Clermont favourites for glory

Date published: January 10 2013

Having disposed of Leinster home and away during the December fixtures, Clermont lead the race to win this season's Heineken Cup.

Having disposed of Leinster home and away during the crucial December fixtures, Clermont lead the race to win this season's Heineken Cup.

The hunt for Europe's biggest prize has been gruelling for Vern Cotter's side, with Clermont only reaching their first Heineken Cup semi-final last season against eventual champions Leinster in Bordeaux.

By triumphing over the Irish side not just at the stronghold of the Stade Marcel Michelin but also in the champions' own backyard at the Aviva Stadium this season, the weight of last season's semi-final loss has been somewhat lifted.

When it comes to long-suffering supporters however, Clermont fans have endured more pain than most.

It took ten losses in Top 14 finals – including three in a row between 2007-2009 – before Clermont could eventually claim a Bouclier de Brennus of their own against Perpignan in 2010.

Challenge Cup success in 2007 against Bath marked the beginning of a journey towards lifting the Heineken Cup, so six years later with the champions beaten and a home quarter-final in sight, the omens are good.

Their squad certainly possesses enough talent to see off the rest of Europe in any case.

There is athleticism in Julien Bonnaire, aggression and experience with Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines, the control and goal-kicking of Morgan Parra and a clinical edge in Sitiveni Sivivatu, Wesley Fofana and Aurélien Rougerie. Factor in the depth of talent in their squad and you have a key advantage that other sides lack.

Not being clinical cost Fofana and Clermont in the semi-final against Leinster last season, but not this time around. Whereas the France international centre failed to take his try in Bordeaux, he made no such mistake in Dublin. New campaign – different outcome.

In a tough Pool alongside Exeter and the Scarlets, the French side sit eight points clear after four rounds. A home seeding would mean hosting their quarter-final at the Stade Marcel Michelin, a venue where Clermont have won their last 53 matches to date.

Their home record, squad depth and performances so far in this season's tournament all seem to point towards a first Heineken Cup title.

Not that they will be without their challengers. Toulon's loss to Racing Métro last weekend came as a shock given their impressive form so far this season.

Their remarkable squad continues to be tweaked and touched up – the additions of John Smit, Bryan Habana and more next season will continue that process – but for all of Mourad Boudjellal's spending they are yet to win a trophy.

Last season saw Toulon lose both the Top 14 and Challenge Cup finals, giving Clermont the edge in terms of experience with their recent Top 14 success.

Add in Toulon's relative inexperience of the Heineken Cup and with the individual records of their squad aside, they arguably do not possess the nous and knowledge of the tournament as a squad to win the title this season.

No team knows more about winning the Heineken Cup though than Toulouse. Their loss away to the Ospreys was a setback but their progress will hinge on their result at Welford Road against Leicester in Round Six. Maximum points against Treviso and an Ospreys win over the Tigers this weekend however would throw Pool Two wide open on the final weekend.

Other contenders lie in the form of Ulster – who despite their loss at home to Northampton are producing some brilliant rugby – and Harlequins, whose easier Pool than others might leave them slightly undercooked by the quarter-finals. Neither side however has the strength in depth to match Clermont or Toulon if key players such as Ruan Pienaar or Nick Evans go down with injury.

Winning Heineken Cup sides in recent years tend to have suffered before finally tasting victory. Leinster went through three quarter-final and two semi-final exits before being able to finally get their hands on the trophy. Munster had to take the pain of two losing finals before being able to win their first title in 2006. Perhaps now is Clermont's time.

by Ben Coles