BERLIN, GERMANY – Clermont have a history of treating their fans in the same way humans tease kittens. Glory is dangled tantalizingly before thousands of expectant eyes, but just as the fans are ready to pounce, that glory is brutally yanked away. Clermont’s history of Top 14 final appearances reads: played 12, won 1. Add a brace of Heineken Cup finals and it becomes 14:1. For the long years up until they final triumphed in 2009, it was a fabled curse in French rugby. It seems the lone victory in 2010 has not been the complete exorcism the club might have wanted. When big games come around, Clermont often become a lot smaller.
They also have a tendency to become extremely unfortunate. This weekend past saw them tumble out of the Top 14 at the semi-final stage, losing by the odd point in 67 after a thrilling extra-time finals. It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve been undone like that.
A little closer scrutiny, however, reveals the true extent of their misfortune. They were already robbed of home support – which is a hell of a thing in Clermont. Clermont were top of the Top 14 table by some distance this season, which you would think would count for something – say, a home semi-final. But no, the match was played out in Rennes, a quaint little town up in the north-west significantly closer to Paris than to the Auvergne. Then there was the week off in between, while Racing kept themselves up to speed with a rugged playoff win over Toulouse. At the business end of the season, a weekend off can be a curse as well as a blessing. Rhythm can be lost, instincts dulled, intensity diluted.
And then there was the action itself… so let’s look sympathetically at Clermont’s plight. Check out the highlights first. The early ‘try’ from Wesley Fofana was called back for a forward pass. Rightly as it turned out, but that is not a pass that would ever have been detected without the new, looser interpretations of when and how to use the TMO. Next up, Racing’s first try. It’s a little hard to see past the catalogue of misfortune for Clermont in this one, from the bounce that took the ball away from Noa Nakaitaci, to the inability of either chasing player to touch the ball down properly, and to – and this is the really unfortunate one – the fact that the whistle is blown by the referee milliseconds before eventual try-scorer Johan Goosen touches the ball down? Going on the actions alone it is a try, but there’s no way Alexandre Ruiz’s shrill blasts were a reaction to anything other than the clash between the chasing Nakaitaci and Juan Imhoff. Officially, the action was stopped before Goosen’s touch… but then you don’t hear whistles on slo-mo replays.
Racing’s second try. It’s an error, as all good coaches know, for the chap standing by the ruck to drift off that point, especially when a scrum-half goes on a lateral snipe. And as all good coaches also know, your scrum-half is not the man to be in that defensive position anyway, he should be a few metres behind the ruck, shouting. That’s a channel that large people are sent down. Still, it’s hard not to see how Mr. Ruiz is also a huge hindrance to the defence, standing as he does about a yard in front of Clermont’s inside defenders. Parra even reaches for Mr. Ruiz as Maxime Machenaud switches with Joe Rokocoko, in a vain attempt to see past him and find out what was going on. You’re maybe talking about 0.5 seconds of distraction. But when the ball is transferred to a giant who can put away 100m in 12 seconds, that 0.5 seconds translates into a good 4m… tiny margins, big differences.
And the final, glorious, winning try for Racing. It was a concoction of headless moments, as befitting such a game and finale. But the number of tiny details that needed to fall into place for Juandre Kruger to pick off that ball! He started that charge in his panic from 5m back from the defensive line, managed to be travelling at full speed just at the point of the offside line when Ludo Radosavljevic fired out the fateful pass, so he was up from the D-line like a bullet. And then with all the Racing players standing behind the ruck having given up the ghost on the botched quick line-out before, while all the Clermont players had poured forward sniffing the coup de grace, once Kruger had got the ball it was six on four. Game over. Another Clermont season done and nothing to show for it except the moral victory of having been top of the table at the end of the season.
Nobody to blame here. It’s a curse. Bet you any money Clermont lose in the playoffs next year too.
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