Rougerie wants final piece of jigsaw

Are Clermont the best team to never win a Heineken Cup?

Rougerie wants final piece of jigsaw

Many believe so, but there are plenty more who would scoff at the idea. There have been many great sides that have fallen at the final hurdle — Biarritz and Stade Francais have both been losing finalists twice — but Clermont are not one of them.

Their agonising 19-15 loss to Leinster in Bordeaux in last year’s semi-final was the closest they have come to the showpiece of European Rugby.

Yet Clermont have been knocking on the door for some time and are growing stronger and stronger each year. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory was something of a Clermont speciality for the first 99 years of their existence until they finally won their first French Championship in 11 attempts in 2010.

In last year’s Heineken Cup semi-final, it looked like history was repeating itself when, with the game in its dying seconds and with the Leinster try line at his mercy, Wesley Fofana lost control of the ball when scoring seemed to have been easier. Leinster escaped to win that game and went on to secure the title.

Aurélien Rougerie, however, believes last season’s loss to the eventual winners of the competition has once again copper-fastened the resolve of the club to go on and win their first Heineken title.

“What is true is that I’ve already been a champion of France and that I’d love to taste success with a Heineken Cup win,” admits the 32-year-old.

“We came close last year before being eliminated by Leinster in the semi-final. But losing that game to the eventual champions really boosted our appetite.

“You could say nothing is impossible. We’ve profited from the experience of playing in Europe consistently for a few seasons now.”

Preparing for this game hasn’t been an altogether straightforward prospect for the French side. Vern Cotter’s men will have spent the last week recovering from Saturday’s bruising, yet ultimately hugely satisfying, 39-17 victory over Toulouse at Stade Marcel Michelin, with Rougerie sweating on a thigh injury which forced him off in the first half.

It was Clermont’s 59th consecutive win at the ground, and a victory that saw them qualify for a home semi-final in the Top 14.

It was a timely fillip for their Heineken Cup ambitions too because if they beat Munster this weekend, the result against Toulouse means they book their place directly in the Top 14 semi-finals, thus avoiding the play-offs which kick off the week before the Heineken Cup final. Toulouse coach Guy Noves has always declared that winning a Heineken/Top 14 double is “impossible”, but Clermont couldn’t be in a better place right now, could they?

Rougerie smiles: “It’s true that it is incredibly difficult. It’s a good question. Last season, a lot of journalists and observers envisaged seeing us doing well in the two competitions and we were knocked out at the semi-final stage in both. That showed it can be done, but it is difficult, especially in terms of your [squad] numbers. ”

What has helped Clermont this season has been the sheer size and quality of that squad. For the Leinster match two weeks ago, Munster persevered with the vast majority who had beaten Harlequins, while Clermont were able to change 12 of their front-liners and still claim a 26-26 draw at Toulon. Yet Rougerie insists it is too easy to downplay the difference in intensity between the Top 14 and Heineken Cup, and the fact the Irish sides can have the competition as their sole priority.

“For me, the Heineken Cup is the level between the Top 14 and international level. We know that a lot of players prepare specifically for this competition, particularly the Irish and Welsh provinces. Even the English are sometimes prepared with a view of the H Cup being the optimum.

“That isn’t the case in France. We play and play and play and are worn down before even addressing this very tough competition. That’s why the victory against Leinster in Dublin this year was probably my best memory in this competition because we won at the home of the European champions, which is no small feat.”

Having watched Munster down Harlequins at the Stoop, Rougerie brushes off talk that Rob Penney’s squad are in a rebuilding phase, insisting they remain European heavyweights despite the plethora of retirements in recent years.

“Munster played well enough to get out of the pool and then in the quarter-final against Harlequins they showed themselves to be a solid, complete and well-oiled machine.

“A victory against them would be massive as it would allow us access to our first H Cup final and we would do it against one of the greatest teams in European history.

“Along with Leinster and Toulouse, Munster are one of those reference sides when you talk about European rugby.

“Even if things have been a bit more difficult for them in recent years, they remain a reference.

“The games are always intense — as it is with all the Irish teams — I remember them never giving up or letting go. These guys are proud warriors.

“So we remain cautious. We know only too well the level of rugby you get in the H Cup and how difficult the matches can be.”

Born and bred in the Clermont suburb of Beaumont, Rougerie grew up in the ultimate sporting family, with both parents representing France in their particular disciplines. Son of Jacques Rougerie, a former Clermont and France hooker known as ‘Le Cube’, and Christine Dulac, a basketball player who won 107 caps for France, Aurélien seems the perfect fusion of his parents’ physiques, being blessed with the heady mix of size, power and speed. He was fast-tracked through the underage structures at the club, making his debut for Clermont aged 19, before continuing the family tradition in being selected for France in 2001.

Eleven years and 76 caps later, Rougerie is one of a number of grand old men in the Clermont side. While he wants more caps, for now he is happy to concentrate on the one trophy that has so far eluded him — the Heineken Cup.

“I hope to have a few seasons left in me and having extended my contact recently, I’m convinced Clermont will continue to grow in the years to come.”

Whether it’s this year or next, the odds of Clermont remaining the greatest team never to win the Heineken Cup look very slim indeed.

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