Clermont’s Heineken Cup prospects looking strong

When it comes to Clermont Auvergne and cup finals, their plight is enough to make even the coldest soul feel a touch romantic. Before their Top 14 success in 2010, Clermont had lost 10 Championship finals, including three in a row between 2007 and 2009.

Finally, after decades of heartbreaking disappointment, success came their way with the 19-6 defeat of Perpignan in front of 79,000 at the Stade de France. Emotion is not rare in cup finals, but rarely has a side celebrated a victory with as many tears. The images of coach Vern Cotter on the touchline, struggling to hold it together after finally tasting success in his fourth final, were spine-tingling. One of rugby’s true beautiful moments.

Now, two years on from that final, Clermont are looking to address the other competition that has always eluded them, the Heineken Cup. Their record is less harrowing than in the Top 14, but they have never progressed further than the quarter-finals. There has been success in the Amlin Challenge Cup, winning the competition or it’s previous equivalent in 1999 and 2007, but the Heineken Cup is what makes a club a great one.

Despite losing twice already this season in Europe, away to Pool 4 rivals Ulster and Leicester, Clermont remain in the hunt to win the group when they take on Ulster this weekend at home, following a remarkable 82-0 win away against Aironi. People will focus on the poor performance of the Italian side, but it takes a very good side to score 12 tries in the Heineken Cup. Victory this weekend would mean they would go through to their fourth quarter-final in just over a decade. But why is this campaign any different?

Mainly, due to the squad. Last summer saw a radical overhaul in Clermont’s playing personnel, as plenty of players on big wages were replaced by, well, more players on big wages. The departures included Benoît Baby, Sione Lauaki, George Pisi and the retiring Mario Ledesma, a player who had poured his heart and soul into Les Jaunards during the last six years of his career. Another player out of the door was the 2010 hero Napolini Nalaga, the Fijian who scored the only try in the final who has now moved south to join the Western Force.

Their replacements have more than compensated for the loss of quality. Any side who brings in the likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu, Regan King, Lee Byrne, Nathan Hines and David Skrela, is heading in one direction only. Add those names to the remaining members of the 2010 side; Morgan Parra, Julien Bonnaire, Julien Malzieu and the club’s heartbeat in Aurélien Rougerie, and you have a side that should be able to beat anyone on their day. Much like Saracens in the Aviva Premiership, they have recruited star names in a bid to create a squad with the best depth around, a feat that is only truly matched in France by current league leaders Toulouse.

It is no surprise that Kiwi-born Cotter has been linked in recent months with both the All Blacks head coach position, and as a potential candidate for England this summer. After four Top 14 finals in five seasons, perhaps there is no better reflection of the esteem Cotter is held in than being considered for those two positions. Not forgetting that Clermont are undefeated at home this season (since November 2009). All the foundations for European success appear to be in place. Perhaps 2012, is the year where they deliver.

by Ben Coles