At the final whistle on Saturday, the Clermont players fell to their knees and fans openly wept, the club must pick themselves up and try again
Professional sport is a cruel business. Stade Francais partied long and hard after winning the Top 14 title on Saturday night and wound up their celebrations on Monday evening, at a reception at the City hall.
Contrast their jubiliaiton with the abject misery felt by Clermont. On Monday afternoon, as the Stade fans began gathering outside the City Hall for a glimpse of the Bouclier de Brennus, Clermont president Eric de Cromières published an open letter on the club’s website to the long-suffering members of the Yellow Army. “Disappointment”, “sadness”, “frustration”, were just some of the words used by Monsieur de Cromières as he acknowledged the end of another season without silverware. Two finals, two defeats, to add to the other 12 times Clermont have fallen at the final hurdle.
The Clermont president also went out of his way to criticise the “constant and negative pressure of certain media”, by which he’s believed to mean regional broadcaster France3 Auvergne, and the local newspaper, La Montagne.
The paper, which has described the letter as a “mea culpa”, reported last month that a small section of Clermont fans had jeered de Cromières and team manager Jean-Marc Lhermet during the first home league match following the Champions Cup final defeat to Toulon. La Montagne sympathised with the fans, saying that supporters didn’t appreciate their “gentils losers” reputation.
De Cromières ended his letter by promising next season Clermont will return with a “grande détermination”. Of course, he would say that, but privately the president must be as distraught as the fans, kept awake at night by the same question: “Why do we always blow the big one?”
There’s no shortage of quality in the Clermont squad. Full-back Nick Abendanon was voted European Player of the Year; Wesley Fofana is one of the most gifted threequarters in Europe, and Morgan Parra, Jonathan Davies, Benson Stanley and Brock James are proven performers. Up front, the Clermont pack is stuffed with seasoned internationals, men who combine talent with toughness.
Physically, therefore, Clermont have the tools to win titles. It’s the top two inches that are letting them down. This correspondent’s opinion is that they do suffer from pressure, but not from the media. It’s the unintentional pressure of the Yellow Army that is suffocating the players.
If you’ve never had the good fortune to visit Clermont, you’re missing a treat. It’s a city of 140,000 people in central France which, as its Wikipedia entry says, “sits on the plain of Limagne in the Massif Central…and is famous for the chain of volcanoes.”
I’d hazard a guess that whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry was not a rugby fan because in their opinion Clermont is famous not just for its nearby volcanoes but also for the Michelin tyre company and its “International Short Film Festival”. No offence, Wikipedia, but Clermont is famous for Michelin and rugby.
The club and the city are inextricably linked – geographically, historically and economically, arguably more so than any other professional club in the world. The Stade Marcel Michelin is in the shadow of the huge plant and thousands of Clermont men and women are employed by the tyre manufacturer. The rugby club was founded in 1911 (71 years before the film festival!) by the Michelin family, a means of allowing the workers to let off steam out of hours. There is a football team but it’s not very good. Rugby is Clermont’s sport.
To stroll around the city, as I did last month, is an enjoyable but also overwhelming experience. The clubs colours are branded into every nook and cranny. Flags fluttering from buildings; posters adorning shop windows; scarves tied to car aerials. I bought a sandwich in a snack bar whose walls were plastered with hand-drawn caricatures of players, while the two assistants in a menswear shop I visited were engaged in an earnest discussion about the upcoming game.
There is no escape from rugby in Clermont. That’s not to say the fans are intrusive. The Clermont players I’ve spoken to say that the locals in general respect their privacy. But nonetheless the players are conscious 24/7 what the club means to the people.
Contrast that with Stade Francais. The moment the players leave the training ground, they slip into the anonymity of a vast, sprawling city. Morne Steyn, Sergio Parisse, Jonathan Danty, Rabah Slimani and the rest are just four more young men going about their business. They’ll be lucky if they spot a Parisian wearing a replica shirt.
That’s not to detract from the loyalty of the Stade fans, who colourfully fill the splendid Stade Jean Bouin every game. But in a city of 10.7 million, a few thousand devotees are not going to exert the same level of pressure as the Clermont players endure.
There’s no remedy to Clermont’s predicament because the Yellow Army are never going to fling down their flags and desert. The club must learn to deal with the pressure. Perhaps it’s time to bring in a sports psychologist to work on those top two inches or perhaps hire Clive Woodward and his TCUP theory – “Thinking Correctly Under Pressure”. As Sir Clive says: “A warrior is someone who performs well under pressure…people aren’t born able to play under pressure, but it can be taught or coached.”
Clermont need coaching if they’re to start filling their trophy cabinet.