Bristol’s director of rugby, Pat Lam, cursed Fiji for playing Semi Radradra for virtually the entire match against Georgia last week after he sustained a leg injury in the opening minutes. The reason for his anger was glaringly obvious here as Clermont controlled the midfield in defence and attack in securing a bonus point before half-time and finishing with seven tries.
After six weeks of unimaginative play in the international window, this was a refreshing contrast with both sides keeping the ball in hand and kicking only tactically or when under duress. French teams are typecast as bad travellers, but in the absence of supporters Clermont felt at home as they eased to a 21-0 lead after 15 minutes a day after Toulouse and Bordeaux-Begles had won on the road.
Two of the tries came from their ability to manoeuvre the ball to the wings as Bristol looked to cramp them and the other followed intense pressure put on the home side behind the gainline that forced Callum Sheedy to throw a flat pass that was claimed by Apisai Naqalevu on halfway and he only had to retain possession to score.
Without Radradra, Bristol were too easily bent out of shape, their defence manipulated by the half-backs Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez. They had an early warning when the centre George Moala took an outside arc and left John Afoa clutching air, but it went unheeded and after Damian Penaud came into the midfield in his own half, he freed Apisai Raka on the left and the wing timed his pass inside to Kotaro Matsushima.
Naqalevu’s try came after seven minutes and Bristol were still trying to find a way into the game, misfiring at the lineout and hurriedly putting kicks straight out of play, before Raka came infield from a scrum, took Bristol on the outside and gave Penaud the space to score on the right.
Bristol kept running and by the end of the half had worked out a way of drawing Clermont infield. They scored from a wheeled scrum after 20 minutes when Max Malins made to move on the outside before cutting back. Raka slipped and the full-back had an unopposed run to the line.
Clermont’s response was immediate. After Moala had picked up from a ruck and got over the gainline from a standing start, swift hands gave Naqalevu space to exploit and the outcome was Matsushima’s second try and the try bonus point in less than half-an-hour.
Bristol’s second try came from a driving maul and reduced the deficit to 12 points, a reasonable return given Clermont’s dominance but Lopez kicked a penalty just before the break and exchanged kicks with Callum Sheedy in the opening three minutes of the second period.
Then Bristol produced a try out of Clermont’s playbook, breaking from their own half and getting the ball to Henry Purdy on the left wing. He charged through Matsushima’s challenge and looked like reaching the line before being held up short. He threw the ball behind him where Harry Randall scooped up the ball.
The difference was now eight points and Clermont, who were missing the concussed Naqalevu, were for the first time looking vulnerable. It proved a chimera as two bursts from Moala sucked in defenders and when Morgan Parra floated a long, high pass to the right, Penaud took the ball above his head as the shorter Randall looked upwards.
The No 8 Fritz Lee ensured victory after another Raka raid on the left and Matsushima pocketed his hat-trick after Clermont again stormed the gainline and Lopez’s short, soft pass caught the defence drifting. Still Bristol kept coming and they finished a frolic with a bonus point when Malins created a try for Ioan Lloyd and Siale Piutau finished after a series of fumbles. They missed Radradra, but they needed even more.
Bristol are in Lam’s old haunt Connacht next weekend and he will be selecting his strongest available side, not yet writing off a tournament he cherishes. “It will be tough to qualify from here, but not impossible,” he said. “I was pleased with the way the boys fought back and knew they would, but we paid for giving them a head start.”