When a club loses 10 consecutive championship finals over the course of 95 years, success tastes a little bit sweeter. Two years on from Clermont’s first Bouclier de Brennus against Perpignan in 2010, the club now want to take the next step and prove that rather than being made up of international superstars with no substance, they are capable of emulating their great rivals Toulouse by winning a first Heineken Cup.
Sunday will be ASM’s first European semi-final – their closest success so far being three quarter-finals in 2000, 2002 and 2010. Yet after the way they took apart Saracens their chances look far stronger. Few packs this year have been able to take down Saracens man-to-man, yet at Vicarage Road the English champions were blown away.
Ironically for Leinster, a huge part of Clermont’s strong set-piece has been their former forward Nathan Hines. The retired Scotland international moved to Clermont last summer, his transfer practically enforced following the IRFU’s new restrictions on the number of foreign players in each provincial side. By combining Hines with Jamie Cudmore – whose disciplinary record reads like a detention sheet – Clermont have created one of the meanest second row combinations around. The power these two forwards bring, backed up France international Julien Pierre coming from the bench, is a major reason behind Clermont’s success.
Of course, no side wins a Heineken Cup without an outstanding fly-half. David Skrela has been ruled out meaning that once again Brock James will step into the fold and direct Clermont around the park. His history with Leinster is painful to recall – in the 2010 quarter-final James missed 5 penalties and three drop-goals in his side’s 28-29 defeat. Scoring 17 points against Saracens though will have banished the memory of that nightmare quarter-final. If it’s not to be his day however, there is always Morgan Parra alongside him.
What has made Clermont a drastically improved team though in this year’s Heineken Cup has been the new additions to their backline. Money has been spent on the talents of Lee Byrne and Sitiveni Sivivatu, with both players settling in comfortably in their first season, scoring 8 tries between them. But it’s been the improvement of Clermont’s own academy products that has led them for the first time into the last four.
Wesley Fofana announced himself to the world with 4 tries in the Six Nations in an outstanding debut campaign. With 21 starts for Clermont this season, including 6 tries, he has combined brilliantly with Aurélien Rougerie. Julien Malzieu made such an impression on his France debut in the 2008 Six Nations, yet faded rapidly away. This season however, Malzieu has recaptured the form that saw him make such an initial impact. The youngest of them all, 21 year old Jean-Marcellin Buttin, is the club’s top try scorer this season with 7 and made his international debut in the final Six Nations match for France against Wales.
Under the guidance of the highly-rated Vern Cotter, a side full of young French and foreign talent has been moulded together capable of winning this year’s Heineken Cup. Although it won’t be at the Stade Marcel Michelin, playing on French soil will also give Clermont the slightest of advantages. With the Top 14 curse finally lifted, perhaps it’s time for Clermont’s European nemesis to be conquered as well.
by Ben Coles