Have Clermont Finally Got the Bottle?

Lyon , France - 23 April 2017; ASM Clermont Auvergne supporters during the European Rugby Champions Cup Semi-Final match between ASM Clermont Auvergne and Leinster at Matmut Stadium de Gerland in Lyon, France. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The men from the Auvergne have, unwillingly, had to accept the mantle of Europe’s nearly men for some years now but a third final in five years offers Clermont a chance at redemption.

They withstood a second half blitz from Leinster in their semi-final in Lyon to ensure they will meet Saracens at Murrayfield in just over a fortnight.

A starring role from fly-half Camille Lopez, who embrace the burden of pressure placed upon him when he opted for two drop goals in a frantic second 40, proved the difference after a scintillating opening fifteen minutes ultimately gave Leinster too much of a mountain to climb.

But is this side different to the ones that lost finals to Toulon in 2013 and 2015? And can it conjure enough power, pace and precision to sufficiently infiltrate the Wolfpack defence of Saracens that will be opposing them?

Mark McCall’s men continue to set the benchmark for rugby in the northern hemisphere and their semi-final victory over Munster in Dublin laid down a serious marker.

Clermont Auvergne are a much-changed animal from the 2013 side who, in all honesty, threw away that final to Jonny Wilkinson and Toulon but are better for the experience.

A mauling the following year at the semi-final stage to – you guessed – Saracens, again questioned their mentality and coming up short once again in the 2015 final raised the debate as to whether the European Cup head to the Central-Massif.

Like Saracens, who themselves lost three semi-finals and a final before winning it last year, they have had to endure numerous moments of utter despair and disappointment. Clermont lost three consecutive Top 14 finals between 2007 and 2009 before finally lifting the trophy in 2010 so they are well accustomed in knowing how this process unfolds.

This year though things truly are different, and I know that pundits and fans throughout Europe whisper those words every year, but they really are. For me, it was defeat in Belfast that suggested this Clermont side had sufficient metal to back up their undeniable talent.

That loss to Ulster was their only defeat in Europe this year and, despite taking the lead within two minutes that day, a try blitz from Ulster left them 21 points adrift with 20 minutes left.

Stuart Barnes himself said “it was in danger of turning into a rout” and in years gone by it would have, but Clermont rallied and quick fire tries from Nick Abendanon and Damien Chouly secured both a try and a losing bonus point.

How much different those two points would have made in the grand scheme of things we will never know, but it was almost as if Clermont as a group knew that even in defeat they could amplify their change in mentality.

One element on their game that has remained consistent since they began dining at Europe’s top table is the sheer power they bring to the contest.

It was such power from the likes of Fritz Lee, Davit Zirakashvili, Sebastien Vahaamahina and Peceli Yato that eventually proved too much for Toulon in the last eight and initially proved too much for Leinster.

In Lopez they also have a man who is not only immensely talented but has the aptitude for the big occasion, something his former team mate Brock James lacked. He puts the team in the right positions and more importantly than anything his decision making is top draw.

And it will need to be just that when they play the final. Lopez at 10 is responsible for making those big decisions and he will need to mix the inevitable Clermont flair with a sense of control and humility. Clermont need to play in the right areas, should they look to run their way out of their 22 then they leave themselves susceptible to turnovers.

Together with Morgan Parra he is part of, not necessarily the most affluent, but as savvy a half back pairing as you will see (although Richard Wigglesworth and Owen Farrell may beg to differ). The two know how to win games, in fact the only game they seem to have not won is a European final.

Of course, season-ending injuries to Wesley Fofana and Noa Nakaitaci leave huge holes in the back division but in Remi Lamerat they have a man born to step up. Part of the Castres side that halted Clermont’s 77 game unbeaten run back in 2014 and toppled Toulon in the Top 14 final a year earlier.

He’ll never have the pace of a Fofana, nor the step of a Jonathan Joseph say, but he does the basics of the game incredibly well. His titanic tussle with Robbie Henshaw on Sunday proved rugby doesn’t have to be fantastically fluid to win, it just needs to be smart.

Smart is what Clermont will have to be if they are to topple the current Premiership and European champions in the Scottish capital. I haven’t the bottle to go out a limb and back either of these sides to lift the trophy because I feel it is that tight.

What I will say is that Clermont have evolved – I used the word ‘smart’ in an article about Clermont Auvergne which is unheard of in years gone by – and no longer do they have the aura of a team that need to beat their opponents as well as themselves.

A second-half fight back by the Dubliners may have cast the smallest doubt that Clermont still have one final round to negotiate before recognising a triumph long in waiting, but the only way to do so is by getting back in the ring.

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