Tuesday 20 March 2018

Clermont's world of fantasy rugby

Four of Clermont’s superstars, Aurélien Rougerie, Morgan Parra, Jamie Cudmore and Brock James celebrate beating Leinster earlier this season
Four of Clermont’s superstars, Aurélien Rougerie, Morgan Parra, Jamie Cudmore and Brock James celebrate beating Leinster earlier this season

WHEN Clermont won their first Top 14 title in 2010 – after losing 10 finals – their playing budget was a reputed €18.9m.

Clermont's playing budget this season is reportedly around the €20m mark, possibly even a little north of that figure.

The French side crave Heineken Cup glory and their cheque-book has not been spared ink. Munster's budget for playing, coaching and medical staff is around the €5m mark.

Vern Cotter's pick is so bountiful he was able to use 40 players over Clermont's last five games in all competitions. Clermont were unbeaten in those matches.

Cotter can routinely field a team full of international superstars. And on the rare occasion he does field just 14 internationals, the odd man out is invariably their Australian out-half Brock James (below).


James is somewhat unfairly regarded as Clermont's one point of weakness. In his 38 European games (Heineken and Amlin Cups) he has scored 351 points. In over 200 appearances for Clermont he is closing in on 2,000 points (1,929).

A club like Clermont with a bank balance that is seemingly limitless can afford to trawl across the world of rugby to pick and choose the players with particular talents to suit their needs.

It is a hallmark of the modern game. Teams with the biggest budgets can buy the best players.

The advent of professionalism has improved rugby no end. Video analysis has become a staple in the diet of professional and indeed amateur teams.

The modernisation of the game and its practices is bemoaned in some quarters, with the traditionalists believing that the element of the unknown is integral to ensuring the game remains as unscripted and exciting as possible.

There remains plenty for the purists to still rejoice in, though. Rucks and mauls are still very effective weapons. And there's no substitute for sheer bloody-mindedness.

It wasn't finesse or knowledge of Harlequins' patterns of play from the video room that won Munster their quarter-final against Harlequins. It was something far more simplistic.

They threw down a physical challenge like nothing Harlequins had encountered in either the Premiership or the Heineken Cup. They were led into battle by the magnificent beast that is Paul O'Connell, and the troops rallied around.

It was a performance and victory that spoke of the very essence of Munster players, those past and present.

To a certain extent, though, video analysis has taken much of the element of surprise out of the game. Teams now spend hours poring over past performances of their opposition.

So detailed has this facet of the game become that every one of the Munster starting team will be given a highlight reel of clips detailing the strengths and weaknesses of his opposite number for Saturday's game.

What those weaknesses are is the mystery. Clermont are, to all intents, a Fantasy Rugby team. Theirs is an amalgam of talents drawn from the best the world of rugby has to offer.

Indeed so impressive is their roster of players that in any fixture they can afford to leave former All Blacks on the bench. Benson Stanley, a four-year veteran of the Super 15 game, and Regan King have both struggled for game time this season.

When James is fit, David Skrela, a French international with 23 caps, must make do with a place on the bench. And in midfield, there is no more dynamic an inside-centre in Europe at the moment than French international Wesley Fofana.

The Paris-born 25-year-old has played for France only 12 times but he has made a huge impression. The memory of his 70-yard try-scoring run in the defeat to England in this year's Six Nations will not fade quickly.

Munster have spent the week trying to figure out where Clermont are vulnerable. They have had little success.

"Every team has got some vulnerability somewhere or another," said coach Rob Penney. "Not always all the time and not always in the same area but hopefully we can identify some areas that we can have a crack at and see if we can create some breaches.

"Their vulnerabilities are not as apparent, there is no doubt about that."

It's easy to see where he is coming from. Clermont's record this season is phenomenal. They have won their last 59 matches at their home stadium, Stade Marcel Michelin and are in top spot in the Top 14.

And they are overwhelming favourites to not only beat Munster on Saturday but to go on and win the Heineken Cup for the first time.

They present an attractive case with a team laden down with star names.

Their wings are manned by Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga. The former has scored nine tries in his 21 games this season but that return pales in comparison to his team-mate, who is the Top 14's leading try-scorer this season with 13 in 19 matches.

If either winger gets a glimpse of open grass with the ball in hand, Munster will be in a world of trouble.

"If Clermont played France they'd beat them. That's how good they are," added Penney as he summed up what Munster face this weekend.

"If they get ball that is not controlled they can just turn up the heat really, really quickly on you and you can be left floundering."

Video analysis is only as good as the weaknesses it highlights. It's a recurring question with Clermont ... what weaknesses?

Welcome to the world of Fantasy Rugby.

Irish Independent

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