NEWCASTLE, England: Favourites Clermont Auvergne deservedly won a record-equalling third European Challenge Cup when they overwhelmed La Rochelle 36-16 in an all-French final in Newcastle on Friday.
A try by Damian Penault helped them to a 13-6 halftime lead and second-half scores by Fritz Lee and Wesley Fofana were a fair reward for their dominance as they join England's Harlequins as the only three-times winners.
Clermont had a long and undistinguished history of losing finals, including all three of their European Champions Cup appearances, but they have found an affinity with the continent's "second competition".
It was a particularly sweet moment for their hooker Benjamin Kayser, who had lost five previous European finals. "It feels absolutely incredible," he said. "We know La Rochelle and we knew this was going to be a strong battle but we held tight and it is an amazing feeling to walk away with a European medal after all these years.
"We have a new generation of guys now who are doing a fantastic job and this was a win from a squad of 23 who have given their all here tonight."
Clermont, flying high in second place in the Top 14, were on top from kickoff and barely took their foot off the gas as Penault's well-worked try capped a dominant first-half effort.
La Rochelle, appearing in their first major final, rallied briefly as Ihaia West’s third penalty closed the gap but the boot of Clermont’s replacement scrumhalf Greig Laidlaw restored control for the favourites.
When Fritz Lee was shovelled over by a rolling maul for a try brilliantly converted by Laidlaw after an hour it looked all over.
Though prop Uini Atonio scored for La Rochelle, another forward drive opened the way for Wesley Fofana to score Clermont's third try and spark the blue and yellow celebrations.
The European Champions Cup takes place at the same venue on Saturday when England's Saracens take on Ireland's defending champions Leinster.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis)