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Schmidt legacy still breathes in classy Clermont

A MASTER technician turned visionary, Joe Schmidt's legacy lives on through Clermont's backline.

Supporters had mixed feelings when Schmidt decided to leave Clermont for the Leinster head coaching job in December 2010 -- sadness for the loss of a respected coach, but happiness for a deserving man.

Earlier that year Clermont-Auvergne defeated Perpignan for their first championship title in the history of the club, winning the 'Bouclier de Brennus' Top 14 trophy, awarded to the winner of the French championship.

Vern Cotter and his then assistant coach -- Schmidt -- were both considered pivotal in the success of their yellow army, the latter being praised for his work ethic and the quality of his management of the Clermont backs, both technically and on a human level.

For example, Schmidt is responsible for the consistency and acute precision with which the backline of the 'Jaunards' performed throughout his tenure in Clermont, at both ends of the pitch, whether it was offensively or defensively.

People tend to forget it, but he should also be credited for the repositioning of Aurélien Rougerie at centre, a spot which he has kept since then with the French XV.

It all started during the run for the domestic title in 2010. Three elite wingers were competing for two spots: Napolioni Nalaga, Julien Malzieu and Rougerie.


The whole season through, one of them was the "sacrificial lamb" on the bench. Whether it was Malzieu's finesse, Nalaga's power or Rougerie's experience, the puzzle was impossible to solve.

A test run had been successfully initiated during the semi-final against Toulon, two weeks prior, and the coaches decided it was worth trying again for the final, the most important game in the history of the club.

Schmidt had a vision and decided, along with Cotter, to put Gonzalo Canale on the bench, allowing the rare combination of Joubert and Rougerie at centre, which in return allowed Nalaga and Malzieu to thrive on the wings.

Nalaga even scored the only try of the game, ensuring Clermont's first -- and only -- title so far.

Viewed as a top-rated technician, Schmidt's leadership skills were unknown, with Cotter's dominant presence off the pitch being one of the reasons why.

Now, the whole rugby world knows how talented a coach Schmidt can be. In France, besides Cotter, only Guy Noves has that kind of aura.

That leaves us with Clermont-Auvergne's shining star, compared to Toulouse's fading one. The recent results tend to confirm that, indeed, the gap between them is closing, if not almost closed.

When it comes to titles, Les 'Rouges et Noirs' will always have the upper hand on the 'Jaunards'.

But if there is one thing that Vern Cotter and his players have learned with the help of Joe Schmidt, it is that anything is possible, even beating the French champions in a final or the European champions at the top of their game.

(Nemer Habib has worked for L'Equipe and Le Monde and teaches journalism at the Institut Européen de Journalisme in Paris)