Clermont not interested in another glorious defeat

French club keenly aware of big games lost ahead of Champions Cup clash with Leinster


Clermont, a city drenched by ancient warfare, was the starting point for the first Crusade in 1095. The local sports team has threatened to conquer French and European rugby for a decade but despite multiple displays of utter dominance fate has consistently slowed their march.  

“Jono understands the French psyche,” Neil McIlroy, the Scotsman who is ASM Clermont Auvergne’s long serving manager, recently told The Irish Times when we were writing a profile on the incoming Ulster coach.

“He gets it.”

That begged the question: explain the French psyche, Neil?

“You probably need to set aside six or seven pages in your article.”

Encapsulating this genie in a 900-word bottle will have to suffice.  

“In rugby terms it is very difficult to generalise,” McIlroy began. “That’s what’s so rich about French rugby; you still got a load of clubs from what are essentially small towns. Brive and Castres are hardly Dublin or Paris, but these places still exist with lots of passion. No matter who comes in to run the show or what players pull on the jersey, there is always an immense pride in French rugby as to the origins and traditions of such clubs.

“Possibly due to different presidents, no two French clubs are the same.

French flair

“We go about our business here the way it works for us. We have a balance of, I can’t use French flair as that went out with the 1980s, but instinctive rugby which is also based on structures borrowed from the Anglo-Saxon rugby world.”

Next season, when Bernard Goutta replaces Jono Gibbes as Clermont forwards coach, will be the first time since 2006 that the club has had an all-French coaching staff (Even then it will be infused with a deeply Catalan influence).   

“That balance has been what works for us,” said McIlroy, the Borders prop whose brief professional career included three seasons in Nice and Béziers. “We are quite Anglo-Saxon off the pitch in how we go about our business. That works for our psyche. That’s why a Kiwi coach like Jono fits in nicely.”

Vern Cotter, the outgoing Scottish (incoming Montpellier) coach, is credited with laying the club’s professional foundations, along with his number two for three years, Joe Schmidt.

“Vern had spent 10 years in France before joining Clermont, so he knew what would work from the Anglo-Saxon rugby world, and what could be adapted for the French game.”

Current head coach Franck Azéma “is of the same philosophy”, McIlroy continues. “He knows we can’t be too Latin in our approach, but the marriage of the two together can work in a club like ours. We are similar to what a lot of our players have experienced in Super Rugby or the UK, and yet we have a strong identity as both a club and a town.”

Clermont are such a welcoming club they allowed Donegal footballer Michael Murphy train with them in January for an Irish reality TV show. There was also a recent fly-on-the-wall documentary (in French). 

Miserable return

The place is also an open, and seemingly profitable, book; a club that seems capable of anything except the capture of trophies. Clermont love a semi-final so much they have reached two of the last four European finals and five of the last ten Top 14 deciders.

The return is a miserable one victory, six defeats. That solitary French title in 2010, which proved Schmidt’s parting gift before joining Leinster, is surrounded by glorious defeats, a reality that has long proved the hallmark of this prehistoric realm.

Despite the obvious sustainability, the city of Clermont–Ferrard and its half a million inhabitants can only boast one Bouclier de Brennus – a shield that mirrors what the defeated Gaul king, Vercingétorix, whose statue towers over the centre of town, laid at the feet of Julius Caesar in 58 BC.

Their European odyssey has survived far too many blows for any club devoid of the most solid foundations imaginable. Losing the 2013 and 2015 finals to the wealthy Toulon brought them agonisingly close to the mountain top, but perhaps most crushing of all was the dying moments of the 2012 semi-final in Bordeaux when Gordon D’Arcy denied Wesley Fofana what seemed a certain and decisive try.

“We are keenly aware we have lost a hell of a lot more finals than we have won,” said McIlroy. “We can’t hide from that, but we have an obligation to keep making them. Not only for ourselves but we owe it to our loyal and far-travelled support, not only in the town but from the entire region”

This all feeds into the battle of Lyon on Sunday. Asterix remains in the form of Aurélien Rougerie, who at 36 has been granted one final chance at a European title by Fofana’s season-ending injury, with the cartoonish Obelix being any of the ogres in Damien Chouly’s pack.

“Everyone wants trophies and shields, but we are also conscious that we have been in the play-offs year in year out for the last 10 years. It is a consistency we are quite proud of. Of course we want to win things but you can’t let defeat weigh you down. Otherwise it will consume you.”

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