Heineken Cup tops Top 14 for Clermont

Second-placed side rest first XV for domestic showdown with leaders Toulon

Second-placed Clermont travel to the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles on Sunday to take on leaders Toulon in one of the stand-out fixtures of the Top 14. Yet, it is a measure of how Clermont have prioritised the Heineken Cup that despite the obvious glamour of this fixture, Vern Cotter is expected to rest his first-choice XV from last week's Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Montpellier.

Toulon, for whom fixtures in the Velodrome are marquee events, had long targeted this game and so despite also having advanced to the Heineken Cup semi-finals are expected to remain at full-strength.

Leading Clermont by two points and Toulouse by nine, a win would virtually secure a top two placing, and with it a French championship semi-final, all the more so as they host relegated Agen in their last regular season fixture.

This would give Bernard Laporte elbow room to rest up key men a week before they travel to Twickenham to face Saracens.


Cotter is expected to take an alternative route, as Clermont host Toulouse in a hugely important game, with second place and a semi-final at stake, if Toulouse, the reigning champions, win at Montpellier on Saturday.

Just as importantly, Clermont would equal the French record of 59 successive wins in all competitions, set by Stade Français between 2004 and 2008, were they to beat Toulouse at the Stade Marcel Michelin, with a visit from Bordeaux on the final day on May 4th with which to set the new landmark.

Clermont have already drawn level with the all-time Top 14 record of 46 games without defeat (set by Bourgoin, with 45 wins and a draw) and so can also surpass that landmark on Saturday week when they host Toulouse, before returning to matters European.

Backline ballast
Having finally reached their holy grail of a first Bouclier de Brennus in 2010, in their 11th final and 99th year, Clermont would dearly love to conquer Europe for the first time, and having regained much of their backline ballast this season, look well equipped to do so.

Montpellier took the game to Clermont in last Saturday's quarter-final to lead 9-3 after 25 minutes, only to be blown away by a five-try salvo, one from each of les jaunards’ three-quarter-line and fullback Lee Byrne.

Afterwards Stéphane Glas, the former France centre and now Fabien Galthie’s assistant at Montpellier, admitted “the big difference” between the sides was the Clermont backline.

“Maybe we exposed small weaknesses in the pack and we have some good players in our backline, who created chances, but the power, speed and creativity of the Clermont backline is the best in Top 14,” he said.

A key man is the former All Blacks winger Sitiveni Sivivatu, an altogether happier and more potent force in his second season with Clermont, as he showed with a stunning try in the second half last Saturday.

Bigger this season, yet without seeming to have lost his speed, Sivivatu remains wonderfully elusive, with his ability to sway in either direction at full tilt, and with a better command of French, he is much more settled and this is showing in his form, as well as more forthcoming media dealings.

“I have been through a lot of disappointments,” he said of his latter years at home. “I had to refresh my brain. In New Zealand playing had become a business. People were not even saying hello to me in the morning.

"In Clermont the people are awesome. It's like a big family. The crowd in Clermont is the biggest driving force behind the team. When you play in front of these people it's like playing in front of your brother and your father; you don't want to disappoint them. I'm still the same player but I'm happy. I think I'm playing the best rugby of my life."

Regarding Clermont's squad spirit and the motivation that burns as a result of last season's 19-15 semi-final defeat to Leinster in Bordeaux, Sivivatu said: "To lose in Bordeaux last year against Leinster was a huge disapointment. I didn't speak about it, but I really felt it, and this defeat has been guiding me."

Of Sivivatu's current form, captain Aurelien Rougerie simply commented: “He’s walking on water”, but the winger himself maintained: “I’m simply a team-mate. It’s my team-mates who make me look like a genius. I just try to be useful on a rugby pitch. That’s my job. That’s why I don’t stay on the wing, I’ve got to try to find some useful work whenever I can.”

There remain issues at outhalf, with Brock James’ availability for the semi-final still uncertain due to the hamstring strain which sidelined him for Clermont’s last two games.

Ludovic Radosavljevic was unconvincing against Clermont and the veteran David Skrela, who is returning to his first club Colomiers next season, clearly wasn’t 100 per cent fit when introduced off the bench last Saturday.

Mike Delany, the 30-year-old former Otago Highlanders and Waikato Chiefs out-half capped once by the All Blacks, arrived in Clermont on Wednesday night ahead of his proposed arrival next season.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times