They began camping out the day before tickets went on sale at Clermont’s ground for Sunday’s Heineken Cup clash with Leinster, writes Gavin Mortimer.
Such is the fervour for all things rugby in this part of France. That and the growing belief among the Clermont faithful that the club is on course for an historic double – the Top 14 title and the Heineken Cup. Only Toulouse among French clubs have done that and that was in 1996 when Europe’s premier competition was a pale imitation of the tournament it is today.
Back in 1995-96 there were no English clubs involved and to lift the trophy Toulouse had to beat Treviso, Romanian minnows Farul Constanta, Swansea and (in the final) Cardiff.
So far Clermont have seen off Aironi, Ulster, Leicester and Saracens en route to their first appearance in the semi-final stage of the Heineken Cup, and now Leinster, the reigning European champions, stand before them and a date in London on May 19 at Twickenham.
One Clermont player who knows all about the Irish outfit is Nathan Hines, the Australian-born Scotland second row now in his 36th year. Hines was in the Leinster engine room in last year’s epic final as they overturned a 22-6 half-time deficit to pull off a stunning 33-22 victory. If Clermont do lift the Heineken Cup Hines will be the first player to win the competition with two different clubs, a fact he claimed this week isn’t at the forefront of his mind. “I’m not thinking about that,” he said in an interview with French sports daily L’Equipe. “I’m focusing on the semi-final…if I’m already thinking about the final that’s not good.”
Hines, however, couldn’t resist pointing out that he’s played for three of the four clubs contesting this weekend’s semi-finals. “Not bad that,” he said, no doubt wishing he’d had a spell at Ulster so he could claim a full-house.
Hines and his Clermont teammates are expecting a fierce battle up front during Sunday’s encounter in Bordeaux. A “war,” is the word Hines uses, adding: “They have a lot of experience, perhaps a little more than we have at this level of the competition, but we also have a lot of players with big-match experience, such as a World Cup final, so it sort of balances itself out.”
Hines has spent the last couple of weeks exchanging text messages with some of his former teammates at Leinster, notably Isa Nacewa, Brian O’Driscoll and Jono Gibbs, the forwards coach. He’s also been on the phone to his old mucker in the second row Leo Cullen. “We didn’t talk about the match,” explained Hines. “I simply told him that his wife, who’s expecting their baby, must be scared that it could have the same head as him!”
The joking will stop on Sunday when the two sides run out at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, home to Bordeaux FC. All tickets have long since been sold though according to Hines it feels like the whole of Clermont will be travelling south for the game and not just the estimated 20,000. “Everyone I meet on the streets of Clermont tells me they’ll be in Bordeaux,” says Hines. “It’s really amazing but it’s also great to see.”
If the yellows and blues can beat Leinster, twice that number of fans will travel to London for the final. Rugby is a religion in Clermont and Twickenham will be their cathedral.