Munster look to add underachieving Clermont to their Thomond Park hit list
For such a massive club, Clermont Auvergne always make you feel like you have a chance
Munster’s Paul O’Connell is tackled by Clermont Auvergne’s Wesley Fofana during the 2013 Heineken Cup semi final. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Every club has its own DNA. People won’t necessarily talk about it but everyone around the place knows it and feels it. From watching and playing against Clermont Auvergne down through the years, I’ve always got the feeling that they find it hard to come out from under the shadow of decades of underachievement. It’s there, picking away at them and probably holding them back to some extent.
There’s no doubt that they’re the best team never to have won the Heineken Cup. There’s no doubt either that a club with their resources and their support base should have won it by now. Even on a domestic level in France, they should have more than one Top 14 title to their name.
But instead they are the club that played 10 French finals and lost them all before finally winning one in 2010. They are the club that starts in the top three or four of the betting for Europe each year despite only ever being to one final – which they threw away in 2013. They should have more success to their name than they do. But for some reason they keep falling short.
They had a lot of quality in their squad, both French and international. John Smit and Marius Joubert were there, Naipolioni Nalanga had just joined, Seremaia Bai played outhalf against us in Thomond Park and then went to inside centre for the return game in France. Aurelien Rougerie, Julien Malzieu, Mario Ledesma, Julien Bonnaire, Brock James – all these guys were serious names and Clermont were starting to get serious results.
We beat them easily enough at Thomond but the return game at the Stade Michelin was one of the great survival jobs we ever managed. It had to be. The atmosphere at that game was about as intense as we’d ever come across. The crowd were singing and banging drums a good hour before the game had kicked off. You could feel the passion coming off them in waves.
Clermont went through us for a short-cut from the start. Vern Cotter had been there for a year and a half by then and he was changing the mentality of the club. They were on a roll and they totally overwhelmed us in the first half. They led 20-6 at half-time and I remember us sitting in the dressing room in shock. What the hell just happened here?
We were in huge trouble at that point because we had already lost to Wasps that season. We had to get a bonus point at least out of the game but Clermont had us in a whirlwind. We were clinging on for dear life. We needed to get organised and find a way back into it.
In the end, we managed to claw our way back and Rog kicked four penalties to get us within seven. We came away feeling as if we’d won. The bonus point we got out of it was crucial in the end – it sent us through and sent Clermont out. We went on to win the tournament that season.
Even so, we were in no doubt that they were a serious outfit now. They came to Thomond Park the following year as well and we found it much harder to deal with them. And when we went to Stade Michelin, we were forewarned about the atmosphere and actually managed to be leading at half- time before they came back and beat us. But they lost home and away to Sale that season so they got nowhere again.
They’ve always had a huge squad, which I think has been their biggest strength and their biggest weakness. The amount of chopping and changing they do through a season makes it very difficult for their opposition to prepare for them.
I remember weeks when we’d be looking ahead to playing them and they could be making 10 or 12 changes from the team that played the previous weekend. It was nearly impossible to decide which players to concentrate our analysis on.
But while that’s great from week to week, there does come a point where you need continuity. You need a settled team that knows its job. You need a core group that has been through tough situations together. You want to be able to stand in the huddle and all be on the same wavelength, to know that you can look around at 90 per cent of the same guys who have been there and done it before.
Overall though, I just think their mentality held them back. The club history is dominated by losing those 10 finals. No other club in France has lost so many. Next on the list are Stade Francais (nine final defeats) and Toulouse (eight), but both of those have a long history of winning the title as well.
That has to have an effect. When they won in 2010, I thought it was going to be a line in the sand for them. Often a team only has to win the big prize once to change their image of themselves. But in the four seasons since, they haven’t been back to a Top 14 final. And last year they even lost their long-standing unbeaten home record.
Most of all, if this comes down to the last five minutes, who is going to have the greater belief – them or us? In those situations, you’ll use anything as motivation. It doesn’t even really matter if it’s true or not. Clermont might have huge belief in themselves for all you know but the fact that they’ve come up short so many times gives you that mental edge.
You’ll chase that weakness, test it out as much as you can to see if there’s any vulnerability there. You’ve got to keep pushing and pushing and testing that pain threshold. Okay, they’re great players but are they as together as we are? Are they as committed as we are? Are they prepared to hurt as much as we are? With Clermont, you always thought you had a chance if it was close.
Leinster had their number a couple of times in the knock- out stages, games where Clermont had every chance. Brock James had that kicking nightmare in 2010 and they lost by a point. Wesley Fofana dropped the ball over the line when a try would have won it in 2012. They were good enough to win both times but not clinical enough to grab them.
Bounce of the ball
You could see it happening in front of you that day in Montpellier. Munster’s great achievement that year had been to make it to the semi- final with the win away at Harlequins but they were hav- ing a poor season. Clermont started like a train and were 13-3 up at half-time but the killer instinct just wasn’t in them. In the end, Rog’s grubber very nearly bounced up for Felix Jones and they almost left it behind them.
It’s so hard to change a club’s identity. But it’s not impossible, especially when you’re a club that is going to be there or thereabouts each year. Signing up Johnno Gibbs was a smart move because he can bring that experience of being at Leinster in the years where they turned their identity around with him. They’re always going to have the players, it’s whether or not they can get the mentality right.
They come to Limerick this weekend for one of the old-style Saturday night games. Munster’s form has been encouraging after a poor start to the season and they’re starting to get into a groove. Their form in Europe has been pretty good as well – they seem to have a bit more composure and control about them the longer Anthony Foley’s first season has gone on.
Given all that, you’d have to fancy them to take Clermont at home.