In Clermont they call it the “malédiction”, the curse that has seen them lose all but one of their 14 finals.
Since their solitary success, beating Perpignan in the 2010 Top 14 decider, the men in the yellow and blue have added to their roll-call of reverses by suffering two defeats in the Champions Cup, both against Toulon, in 2013 and 2015.
No wonder that there’s an air of trepidation among the fans, the famous Yellow Army, as the 2017 final looms. You can’t escape rugby in Clermont. It’s everywhere and everyone wants to talk about the sport that gives their city its identity. Barmen, businesswomen, shopkeepers, stall holders, they all have something to say about today’s final against Saracens - and yet they’re all agreed on one thing - the English are the favourites.
Jono Gibbes shares that view. The Clermont forwards’ coach is coming to the end of his three-year stint with the French club, and next month he’ll pack his bags and return to Ireland, a country he knows well from the six years he spent as Leinster’s forwards’ coach. That spell brought the 40-year-old Kiwi three European titles and he would love to head to Ulster as their head coach with a fourth title freshly typed onto his coaching CV. “I’m really looking forward to going back to Ireland,” he says. “I had six good years there before coming to Clermont and it’s great to return with Irish rugby in such good health.”
But that’s the future and right now Gibbes is focusing on the present, first the Champions Cup and then in a fortnight, Clermont’s Top 14 semi-final against either Montpellier or Racing. Beat Saracens and the force will be with them and, who knows, perhaps they will emulate Toulouse (1996) and Toulon (2014) in winning a domestic and European double.
That would silence the knockers who mock Clermont as the club that crumbles under pressure.
That’s why Gibbes believes it’s to their advantage that they travel to Edinburgh as underdogs. When it’s put to him that Saracens are “probably slight favourites” for the final, Gibbes breaks into a broad grin. “They’re not slight favourites,” he says. “They’re favourites.”
And that’s the way he likes it. When Gibbes and Clermont head coach Franck Azema took Clermont to Twickenham to play Toulon in the 2015 final they were the favourites but despite building a commanding first-half lead they were overhauled in the second-half. It was a game they shouldn’t have lost, says Gibbes, a match where “we didn’t play intelligent rugby and we made wrong decisions at key moments”. Clermont never recovered psychologically and a few weeks later slumped to a tame defeat against rank outsiders Stade Français in the Top 14 final.
Asked if he and Franck Azema have changed how they prepare the squad mentally as a result of those two demoralising defeats, Gibbes responds with a resounding “absolutely”. But it’s taken time to implement those changes. Last season, for example, Clermont suffered what Gibbes describes as “the embarrassment” of not making it out of the pool stage of the Champions Cup. “Over the last two years we’ve had a few bumps,” he says. “But from that adversity we have learned some new skills and some more stuff about ourselves, about our processes and our preparation, and that’s put us in a good place...obviously you can take different aspects of mental skills, of confidence, or concentration, and apply them.”
That was evident in the way Clermont fought their way to a 27-22 victory over Leinster in last month’s Champions Cup semi-final. Having raced into a 15-0 lead with two early tries, Clermont were in danger of being overwhelmed in the second half by Leinster’s stirring comeback. At one point their lead had been reduced to two points, but the French side found the composure in the final quarter to close out the tie.
Playing at full-back in the semi-final was Scott Spedding, the South African-born France international, who arrived at the club at the start of the 2015-16 season. The curse, he says, is something the squad wants to break.
“We’re aware of it and it’s part of the history of the club,” explains Spedding. “Wherever you go in town people remind you of it. But we haven’t really spoken about it because we believe we’re a different team to the one that played against Toulon... but we can’t run away from our history. It’s a proud history but we’re missing some titles. We’ve three games to go this season and there are two titles up for grabs.”
You can sense with Gibbes that he sees the Champions Cup as the Holy Grail of club rugby. The way it’s structured, and the luck of the draw, makes it the ultimate challenge for the players and the coaches. “The funny thing about Europe is it’s six [pool] games and it depends on who you get drawn with,” he says. “And it depends on who you get in the back-to-backs, and how the squad is travelling at that time of the year. You can qualify for the play-offs at the end of January but you don’t get measured again as a team until April [the quarter-finals], and between then it’s the Six Nations.”
Ever present in the Clermont squad this season have been a number of youngsters and the likes of Damien Penaud, Arthur Iturria and Paul Jedrasiak should feature at some point on Saturday. And it’s their emergence that Gibbes cites as his biggest satisfaction in his third and final season in France. “When you see younger guys get an opportunity and take their chance, that’s a reflection of the coaching we have here in the academy,” he says. “You’re happy for the players, but from a personal coaching point of view I’m happy for the other coaches, the academy coaches, because it’s a reflection of their work and what they’ve done with these young guys to prepare them.”
Gibbes has prepared his players all he can. Now it’s up to them to go Murrayfield and slay Saracens, and finally remove the curse.
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