BOTTLERS, CHOKERS, MENTALLY weak.
Put it however you like, but Clermont can’t quite shake the doubts over their ability to deliver in highly stressful situations.
The last three seasons have seen the Auvergne-based club lose two Top 14 semi-finals and one quarter-final, a Heineken Cup final and two European semi-finals. They’ve had no silverware since Joe Schmidt helped them to domestic success in 2010.
All that and they’ve been perhaps the best side to watch in Europe. Clermont’s blend of offloading, ruck-smashing, high-tempo pick and jams, side-stepping and pace has made for joyous viewing at times.
Vern Cotter has vacated the head coach’s position, with former attack and backs coach Franck Azéma stepping in as his replacement this season. However, it is the influence of new forwards coach Jono Gibbes that may have the greatest effect of all.
The ex-All Black knows a thing or two about winning titles in Europe. Gibbes helped Leinster to three Heineken Cups at Leinster, the first under Michael Cheika before Schmidt oversaw the 2011 and 2012 successes.
Last summer, he departed Ireland in search of a fresh challenge, which Clermont-Ferrand’s premier rugby club certainly provides. ASM’s issues in knock-out fixtures have never been technical or physical, rather mental and, occasionally, tactical.
Gibbes was a major success with Leinster before joining Clermont. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Gibbes should provide reinforcement on both those fronts later in the season. For now, Clermont are moving along comfortably. Rarely have they had problems in the pool stages of European competition, winning 11 of those 12 fixtures in the last two seasons.
Leading the Top 14 until last weekend’s defeat away to Toulon, Clermont have scored 29 tries in their 12 domestic games so far. A narrow defeat away to Saracens in the Champions Cup was followed up by an entertaining dismantling of Sale Sharks.
Summer signings Camille Lopez, Sebastien Vahaamahina and Nick Abendanon have added new layers of quality, even if Welsh centre Jonathan Davies has not ignited just yet.
Lopez’s performances at out-half mean Clermont are no longer reliant on Brock James, a much-maligned figure. The introduction of fullback Abendanon as a second playmaker has seen Clermont’s attacking options develop even further, with the former Bath man often popping up as first receiver.