This weekend sees Stade Francais face Clermont Auvergne in the final of the Top 14, and if you pick through Clermont’s broken past you’ll see that one of their most harrowing losses came at the hands of the flash Parisians.
Eight years ago, Clermont lined up in a Top 14 final for the first time with their current name. Previously they had been known as Montferrand, and they had lost every league final they had ever appeared in under that name – seven grand final losses in total. The last crushing defeat as Montferrand came in 2001 as Toulouse tore away with a scrum and scrum-half-led 34-22 victory.
Montferrand had endured rotten luck, so like a banned gambler trying to sneak back into the casino, they hoped to changed their appearance and their fortunes. In 2004 they rebranded as Clermont. In 2007, led by Vern Cotter in his first season as coach, they were competing for the Bouclier de Brennus again. Against Stade, who had won three titles between 2000 and 2004.
Stade had a young, in-form David Skrela at 12. Old campaigner Christophe Dominici was at 11. In his finest year in the game, the magician Juan Martin Hernandez was at fly-half. Agustin Pichot was their leader. Remy Martin was the shock of blonde on one flank, with the relentless Mauro Bergamasco on the other – Sergio Parisse had to watch from the bench. Benjamin Keyser and Rodrigo Roncero were in the front row. Dimitri Szarzewski, Radike Samo, Jerome Fillol and Brian Liebenberg rode the pine.
There were other notable names in the Clermont ranks. Anthony Floch, Aurelien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu were their back three. Tony Marsh was at 12. Brock James, obviously, was there at 10, with Pierre Mignoni his accomplice at 9. Jamie Cudmore, Martin Scelzo and Mario Ledesma were in the pack. Little general Alessandro Troncon was barking from the bench.
There were so many star turns involved but two major factors stood out in that game – a painfully close encounter that Stade came from behind to win at 23-18.
Firstly, the world was privileged to see fly-halves in such fine form. Three months later Fernandez would be using his silken play to help Argentina to a third place finish in the Rugby World Cup, and in this final he was imperious. On the other end, Clermont’s James kicked clinically, but added to a narrative about his career by just falling short.
Secondly, a total change of name, style and outlook would not bare success for Clermont straight away, as was evidenced in this fixture as a narrow lead was blown away in the closing minutes by a marauding Samo who squeezed in to score on the 77th minute. This bitter loss would not be the last, as for two more finals in a row the men from Clermont would lose, before finally breaking their curse in 2010.
Now, in 2015, we have Stade as a resurgent force, having missed the play-offs for the last six seasons, while Clermont have had yet more finals misery from recent years to overcome. Too much can be taken from failures of the past, for sure, but if this Top 14 final is anything like that of 2007, you should get another intoxicating cocktail of 80-minute drama and a little bit of heartache.
The challenge isn’t any bigger, and there is not wild uptake in star names because there were already so many in France. But this final should be as fun and as anxious as any before.
Clermont: Abendanon; Buttin, Rougerie, Stanley, Nalaga; Lopez, Parra; Domingo, Ulugia, Zirakashvili, Jedrasiak, Vahaamahina, Chouly (c), Bardy, Lee.
Subs: Keyser, Chaume, Pierre, Lapandry, Radosavljevic, James, Delany, Ric.
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Stade Francais: Camara; Arias, Waisea, Danty, Sinzelle; Steyn, Dupuy; Van der Merwe, Bonfils, Slimani, Pyle, Flanquart, Burban, Lakafia, Parisse (c).
Subs: Sempere, Taulafo, Pape, Ross, Fillol, Bosman, Doumayrou, Kubriashvili.
Kick off: 8pm, Saturday, 13 June
Venue: Stade de France, Paris
Referee: Pascal Gauzère