range penalty to the right of the posts after an overthrown defensive lineout had put the Ospreys under unnecessary pressure.
Some intuitive counter attacking rugby led by Byrne who broke from his own 22 took the Ospreys deep into opposition territory, only for Hibbard to find himself isolated, allowing the home side to turnover and clear their lines. Biggar then had a chance to pull his side to within two points following an offence in the scrum, but his effort drifted to the right of the sticks.
It was nip and tuck stuff, with neither side able to take control, although the Ospreys once again were grateful to see the ball come back off the post, James’ long range effort from halfway after Holah had strayed offside just failing.
The home fans were celebrating as the clock passed the hour mark though, Byrne failing to gather a hopeful up and under from Clermont's influential fly half, allowing Julien Malzieu to race over in the corner. James once again failed with his boot, leaving it 17-7 with 19 minutes remaining.
The raucous home support were doing their best to drive their team on, and with on pitch communication difficult, another Ospreys lineout in their own 22 failed to find it’s target and it was only a big defensive effort that kept their line intact on this occasion.
Huw Bennett and James Hook were introduced to the fray in place of Hibbard and Parker as the Ospreys look to find a way back into the game, but there was no let-up in the pressure they found themselves under. Mr Pearson’s patience finally wore thin, and with eleven minutes to go Adam Jones was sent to the sin-bin following an offence at the ruck, with James adding three points to make it 20-7.
Nikki Walker made way for Cai Griffiths to come on as a front row replacement for Jones, before Filo Tiatia entered the action in place of Collins. With time running out, the Ospreys were forced into chasing the game, and as they threw the ball about looking for gaps, they were caught out when a stray pass was intercepted, allowing the home side to break at pace, Nalaga touching down under the posts. James’ conversion rounded off a disappointing afternoon for the Ospreys, who now face a do-or-die clash with Leicester Tigers at the Liberty Stadium next Saturday afternoon.