Tag Archives: Vern Cotter

Top 14 Preview: Clermont

25924The History

Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne was launched in 1911 by Marcel Michelin, son of André, who founded the Michelin tyre company. The club was intended to provide entertainment for the many workers employed by the organisation. Their story since has been littered with near-misses. ASM did enjoy success in the Challenge Yves du Manoir and Challenge Cup, but they finished runners-up in the French championship ten times before finally winning in 2010.

In the Heineken Cup, Clermont have lost a final, semi-final and a quarter-final in recent years. The common perception is that ASM lack the mental edge to win big games, but their 2010 success has been quickly forgotten. In that same time frame, Toulon have lost four finals and won one trophy, but not once has their winning mentality been questioned. Of course it is the manner of Clermont’s defeats which see them labelled as ‘bottlers’ too, but they will continue to challenge for titles.

The Setting

The city of Clermont-Ferrand sits in the Auvergne region of central France, with a population of 141,000. While it is an industrial area, the city has a growing student population of 30,000 and Clermont’s supporters are amongst the friendliest in the world. The Stade Marcel-Michelin is ASM’s home, with space for 18,030 people. With the stands almost leaning over the pitch, the atmosphere is never anything less than fervent. ASM hold a French record of 60 consecutive victories at home, they simply don’t do losses at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.

Last Season

ASM v LR

Two superb wins over Leinster have been forgotten amidst Clermont’s end-of-season failure. (c) Andy Patterson.

The campaign promised so much as Clermont played scintillating rugby throughout the season. Top try-scorers by 12 in the Top 14, Vern Cotter’s side topped the regular season table. In the Heineken Cup their 31 tries were unmatched, and they looked like champions-to-be. Everything came unstuck on the home straight though, with the loss to Toulon in the H Cup final followed by a pitiful effort against Castres in the Top 14 semi-final. Flanker Julien Bonnaire summed it up in simple terms: “Let’s call a cat a cat. Last season was a failure. Now we must redeem ourselves.”

Ambitions

ASM approach this season in a strange state following Cotter’s frank criticism of the players and the club’s recruitment policy in the aftermath of the failed season. The New Zealander has agreed to join Scotland at the end of this season, and the impression was that he was attempting to get himself released early by speaking out. However, bridges have apparently been rebuilt and Clermont are focused on winning a trophy. They have the squad to compete on two fronts, but the truly burning desire is Heineken Cup success.

While they have shown a strong tendency to lose high-pressure play-off games, writing Clermont off before the season has even started would be foolish.

The Coach

Bouclier de B.

Cotter is hoping for more days like this one in 2010. (c) Ville de Clermont-Ferrand.

Cotter is a former number eight who played for Counties Manukau as well as four French clubs. His coaching career took in Bay of Plenty and the Crusaders (as forwards coach where he won Super Rugby titles in ’05 and ’06) before Clermont made him head coach for the ’06/07 season. ASM lost the next three Top 14 finals before finally earning a Bouclier de Brennus in 2010. Cotter is as hard-nosed as you would expect from a Kiwi back-row but also encourages his players to offload and attack from their own half.

Cotter’s challenge this season is to ensure that Clermont are better equipped for knock-out games. The sheer quality in their squad means they will feature in the latter stages of both competitions. Pre season at ASM has focused on decision making, demanding that the players work through their options in various match specific scenarios. Cotter told Midi Olympique that ASM “need be capable of better adapting to the context, and if we must, making our plans simpler and more pragmatic.”

Transfer Activity

Clermont were the quietest Top 14 club in terms of transfers this summer, with just three new faces. Having originally agreed a deal to join in June, Mike Delany was drafted in late last season on a medical joker basis and greatly impressed in three starts. Unfortunately, the one-time All Black outhalf has had to undergo shoulder surgery and will miss the opening three months of the season. That meant Clermont had to search for another outhalf, with the experienced Gavin Hume the result.

The 33-year-old South African spent the last nine seasons with USAP, winning a Top 14 title in 2009. Hume has been sharp for ASM in pre season and offers solid back-up to Brock James. The only other addition is scrumhalf Thierry Lacrampe (25) from Castres, who will compete with Ludovic Radosavljevic for a place on the bench behind Morgan Parra. Familiar names leaving Clermont include David Skrela, who drops into the Pro D2 with Colomiers, and Anthony Floch, who joins Montpellier in search of game time.

Key Players

Wesley Fofana is amongst the best centres in world rugby and probably Clermont’s greatest asset. The 25-year-old runs perceptive lines and aided by sizzling pace and a violent fend, the French international is a nightmare for opposition defences. his ability to pick out weak defenders in the defensive line is unrivaled.  While Fofana’s passing game still has some way to go, he is an attacking threat from any situation. Alongside him is captain Aurélien Rougerie, a one-club man and a passionate leader.

Wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga provide a guaranteed supply of tries. Sivivatu was exceptional last season, roaming into midfield and often taking the ball as first receiver. The former All Black has the footwork and power to beat tackles every time he touches the ball. Nalaga is more of a direct proposition, but he is near to unstoppable from close range. In between them, Clermont have the luxury of choosing between Lee Byrne’s kicking game and experience or Jean-Marcellin Buttin’s languid, creative brilliance.

James

Brock James has been the focus of much of the criticism aimed at ASM. (c) Frank Nieto.

Morgan Parra is the archetypal French scrumhalf, directing his forwards, place-kicking and strutting around when he is in control. After ending the season in very poor form, the 24-year-old decided not to tour with France this summer and will benefit from a full pre season schedule. Joining him in the halfback charnière is Brock James, the much maligned Australian. His famous incidences of big-game failure make him an obvious target, but at his best James is a superb outhalf.

Julien Bonnaire remains crucial at the age of 34 through his lineout excellence, work-rate and leadership. Alongside him, number eight Damian Chouly is a strong ball carrier but needs to become more prominent in the high-stake games.

Irish Connection

In a giant tight five featuring French internationals Thomas Domingo and Benjamin Kayser, the key man is Scottish international Nathan Hines. He was certainly among the best locks in Europe last season and would have added greatly to the Lions tour. At 36, the body has started to feel the knocks that little bit more, but Hines never gives anything less than total commitment. Smashing rucks, winning lineouts and shoving at scrum time are the norm for any lock, but what sets Hines apart is his superb handling and passing ability.

Possible Starting XV

15. Byrne/Buttin, 14. Sivivatu, 13. Rougerie, 12. Fofana, 11. Nalaga, 10. James, 9. Parra, 8. Chouly, 7. Vosloo/Lapandry, 6. Bonnaire, 5. Hines, 4. Cudmore, 3. Zirakashvili, 2. Kayser 1. Domingo

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Photos: Andy Patterson, Ville de Clermont-Ferrand, Frank Nieto.

Do Clermont Have Any Weaknesses?

Nyanga the Butcher

Unforgivable try-butchering from Yannick Nyanga last weekend during Clermont vs. Toulouse.

Clermont’s formula for success is very simple. They have an abundance of players who are superb individually, but crucially, all of them buy into the Vern Cotter mantra of working extremely hard. The Auvergne-based heavyweights have threats literally everywhere across the field, as well as off the bench. Their attacking game plan is nothing revolutionary, just good players making good decisions at the right time. On form, they can score from almost any situation.

Many of these scores come from moments of individual brilliance in open phase play, which is backed up by their excellent support running. The likes of Fofana, Sivivatu, Nalaga, Chouly and Hines will create chances however you defend against them, and they are excellent finishers. It’s very difficult not to see them scoring tries in Montpellier. That much is obvious, but the big question remains, do Clermont have any weaknesses? I’m going to use Clermont’s most recent match, the 39-17 win over Toulouse last weekend, to look for any potential areas to target.

The loss of captain Rougerie is a blow. While the 32-year-old is perhaps edging past his peak, he is of massive importance to Clermont, not just for his leadership. He’s still a good player, and his defensive game is undervalued. Clermont’s backline like to press up hard in defence, even in the opposition’s half. That places great demands on the 13’s decision making, and Rougerie more often than not gets it right. While King and Stanley are superb attacking replacements, they don’t offer the same security as Rougerie on ‘D’.

Rougerie

The loss of Rougerie could make Clermont weaker defensively.

One way to beat a rush defence is to try get around the outside edge of it. In the screen-grab above, Toulouse have tried something like that. From a Toulouse scrum, Clermont come up fast and McAlister flings a wide, flat pass to Fickou in the 13 channel. The aim is to get Fickou outside Rougerie , but he reads it superbly and forces a knock-on. Munster might get some success in this situation now that Rougerie is missing. Lualala has great feet and neither King nor Stanley possess quite the same level of decision-making as Rougerie. ROG threw some encouragingly excellent passes vs. ‘Quins and more of the same may reap rewards.

Another obvious way to break down a defense which likes to get up quick is through well-placed kicks. Unfortunately for Toulouse, McAlister either didn’t spot opportunities or executed badly. Below, you can see that fullback Lee Byrne (last player out on the left) has stepped up into the defensive line. This was something that was repeated on several occasions. Contrary to what you might expect, Parra also steps into the line and Clermont have nobody covering in behind. The closest thing to a ‘sweeper’ is outhalf Delany, coming from the other side of the scrum. A good chip or grubber by McAlister for Fickou and it was try-time. Instead, the outhalf did a goose-step and gave his centre a forward pass.

Clermont Defense

Clermont like to fill the first-up defensive line, not just close to their own try-line.

The next example (below) is further out, around the halfway line, but the premise is similar. Clermont’s defence is up quickly, without a winger hanging back. McAlister has spotted the opportunity and attempted a cross-field kick for Huget, who can be seen out on the far wing. Unfortunately, McAlister’s kick was poor, too far ahead of Huget, and bounced badly. But again, there’s try written all over the opportunity. Clermont do seem to repeatedly stack the defensive line. Whatever about his weaknesses, ROG still possesses an accurate kicking game, certainly better than McAlister’s, and he will spot these opportunities. Zebo will be ready and waiting.

Clermont Cross Field Kicks

There may be chances for well-placed ROG kicks.

Staying with kicking, Toulouse got a lot of change from their re-starts. Clermont are going to score on Saturday, so Munster will need to be precise in retrieving possession from these situations. McAlister dropped every single one of his kicks just over the 10-metre line, above hooker Benjamin Kayser. Clermont seemed unsure of who should claim the ball in that zone and Toulouse won possession back at least 4 times in this manner. The screen-grab below shows exactly where Toulouse targeted (in this case Nyanga wins the ball). It may not be a case of going after the exact same zone for Munster, but in O’Connell, O’Mahony, Ryan and Zebo they have excellent kick retrievers.

Drop-Offs

Clermont were very poor at receiving restarts.

Munster will certainly need to mix up their attacking game this weekend, and using last weekend’s game as a guide, they should look to attack the fringes around the rucks. Again, Toulouse had some success here. Louis Picamoles’ try (video below) was the most obvious example, but there were other instances where the big Toulouse carriers made yards. Scrumhalf Luke Burgess sniped intermittently and also made decent ground. Conor Murray’s skills look suited to the task. However, Clermont are usually far more watertight in these areas and they will certainly step up a level for the Munster game.

Putting it all together, attacking and targeting Clermont around the fringes and with kicks in behind may not result directly in tries, but it will challenge Clermont’s stifling defence. They’re extremely strong in the middle, where they’ll come up hard and smash ball carriers. If you play into their hands, they’ll turn you over and score tries from that sort of broken-up situation. It’s an obvious thing to state, but Munster need to play with lots of variety, constantly challenging Clermont to react.

While the scoreline and various media reports suggest that Clermont wiped the floor with Toulouse last weekend, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Outhalf McAlister missed two kickable penalties and turned down a few other chances for kicks at goal. Toulouse also butchered a genuine try-scoring chance (photo at the top) when Nyanga selfishly failed to pass to Fickou. Admittedly  Clermont’s 2nd-half display was lazier than usual, having built up a strong lead. That won’t happen again this weekend. They are a phenomenal side, that’s beyond doubt. But they can be beaten. 6 losses in the Top 14 this season show that. The odds are heavily in Clermont’s favour but this match is not a foregone conclusion.

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* Apologies for the poor quality screen-grabs. It would be great if people could let me know if they enjoy this sort of piece, where I try to do more detailed analysis. If so, I could look into a better way of highlighting examples in the future, possibly in videos or more detailed photos of play. Let me know what you think.