On the road, it's tackles and defence that wins matches
ANALYSIS:Clermont is the major city of the Massif Central – the French region is shaped like a giant handmade lump of dark chocolate, that has fallen from the gods’ dessert plate and dropped randomly, slap bang into the middle of France.
When you travel overland to Clermont, you are forced to negotiate the steep escarpments of the Massif Central, which act as a natural fortification, protecting the people who live on the high plateau above.
The terrain was born in volcanic fire. As you traverse the twisted and beautiful land, the evidence of the staggering power that shaped it surrounds you on all sides. Stumps of extinct volcanos stand like the broken columns on a ravaged Greek temple. Only in your imagination can you see their full majesty, yet you fail to conceive the eons of years that have passed since they were in their prime. The landscape is not made of gentle rolling hills, it is a lumpy, tectonic battle field.
As I have often told you, dear readers, I am a poor man’s Francophile. When I was coaching in the Heineken Cup, I looked forward to the annual competition draw. I was excited to see which French city my team would visit.
Would it be Biarritz, Paris, Toulouse or perhaps Perpignan? When I was in one of these wonderful cities, early every morning, as the players slept, I would go for a long walk to take in the architecture, the morning produce markets, the ambiance and to find a good restaurant to take the coaching staff to dinner that night.
On my first visit to Clermont my morning walk was brief. Despite the ruggedly beautiful country surrounding the city, there was not much to see. No Bourbon Royal family grandeur, no Napoleonic Empire expansionary vision. I would go so far as to say, the place is a bit of a “kip”.
Kerry Packer was once forced to attend a Senate inquiry in Canberra. The committee chairman asked him to state his full name and the capacity in which he appeared. He famously replied, “Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer . . . Reluctantly.”
Whenever I am forced to return to Clermont, I am in the identical, reluctant state of Mr Packer. The aspect of Clermont that I do deeply admire is that their rugby team has made Stade Marcel Michelin, which like the escarpment surrounding Clermont is a fortress.
I am also grateful to Clermont for teaching me one of my greatest lessons in coaching. Ten years ago a Leinster team I coached defeated Clermont at Stade Marcel Michelin, in the first leg of the “back to back” rounds.