Clermont arrive at their month of truth in prime health
Vern Cotter’s squad ease off in equalling record home run against Toulouse
Wesley Fofana scores a try for Clermont in their demolition of Toulouse last weekend. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
In Clermont they dubbed April “le mois de vérite”, the month of truth. Following on from their Heineken Cup quarter-final win at home to Montpellier, there was a trek to the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles for a top-of-the-table fixture against Toulon away and a chance to make history at the Stade Marcel Michelin against Toulouse last Saturday before next week’s semi-final against Munster.
It is a schedule which would test any other squad in Europe, even moneybags Toulon, to breaking point, but, alas, it shows no signs whatsoever of diluting les jaunards .
Clermont go into Saturday’s semi-final on a five-game unbeaten run having utilised their huge, expensively assembled squad to the fullest. Vern Cotter has used 40 players in their last five matches.
Since losing 32-28 away to Biarritz on March 23rd with a somewhat weakened team, Clermont warmed up for their “ mois de vérité ” by stretching their limbs in a facile ten-try 66-21 win at home to relegated Agen. The starting XV included all bar two or three of the side which will face Munster next Saturday in Montpellier.
The following week against Montpellier, Vern Cotter recalled Siviteni Sivivatu and Jamie Cudmore, and made an enforced change at tight-head and in the back-row. Even though Montpellier took the game to Clermont, particularly in the scrum, for the first 25 minutes to lead 9-3, they were blown away by a five-try blitz before going down 36-14.
However, if that was an expression of their undoubted quality and potency, not to mention their repeated desire to win a first H Cup, what followed was an equally impressive expression of their unparalleled strength in depth and squad spirit.
Cotter made 14 changes in personnel, and the one player who remained, Ludovic Radosavljevic, reverted to scrum-half for the glamour fixture in the Stade Velodrome, the capacity for which was limited to 34,000 as it undergoes t refurbishment.
Even though Bernard Laporte retained the majority of the Toulon team which beat Leicester a week before in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, Clermont deservedly earned a 26-all draw. In what could be a dress rehearsal for both the French Championship and Heineken Cup finals, Toulon only achieved their draw through a late Matt Giteau penalty which went over via an upright.
Even when Brock James is fit and well, perhaps unfairly the outhalf is still regarded as a relative Clermont weak link.
This is largely based hereabouts on his attack of the yips in the losing quarter-final against Leinster three seasons ago. With James still a major doubt for the semi-final, and a hampered David Skrela also confined to just one recent cameo off the bench, Radosavljevic will probably have to fill in again.
As a weakness these things are relative when you factor in how Morgan Parra runs the show from scrumhalf and takes the place kicks. Even so when Jonny Sexton was on the market the surprise is that they didn’t break the bank to acquire a player they know so well.
They recently signed the once-capped former All Black Mike Delany as a medical joker until the end of the season. He has settled in surprisingly well but is not eligible for the semi-final.
The second-row pair of Loïc Jacquet and Julien Pierre were outstanding against Toulon, but against Toulouse, Cotter restored Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines, combined age 71, in what amounted to his likely selection against Munster as well. It’s also remarkable to think Julien Malzieu, Jean-Marcellin and Anthony Floch cannot make their starting XV, with the latter even behind Fijian flyer Noa Nakaitici.
But then Cotter has probably assembled the most potent backline in European rugby. Sivivatu was sensational against Montpellier in the quarter-finals. Yet even his tally of nine tries in 21 matches this season compares poorly to Napolioni Nalaga, the Top 14’s leading try scorer this season with 13 in 19 matches, to add to his six tries in seven Heineken Cup games.
Wesley Fofana’s strike rate for a centre is maybe even more impressive. In addition to being the second most prolific try scorer in this season’s Top 14 with ten in a campaign limited to 15 matches due to international commitments, he has an additional five tries in six Heineken Cup games and three in eight Tests for France. That’s 18 tries in 29 games this season.
His 18th, in the first minute against Toulouse last Saturday, when stepping in as first receiver from a pass from the base by Nathan Hines to beat three players in turn after Aurelien Rougerie had fielded a box kick, underlined Clermont’s threat from broken play and how quick they are to align themselves in attack from a turnover or retrieving an opposition kick.
Rougerie is confidently expected to be fit to face Munster after departing with a bandaged and strained left hamstring.
Fofana’s try ignited a 39-17 win in a high quality match, as Clermont palpably eased off in the second half for their 59th win in succession at Stade Marcel Michelin, to equal the home record set by Stade Francais in their pomp from 2004 to 2008. At least the semi-final won’t be there, and Clermont are as unfamiliar with Stade de la Mosson as Munster are.
A small mercy, for what is looking like Munster’s moment of truth.