Clermont remain calm ahead of approaching Munster storm
Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore are determined to put their side on the European map
Driven on by Vern Cotter’s steely focus, Clermont have crushed all before them in Europe this season. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
After being part of the 59th team in a row to leave the Stade Marcel-Michelin battered, bruised and beaten, a subdued Thierry Dusautoir said that Clermont Auvergne were “walking on water”.
The Toulouse and France flanker is not the first person this season to have used that term to describe Munster’s next opponents, and there is a noticeably serene atmosphere at the club this week.
There was no hint of arrogance among the players but, with the weekend win over Toulouse securing a Top 14 semi-final, it feels like there has been a subtle shift in belief at Clermont this year.
No strangers to heartbreaking defeats, last season’s semi-final loss to Leinster hurt more than most. Driven on by Vern Cotter’s steely focus, however, they have crushed all before them in Europe this season. They have lost only six matches, all of them away from home in the Top 14, and many of them with a weakened side.
So ahead of their second successive European semi-final, did they learn anything in particular from the agonising 19-15 defeat to Leinster in Bordeaux?
“Yeah,” smiled Clermont lock Nathan Hines. “Don’t lose.” Sporting a freshly-received black eye – “it’s been a while since I had one” – the former Leinster man says that the squad have returned with new resolve this season.
“As a team I think we’re just more focused,” he said. “The game just turns on such little things, every minute of the game. They came out and scored a try after half-time, something that shouldn’t have happened. Our defensive line . . . we should have seen it coming, you know?
“It’s just made us more aware that we’ve got to be switched on, alert and present every second of the game. The big games turn on those little actions.”
Few come bigger than a last four clash against Munster, and Hines’s secondrow colleague Jamie Cudmore is determined that Clermont will not come up short again. Now in his eighth season at the club, he has lived through many of the French side’s most difficult defeats.
“We’re definitely not unstoppable,” the Canadian said. “But I think over the last few years we’ve definitely grown up as a group. We’ve got some great additions and a lot of experience through – like you said – losing those big games. We know how that feels and we don’t want to feel that anymore.
“We’ve got a group that we can rotate through. Week-in, week-out, we don’t have to always play the same guys. So we’re kind of getting more and more away from being an okay team. We want to be a good team – we want to be a European quality team. We don’t just want to show up and be like ‘we almost made it, we could have, we could have, we should have.’
“No, we need to start winning games. Close games. Big games. And that’s what’s going to put us on the European map.”
Both men have had their run-ins with Paul O’Connell, Hines in rough and tumble meetings between Leinster and Munster, and Cudmore when he was red carded for scrapping with the Munster captain at Thomond Park five years ago.
Before renewing acquaintances, Cudmore said that- whether it comes to his tete-a-tete with O’Connell or the Munster secondrow’s kick on Dave Kearney – what goes on the pitch usually stays there.
“One great thing I love about rugby is when the game’s over, the game’s over,” he said. “You shake a guy’s hand, you have a beer and that’s it. For me it’s always been like that.”
Hines, who has signed a new deal that will keep him at Clermont until the end of next season, prefers to meet and beat the best there is.
“Yeah and I’m sure he’s of the same opinion,” he said of O’Connell. “When you think of Munster, you think of Paul O’Connell. We can’t control whether he’s in the team or not. So we just play with the cards we’re dealt with.”
While the streets of Clermont-Ferrand were not exactly decked out in club colours, Hines says the Yellow Army will travel in force on Saturday.
“We don’t need to see flags in the street during the week – we know they’re going to be there and shouting for us on the weekend.”