Clermont Auvergne head coach Vern Cotter believes the time is right for his French side to buck the trend of placing more importance on domestic competition than on attaining European glory.
Agonisingly close to securing a place in last year’s decider, the French giants will put Top 14 aspirations aside and throw everything at winning the Heineken Cup.
Cotter insisted after his side’s impressive victory over champions Leinster that all concentration must now centre on qualifying for the knockout stages and from there on succeeding Joe Schmidt’s side as European kingpins.
Over the years, French teams have notoriously travelled light for away fixtures but Clermont were fired up for Saturday’s return date at the Aviva.
Asked how the Clermont players viewed European against domestic commitments, Cotter responded: “I think today’s performance gives you a fair idea. Having Leinster in the pool right from the outset meant it was always going to be tough and the back-to-back thing made it more difficult. It’s good to say that maybe you can learn from past experiences, it means you’re adapting and moving forward; two years ago we came unstuck here so it’s nice to give ourselves a qualifying opportunity now. I think that is a fair indication of how badly these guys want it and how they want to keep moving.”
Cotter is aware that domestic bliss might have to be sacrificed in pursuit of Heineken Cup glory. He said: “I don’t think it’s possible to win both competitions and our objective is to take the first one [chance] that comes along, hopefully the first knockout game is going to be in the Heineken Cup and you’ve got to put all your resources into that.”
Clermont’s stock rose significantly after the win and Cotter’s team will be popular favourites to take the title at the Aviva next May. The coach, however, remains on red alert. “We intend to win it, that’s the plan, but it’s rugby and games don’t always go the way you would want,” he said. “Last year we lost a semi-final in Bordeaux [to Leinster] and goodness knows what would have happened had Wesley
[Fofana] scored a try, it was a question of centimetres away and as a result of that we didn’t get a crack at the final. We would like to see if we can get over the line and take the title, that’s our intention, but there are pretty serious obstacles in front of us.”
However, Cotter likes the way the plot is unfolding for his team, noting that his players appear mentally tougher. “All the criteria for a top performance was there; technical, tactical, physical, psychological. I thought we were effective in all those areas and the guys came together to play really well as a team. I’m pretty proud of that performance, but we will keep our feet firmly on the ground and we know we have more to do before securing qualification.”
Man of the match Morgan Parra was praised for his 23-point contribution and more. “He had excellent game as a leader, director, motivator, co-ordinator and goal kicker,” said Cotter. “He converted pressure into points and that’s important, he gave his team a reward for their hard work while other leaders in the team stepped up, it’s pleasing from a coaching perspective to see that.”
In victory, there were words of consolation for Leinster. “It’s not over for them yet. They’re a great team, it’s not finished. “We’re aware we could come across them again in the later stages,” Cotter added.
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