In his seminal book The Boys of Summer, American sports writer Roger Kahn spent time with baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers. A luminary Jackie Robinson was there, but Kahn was seeing years of near misses as the Dodgers missed out on pennants before finally emerging victorious in 1955. Of the time he said: “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.”
For years this has been the neutral’s approach to Clermont Auvergne. Top 14 title aside, they have only flirted with European glory, playing scintillating rugby on the way, but when it has come to the only final neutrals care about – the Heineken Cup – they have failed.
Being brutal we would say that they have consistently choked; if we were gentle we would say that they are the product of reckless abandon, a team not suited to knock-out nonsense.
Except that they are.
Clermont are a multicultural, multifaceted side headed by a man, Vern Cotter, we are all told is pragmatic and driven. They have crushing forwards play and cunning backs. So why have Clermont consistently fallen behind the rest on the biggest European stage? In truth, it may hardly be worth answering the question until their squad is regenerated.
That multinational team was put together with the explicit intent of steamrollering all. They have a budget that dwarfs the rest, even in France. They have an obscene record at their Stade Marcel-Michelin home, where they have not lost since November 2009. They have All Blacks and Lions, Bleus and hometown heroes. They should be unstoppable. They have had pundits and ex-pros declaring them the most dangerous and vividly willed team, hell bent on victory in the pool stages in Europe.
It’s all come to nowt this year, in the face of a staunch and downright preposterous defensive effort by Saracens in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup. They also hurt themselves by refusing to change tactics, offloading and ploughing on with single runners into the heart of Sarries’ defence.
In the May edition of Rugby World, Nathan Hines said: “The Heineken Cup final Clermont lost still hurts,” and “I want to do it this season more for the new guys and for Vern Cotter, who is leaving to coach Scotland, and for guys like Lee Byrne, who will leave the club at the end of the season.”
Hines will not get his wish, and as Jacques Burger felled carrier after carrier and his mates slammed into every ruck, slowing and smashing up any attacking intent Clermont had in the Heineken semi at an eerily empty Twickenham, Sarries did not just look to be breaking up Clermont’s Cup hopes, they were dismantling a dream.
Cotter is off to Scotland. Hines is off to Sale Sharks, Byrne is off to Newport Gwent Dragons, Regan King is off back to Scarlets, Sitiveni Sivivatu is joining Castres, Gerhard Vosloo is joining Toulon. Now Jono Gibbes is coming in to take over the forwards duties at Clermont next year, Nick Abendanon and Zac Guildford are stepping into the backfield and Jonathan Davies comes into the centre, while Sébastien Vahaamahina will fill a lock berth.
Big signings, yes, but also plenty of upheaval, and while you can replace star players when your pockets are deeper than les Jaunards sense of longing, you cannot ensure that these new faces will have as much impact as Sivivatu and Hines or that they can eradicate the terrible Heineken memories that definitely haunt the experienced players in the team.
That home record remains in the high 70s, reinforcements are coming in next season and Clermont should make the Top 14 playoffs. Fine. But even if they win the title that they reneged on last year – the one that is all-important to the French and still a national obsession – it will always feel like a consolation to the neutrals across the continent. You cannot discount the romance.
They can enjoy some glory, but it is the deep longing of a soon-to-be dismantled side that endears us to them. Clermont, darling, when will you realise that European potential?
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