Rougerie to make impact statement
LAST March, Aurelien Rougerie signed a contract to keep him at Clermont Auvergne until 2013, when he will be 33. Announcing the deal, Clermont's sporting director Jean Marc Lhermet offered the following glowing commendation.
"Aurelien is more than just one player within the group; he is a driving force within the team and a player of paramount importance within the dressing-room.
"He is a product of our academy and his resigning was a priority of ours as a part of our long-term strategy for the club. For the past few seasons we have tried to set up a policy of recruitment based on continuity and the extension of Aurelien's contract fits perfectly within that plan."
A few months later, Clermont were crowned French champions for the first time, ending the agony that had consumed the region for more than 100 years, and it was fitting that it was Rougerie who got to lift the Bouclier de Brennus.
When he eventually retires, Rougerie will have spent his entire professional career playing for his local club and, in many respects, he is the club. Tall, blond, handsome, articulate and prodigiously talented, Rougerie falls squarely into the 'women want him, men want to be him' category, as well as being a marketing department's dream. Walking around the industrial town last weekend, Rougerie's image gazed down upon you wherever you turned.
Clermont have recruited a host of overseas talents and merged them with a clutch of quality French internationals but, more than assuming the practical duties of captain, Rougerie is the figurehead, the inspiration of Clermont rugby, deified by the region in the same way that Biarritz back-row Imanol Harinordoquy is by his fellow Basques.
Rougerie is steeped in Clermont. His father Jacques played prop and hooker for the club in the 1960s and '70s, good enough to win a cap for France in 1973, while his mother Christine, an international basketball player, is deputy mayor. Born in the Clermont-Ferrand commune of Beaumont in 1980, Rougerie shot through the underage system, gaining early attention for his size, speed and eye for the try-line. His breakthrough season at senior level was 2000/01 when he became a first-team regular, his hat-trick of tries against Neath in the Challenge Cup a couple of weeks after his 20th birthday an early highlight.
His first cap came in the win over South Africa at the Stade de France in November 2001. He was on the side that beat world champions Australia in Marseille a week later and picked up two tries off the bench in France's final match of the 2001 November Series against Fiji.
That was a Grand Slam-winning French side captained by Fabien Galthie at scrum-half and containing the world's best back-row of Harinordoquy, Serge Betsen and Olivier Magne, Raphael Ibanez at hooker with Rougerie, Damien Traille and Nicolas Brusque applying the finishing touches out wide.
It meant that Rougerie did not taste defeat with France until his ninth international in Buenos Aires in June 2002, when Felipe Contepomi inspired the Pumas to an epic 28-27 win.
In those days, Rougerie was a regular on the right wing and that was where he featured regularly through the last decade under Bernard Laporte. For those looking for reminders of his searing speed and strength, the try he scored in the 2002 rout of Ireland when he set off on a 60-metre run (leaving no less a pace merchant than Denis Hickie in his wake) to touch down under the posts is available on YouTube.
When Marc Lievremont replaced Laporte, Rougerie became a victim of the new coach's 'roll the dice' selection policy and, after featuring in the win over Italy in March 2008, there was a two-year hiatus in his international career.
However, Rougerie's form in the march to the Top 14 title demanded recognition and he was recalled to face Scotland last February, picking up another Grand Slam winner's medal in what turned out to be a glorious season.
He played in the summer defeat in South Africa, again on the wing, but was at centre for the November Internationals, in the narrow win against Argentina and humiliating defeat to Australia. The switch to midfield is a reflection of his diminishing pace, although he is still no slouch.
Last weekend against Leinster, Rougerie was not as influential as he would have liked to be. The heavy strapping on his left thigh was one reason and the remarkable performance of Eoin O'Malley, stepping in for Brian O'Driscoll, was another factor.
It seemed clear that Rougerie and coach Vern Cotter had not counted on the effectiveness of the 22-year-old Leinster man and the worrying aspect for Joe Schmidt's side is the Clermont captain's determination to atone with a telling impact in tomorrow's rematch.
This stretches to his leadership qualities as well as his playing ability. Rougerie was visibly frustrated by the fact that an injury-ravaged Leinster outfit were able to eke out a bonus point at the Stade Marcel Michelin and the boos of the home fans at the final whistle will still be ringing in Rougerie's ears.
He will have reflected on the witless kicking away of possession towards the end of the match when Clermont should have been seeking a bonus-denying score and will also be mindful of the mental frailty Clermont showed in last season's quarter-final defeat at the RDS.
When he lifted the Top 14 trophy last season, Rougerie declared that the next step was European domination and he knows that hinges on their performance tomorrow. It is not yet the final hurdle, but defeat tomorrow will leave Clermont staring into the abyss of another pool exit. As a result, they will hit Leinster with everything they have. Leading the charge will be the man they call 'the horse', the player Lhermet refers to as "a true leader".
Tomorrow will put that moniker to the test.