Clermont are arguably the stand-out side in Europe so far this season. But can they go the extra mile this time around?
Les Jaunards have only lost one of their first nine games, including a dominant win over Exeter in the Champions Cup on Sunday. With such a strong start, surely they are the favourites to win both the French and European competitions.
Except this is a club whose history is littered with finals reached and not won. Based on previous performances, the club has reached the summit 14 times and won only once. Based off that, when Clermont make it to a final, they have a 7.15 percent chance of winning.
Essentially, playing for Clermont is like being the younger of the two Brownlee brothers, who are so dominant in World Triathlon. Clermont’s consistency has gained them respect but they never quite get the gold medal.
In the coming months will they reverse this trend or will they fall short once more? Let’s have a look at what’s gone wrong for them in the past.
They were top of the French table going into the Champions Cup break in 2014/15 and had little trouble qualifying for the final against Stade Français. But that day they were undisciplined and gave away too many penalties to the Parisians, leading that final to go the way of so many before it.
In 2015/16, Clermont started strongly again with only two losses before the break for the Champions Cup. But French media spoke of a Clermont ‘crisis’ after they were beaten convincingly by Toulon, Exeter and then Bordeaux-Bègles – that final loss meaning the end of their Champions Cup campaign.
Although they were still in first place in the Top 14 table at the end of the season, fans of the Auvergne side were left bitterly disappointed after they lost the semi-final of the playoffs in extra-time.
Franck Azéma, Clermont’s coach, put that loss down to the TMO’s poor decisions, but others blamed Clermont’s lack of composure under pressure.
Fast forward to the present and over the last few months, Clermont have only lost once. They were forced to relocate from their home ground for their first three games of the season as the Marcel-Michelin stadium awaited a new hybrid-grass pitch, and for a side that is famous for performing well at home, they have done well not to let this affect them.
Perhaps this is a sign of the team’s mental strength this season, a lack of which could be the reason for their past failings. It could also be a credit to their selective recruitment. There are only three new faces in the squad, all of whom have played at international level: Aaron Jarvis (Wales), Rémi Lamerat (France) and Sitaleki Timani (Australia).
Clermont have struggled in the past when confronted with the big occasion, no question. They perform consistently throughout the season but as the pressure builds they cannot live with it.
This is surely the reason why they have only won the Bouclier de Brennus once, in 2010, and why they have never won the Champions Cup despite making it to the final in 2013 and 2015. Champions of France once, runners-up 11 times.
Clermont described their attack against Exeter on Saturday as ‘realistic’ and their defence ‘uncompromising’. The former is an unusual choice of word but it is reinforced by the match statistics. Clermont scored five tries despite only having 37 percent of possession.
They were realistic in that when an opportunity presented itself, players like Camille Lopez reacted quickly and converted it into a try.
They made use of their strengths, timing their offloads perfectly allowing players with more pace to break through.
The greatest of these strengths was man of the match Wesley Fofana who repeatedly found a way through the Exeter defence, making five clean breaks in total.
Uncompromising seems an appropriate word for a defence which made 139 tackles in 80 minutes, over double the amount made by Exeter.
Julien Bardy and Benjamin Kayser were the most generous contributors to this stat, making 43 tackles between them. This statistic was reflected in how hard Exeter had to work for their only try. Whenever they had the ball in hand, their seemed to be more than 15 Clermont men on the pitch.
Hearing their side described as realistic and uncompromising is bound to make Clermont supporters happy, and for good reason, before they take on Bordeaux-Bègles in their second Champions Cup match on Saturday and the Top 14 resumes the following week.
Having secured the bonus point away at Exeter last weekend, Clermont are in a good position to advance past the pool stages. In fact, it seems inevitable that the French side will reach a final this season, whether it be in the Top 14 or the Champions Cup.
In 2015, they were ‘undisciplined’. By the end of the group stage in 2016, ‘in crisis’. If they can continue to be ‘realistic’ and ‘uncompromising’ come the end of the season in 2017, they will surely be rewarded with the silverware their past pain deserves.