Last month the French sports daily, L’Equipe, ran a front page headlined ‘Rugby on the edge of Implosion’.
Champions Cup semi-final
ASM CLERMONT V LEINSTER
Sunday: Mamut Stadium de Gerland, Lyon, 3pm Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
TV: Sky Sports
Bet: Clermont 7/10 Leinster 6/5 Draw 25/1
In the nine pages that followed, the paper dissected what’s been the most turbulent, the most traumatic, the most tawdry season in the history of French rugby.
Soap opera? If any self-respecting screen-writer submitted a script that involved drugs, drink-driving, assault, hirings, firings and fusions, they’d be told to go away and tone it down.
But there was one club noticeably absent from all the lurid stories, and that club is Clermont.
So it should come as no surprise that they are France’s sole representative in the semi-final of the Champions Cup.
While many of their Top 14 rivals have hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this season, Clermont have gone about their business with the same ruthless efficiency as previous years.
OK, so they’ve proved famously fallible in finals, losing three in the last four years, yet since 2007 they have never finished lower than fourth in the Top 14, a consistency unmatched by any other French club.
Clermont may lack the pizzazz or panache of a Racing, Toulouse or Toulon but that’s more to do with their geographical location than with their style of rugby.
It’s a hard task for a club to ooze glamour when they hail from the Auvergne.
This is la France profonde, the depths of the French countryside where chic Parisian types fear to tread. Toulon has its beaches, Toulouse its architecture, and Clermont its volcanoes and tyres.
What it doesn’t have, on the other hand, is an omnipotent president, a man with more money than sense.
The board is composed primarily of successful businessmen, and this lends sobriety to their financing. Since 2005, Michelin have progressively reduced their contribution to Clermont’s overall budget of €30m from 30% to 8%.
But this transition has been smooth with the tyre manufacturer assisting the club to bring in more than 500 commercial partners.
This stability filters through the club and explains why in the last 11 years they’ve had just two head coaches; in the same period Toulon have gone through nine.
As Clermont president Eric de Cromieres said recently: “A coach coaches and a president presides, that’s what I believe. We each have our area of expertise.”
To understand what drives Clermont and what inspires their fans — the only supporters in world rugby worthy of comparison to Munster’s Red Army — one has to delve into the club’s history.
Clermont was founded in 1911 by Marcel Michelin (after whom the stadium is named), the son of Andre, who along with brother, established the Michelin tyre factory in 1889.
Marcel wanted to offer the factory’s workers a distraction, a chance to let off some steam at the weekend, and so he launched a sporting association that also included football and cross-country branches.
Football has never really taken off in Clermont. It didn’t strike the same chord with the tough, rugged inhabitants as rugby.
The Michelin workers liked rugby’s teamwork, its aggression, and it gave them the chance to put Clermont on the map, and to tell France there was more to the town than just tyres.
A century later this pride still pulsates around the plush stands of the Marcel Michelin.
To visit the stadium on a match day is a sporting experience never to be forgotten, and such is the fanaticism of the Yellow Army, as the Clermont fans call themselves, that their allocation of 22,000 tickets for Sunday’s semi-final in Lyon were gone within eight hours.
The 19,000-seat Marcel Michelin isn’t the only plush building in Clermont. In September 2015 the club unveiled its new training complex, which was built in the shadow of the stadium at a cost of €6m.
The facility caters for every aspect of the professional rugby player. There are video analysis rooms, astro-turf playing areas, three rehabilitation pools, a combat room with padded floor, and of course, being France, a spacious canteen.
Former England and Bath full-back Nick Abendanon, one of the 28 internationals in the Clermont squad, believes the training complex has given them an edge over their French rivals.
“Clermont are leading the way in terms of how players are looked after,” he explains.
“I think some players in England don’t come to France because of the nightmare stories they’ve heard about facilities; cowboy doctors, no physios, that sort of thing, but at Clermont the set-up is as good as any club in England.”
In an attempt to keep his squad fresh to the end of the season, which in France ends with the Top 14 final on June 4, Clermont coach Franck Azema has fielded more players than any other club.
A total of 51 have pulled on the yellow jersey including several who represent the future of the club.
So while the likes of Aurelien Rougerie and Thomas Domingo are coming to the end of their Clermont careers, the next generation has been carefully nurtured in the club’s academy and already Arthur Iturria, Damian Penaud and Judicael Cancoriet have made their mark in the senior squad.
Abendanon has played 1,650 minutes of rugby this season, more than any other Clermont player, yet the 30-year-old is still looking sharp, in mind as well as body, and he’s relishing the prospect of taking on Leinster.
To that end he and the rest of the squad have been spending a lot of time in the video room, analysing Sunday’s opponents.
“I find video analysis a key aspect of preparation,” he says.
“The more you know about a team then the more you know what to expect, and that will be particularly important against a side like Leinster. They have a great attacking shape and we need to be totally clued up on it.
"I also like to take ownership of counter-attacks and so I use video analysis to look at every opposition kick and plan possible counter-attacks.”
Since the start of the 2014-15 season Clermont have also employed a drone to give what Abendanon describes as a “bird’s eye view of training”.
It’s another example of the club’s innovation, their quest for an edge over their rivals, and it’s something of a surprise that drones aren’t seen at other Top 14 clubs.
It’s not that Clermont have kept it a secret. In an interview with a local paper two years ago, video analyst coach Stéphane Boiroux boasted about the drone.
“It provides flexibility,” he said of the 60cm drone that has four blades and one camera. “We can film the scrums up close, working on body positions, or we can film from higher up, to see all the space on the field.”
Abendanon says the footage provided by the drone is second to none.
“It’s much better than a camera behind the posts or on the touchline. From high up you can see running angles much more clearly.”
Clarity is what Clermont is all about, and they’re happy to leave the controversy to other French clubs.
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