Saturday 3 December 2016

Neil Francis: Clermont, an extravagantly talented bunch of chokers that bottled it again

Published 07/05/2015 | 02:30

Clermont players show their dejection after failing at the final hurdle
Clermont players show their dejection after failing at the final hurdle
Clermont's fullback Nick Abendanon on his way to scoring a try during the European Rugby Champions Cup rugby union final match against Toulon at Twickenham

Show me the money? It was running around the paddock in Twickenham on Saturday. I think it's prudent to park the off-field stuff for a while or until we are told that EPRC have secured another five sponsors who will have their brand associated with Europe's finest rugby competition.

  • Go To

Until we get that, it is still the Heineken Cup, and what was produced on Saturday was what we have always come to expect.

We should try and decant this final as it was - an utterly compelling contest. In the end the team with a greater flexibility of temperament won out. Toulon recognised that they needed to go a little further than bloody-minded functionality and showed glimpses of genius that other teams can only dream of.

Clermont for their part were not big enough to outmuscle or smart enough to out-think Toulon and the deleterious effects of going toe to toe hindered their ability to think in the white-hot heat of competition, and their game-plan was seared in the lava of exhaustion.

That is a flowery way of saying that this extravagantly talented bunch of chokers bottled it again!

Clermont could have won it - but God is not always on the side of the best footballing team. There were things that Toulon did that told you that simplicity is all you need if you want to be good at this game - there were things that Clermont did that was the genetically ordained impulse of the under-achiever.

Everybody who saw the match wondered about what was going through the Clermont players' minds as the clock was just about to go into red in the first half.

Camille Lopes got unhurried ball back to him from Morgan Parra on his own 10 yard line and hoofed an aimless kick long into Toulon's territory. There was only Matt Giteau and Leigh Halfpenny in the backfield. The kick was so ordinary that the two of them could have had a cup of Earl Grey before attending to the defensive press that was coming their way.

People were in amazement that Lopes didn't end the half and put the ball into touch. Giteau had that choice too - but nobody gave out about him not kicking the ball dead to end the half - even though he was in his own half.

The Australian hared up to the line and put the ball in the air and it was recovered by Clermont and Nick Abendanon suddenly found an inch of space? He again could have kicked to touch but the ball was in play and Toulon's line wasn't exactly uniform.

The question every player should ask when he has the makings of a counter-attack on is "what is the upside for my team here if I try something risky?"

Quite often players see the clock and mentally have gone into dressing-room mode even though the ball is still in play. Mad things often happen on the stroke of half-time. Abendanon, coming out of his own half, sensed something might be on but his sense of adventure was woefully at odds with his kicking radar and the kick went too far ahead and too far left.

He tried to put the ball in a place where he could re-gather it. It was at best a 30pc percentage play. Chris Masoe gathered - he too at any stage could have kicked the ball to touch and gone in for oranges.

Abendanon compounded his lack of accuracy by falling off his tackle on Masoe and suddenly Toulon had caught Clermont square and went down the right and 20 seconds later finished off down the left through Mathieu Bastareaud.

The try might not have happened if it had not been for an imperious off-load from Juan Smith - that was the theme of the day, Joe Schmidt if you were watching - but back to Abendanon.

In the second half when the Clermont full back scored his astonishing chip and gather over the line it took everyone's breath away. This time the kick was accurate and suddenly the men from the Auvergne were back in it.

The point about Abendanon is that he is from the Glenn Hoddle school. Every degree of attacking brilliance is balanced out with a mistake. You couldn't blame him for following his instinct at half time but the vital tackles he missed, particularly on Drew Mitchell, and the errors he made in the second half were costly.

EXCITING

It's true he is an exciting player and probably merited his plaudits but if I had a choice between him and Halfpenny I would go with the Welshman in an instant.

Stuart Lancaster is also certain of himself when it comes to his fullback for England. Mike Brown is vastly superior in every department and so is Alex Goode.

South Africa-born Abendanon left Bath because he couldn't get into the England squad; he knows what the score is - Lancaster won't pick him for his World Cup squad because he is not good enough. He misses too many tackles and makes too many errors - which is a pity because he did light up the whole campaign.

The winning and losing of the game came not down to one specific thing but an amalgam. The final play came after frenzied multi-phase and the ball came back to Lopes, who in the 79th minute with an aging Canadian lumberjack (36-year-old Jamie Cudmore) and a just-happy-to-be-there common or garden Kiwi out-half (Mike Delaney) outside him he chipped for the tramlines with a 5-2 underlap, and that sort of kick differentiates pretenders from champions.

I can't say this any other way - what a sh*** kick and what a cretinous option to take at that stage. There is a reason why Clermont don't win finals. Still, I hope none of the Irish provinces get them in the draw next month.

The main reason Clermont lost is because they missed 31 out of their 140 tackles and that is death in a match against a team of grizzled surety like Toulon. Tackling is a mental thing - falling off tackles means mentally you are not where you should be.

Toulon did many things to ensure that they would win the game. Not least was a performance of understated majesty from a guy who I rated the best player in the World back in 2007 - the incomparable Juan Martin Hernandez

After his career fell into blight, his return last Saturday was heartening. Clermont simply could not deal with the range and breadth of his steepling kick-offs and every time Toulon conceded they got back into the game immediately through Hernandez.

The Argentinian didn't miss a tackle all day but his key ingredient to his sides success was the three sumptuous off-loads he executed.

This is the really good news folk: Toulon - much as I dislike them - decided to play, to take risks and they executed 14 off-loads in 80 minutes - six more than Ireland did all season in the Six Nations.

Toulon used their big men as they should be used: carry, stand tall or strong on the tackle, take heavy contact, turn and use their big frames to deliver to support coming at pace. The speed in to take the off-load meant that Toulon ha decided this was the way to beat Clermont.

Both tries came from off-loads. Juan Smith took three players out with his off-load and unsteadied Clermont's defence because they were expecting a tackle and then a ruck.

Sebastien Tillous-Borde took the tackle before he passed back into Mitchell. That was the main difference when the game loosened up and it was joy to watch. If they keep doing it I might become a fan - only joking, I still hate them.

Schmidt and Matt O'Connor have outlawed the off-load. Schmidt, after espousing the idea, thought it too risky. O'Connor - well it's like the fourth secret of Fatima, we don't know.

Wouldn't it be just great if Leinster just disregarded team orders and off-loaded all night tomorrow against Treviso? They'd have the bonus point by half-time and then they can go asleep as usual.

This was a watershed final, and Toulon and Clermont won't be as formidable next season. The question is. . .

Irish Independent

Read More

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport