Sleeping giant finally awakens

It was around midnight on Saturday when the first of the cars, horns blaring and flags flying, pulled off the A75 and headed towards the centre of Clermont-Ferrand.

By Sunday morning most of the 20,000 had returned from Montpellier, the bunting, balloons and flags still stuck to the cars.

The town centre, which hadn’t seen the yellow and blue since they won the Top 14 three years ago, suddenly had colour. The previous evening the 5,000 or so who travelled to support Munster had seen les jaunes et les bleus in all its glory at Stade de la Mosson and in admiring the class of the Clermont team, the visiting fans will have also tipped the cap to the quality of the supporters from Michelin country.

This is the first time ASM Clermont Auvergne have reached the Heineken Cup final, but they have been to the Challenge Cup final three times and returned home with the trophy twice.

They are no strangers to Dublin having been pooled with Leinster this season but this time, one suspects, a big following will travel.

Kiwi coach Vern Cotter, who led them to the Holy Grail domestically after 10 French final defeats, said on Friday that completing a Top 14 and Heineken Cup double was virtually impossible.

But that view might now be altered.

“I’m really proud of my players because they adapted very quickly. It’s tough in the semi-final and this experience will help us for the next game.

“These types of occasions are why I came here to coach. It’s up to the players, I can only guide them and they have to commit to the task. I’m just there to help them a little bit. We need an even better performance in the final. In terms of maturity, we are a better team. We have had more rotation and we are fresher than last year. We were somewhat stale last season and it is important we stay physically fresh,” said Cotter.

Stand-in captain Julien Bonnaire said the quality of the challenge presented by Munster would stand to Clermont in their first Heineken Cup final appearance. The experienced French back rower said they knew they needed to restrict Munster at the breakdown if they were to go one better than last year’s semi-final loss to Leinster.

“Our defence needed to be aggressive, keep them in check up front. We knew how efficient they could be. We managed to force them to make mistakes by imposing our style of play. One of the keys of the game was attacking at rucks and lineouts. We did really well in terms of winning possession. We did our job and that was important and everything stemmed from that,” added Bonnaire.

Coach Cotter said they dismissed notions they would brush aside Munster easily and knew that regardless of what they scored, how they defended was what was going to decide the match.

“Defence is a test of character. Munster came within inches of scoring a try at the end. In sport, experience is important. In other times, we may have given away that try and Munster would have won the game by a point. But we hung in there. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose by three points. It’s about winning. At the end of the first-half when they were on our goal-line we were trapped but we knew how to defend. We stole the ball and the whole game swung. You’re starting to get tired, not as lucid and what was really crucial was that we stopped them scoring,” added Cotter.

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